15 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Will the Easter Story sweep the Oscars next Sunday? Will anyone notice?

It's mid-February, and I already have Easter on the mind.

Maybe it's a subconscious yearning for spring--although 60-degree temperatures here in Tennessee the past week haven't exactly been wintry. Maybe it's that my German class is preparing our first-ever celebration of Fastnacht/Karneval on Fat Tuesday, a week from tomorrow. It may be that I'm still preparing myself for Lent.

Hopefully it means that Christ's re-birth in me during our church's fantastic Advent season has carried through.

Valentine's Day swept by in a rush this year. My nephew's birthday is on Valentine's Day, and my sister's family came up from Georgia to celebrate. On Sunday afternoon, however, Jenny and I hired a baby-sitter and went to the movies--something we hadn't done since we saw
U23D together over a year ago. We chose Slumdog Millionaire.

Now glowing reviews have been posted everywhere, so it would seem reduntant to note how touching, triumphant or thrilling it is.  Driving home after the film, Jenny and I were amazed at how Christian it all was:  the story of Christ's Passion played out across the slums of Mumbai on a Calvary that looks an awful lot like the set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Really?  This is stretching it, perhaps.  No doubt the production was made by secular Britons and Hindu Indians.  How can an Easter story come from such a source?

Because it is a story that is that great, that's why.

The story begins with torture.  Jamal Malik, a tea-server at an Indian call center, has finished the evening's show one question away from 20 million rupees.  He never finished the 2nd grade, lived in the slums all his life, yet he has managed to answer nine questions correctly.

Immediately after the taping, he is grabbed by police under suspicion of fraud.  Jamal is silent before his accusers, and the silence is broken in a remarkable scene.  Thinking he is unconscious, the two inspectors confer:
Police Inspector 1: Doctors... Lawyers... never get past 60 thousand rupees. He's won 10 million. [pause
Police Inspector 2: What can a slumdog possibly know? 
Jamal Malik: [awakequietly] The answers
Jamal and the inspector go through the previous evening's show, question by question.  Jamal's answers are explained by flashbacks.  I don't want to get too bogged down in detail, but I want to point out a few striking similarities.

Jamal grows up with his brother Salim in a Muslim slum.  Orphaned by a rioting Hindu mob, Jamal and Salim flee, followed tentatively by another orphan girl, Latika.  Salim, the eldest, at first refuses to let Latika join them, but Jamal persists, displaying a loyalty to her that matches his loyalty to his own brother.

Salim is Adam, Christ's brother.  Tempted by a cold Coca-Cola, he, Jamal and Latika leave their shelters in the dump to live with gangsters who use children to beg on the streets of Mumbai.  When Salim witnesses the gangsters' brutality to another child, he becomes Moses, leading Jamal and Latika out of the "orphanage," but only the boys get away.  Latika is left behind as the brothers sojourn throughout India.

Five years later they return on Jamal's volition.  He has to find Latika.  They find her in the red light district, a young twelve-year-old virgin being prepped by the gangster for a big payoff.  Selim becomes David versus The Gangster, and--after a night of drinking and violence--he becomes Nebuchadnezzar:  holding Latika captive in their hotel room, he points his revolver between his brother's eyes:  "Now get out!"  Jamal will stay--he's that determined--but Latika intervenes, closing the door and leaving Jamal alone.

The Jamal of the quiz show is five years older.  His job in the call center led him to reunite with Selim and find Latika, but they are out of his reach.  Latika is the consort of Mumbai's toughest gangster, and Selim is now Judas, the gangster's right-hand man.

When they meet, Jamal fantasizes about throwing his brother off the top of a building:
Salim: [Trying to explain why he never contacted Jamal after forcing him out of the hotel room.]  Left a message for you at work. 
Jamal Malik: There was no message. 
Salim: I definitely left a mess... 
Jamal Malik: There was no message! There was no message! *There was no message*! 
Jamal Malik: [Looks down at Salim starting to cry a little
Jamal Malik: I will never forgive you! 
Salim: I know. 
Jamal won't harm him.  Adam/Salim is his brother.  Besides, it isn't Salim he's returned for, it's Latika.  In the ultimate act of betrayal, Salim learns of Latika's plans to run away with Jamal.  In an intense scene, he grabs her at the railway platform--just as she has caught the attention of Jamal--forces her into a car, and gives her a long scar along the side of her jawbone.

That leads directly to Calvary/Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  The pharisaical show host, Prem Kumar, is contemptuous.  "This is my show," he screams in private.  To Jamal he gloats, "A few hours ago, you were giving chai for the phone walahs. And now you're richer than they will ever be. What a player!"  Jamal avoids the traps the host lays and outwits him at every turn.  

This exchange is particularly revealing in light of the Passion link.  The quiz show exchanges are fascinating in this new, calvary-centered paradigm.
Prem Kumar: Its getting hot in here. 
Jamal Malik: Are you nervous? 
Prem Kumar: [audience laughs] What? Am I nervous ? Its you who's in the hot seat, my friend! 
Jamal Malik: Yes, sorry.
The gospels don't show Jesus ever saying this to Annas (the Prem Kumar character), but history shows that  Annas indeed had more at stake than the man whose life was on the line.  It is important to point out that Jamal wasn't on the show to win twenty million rupees; he wanted to find Latika.  Why would he worry about a multiple-choice question in that scenario?

The final question opens the next evening's show.  All of India is watching.  Salim is Judas (you will see a 30-pieces-of-silver allusion).  He is also Peter, freeing Latika from the gangster's lair, giving her the keys to an SUV (ahem, another huge connection) and his cell phone.

Here's the how the final question plays out:
Prem Kumar: So are you ready for the final question for 20 million rupees? 
Jamal Malik: No, but maybe it is written, no? 
I was grinning at this point of the movie, Easter-lover that I am.  The faith that allowed Christ to conquer Calvary, uttered so simply, by a chai-wallah on an Indian game show.
Prem Kumar: Final question for twenty million rupees, and he's smiling. I guess you know the answer. 
Jamal Malik: Do you believe it, I don't! 
Prem Kumar: You don't? So you take the ten million and walk? 
Jamal Malik: No. I'll play. 

Which of the lifelines will Jamal use?  Millionaire fans know which lifeline is the last to be used:  phone a friend.  Salim's number rings...and rings...and rings...and rings..."Hello?"  

It isn't Salim; it is Mary Magdalene--no, it's me--OK, actually it's Latika.  She doesn't know the answer either.  But the answer doesn't matter to Jamal, neither do the twenty million rupees.  Latika answered.  All he has to do is climb down out of the Hot Seat (ahem) and reclaim his destined Bride.

The theater is full of Easter, and every eye is full of tears, but Jamal isn't done.  They meet in a garden that isn't Eden but an abandoned train platform.  I hear Resurrection whisper out of Latika's amazement:
Jamal Malik: I knew you'd be watching 
Latika: I thought we would meet only in death. 
Jamal Malik: This is our destiny 
Latika: Kiss me 
And for the final, perfect touch, Jamal bends down and kisses...Latika's scar!  It's a transcendant moment, full of redemption.  I wanted to stand up and cheer.  To a Christian, this symbolism is most wonderful--as wonderful as Easter.

In Slumdog Millionaire, the greatest story ever told has been told again--brilliantly, wonderfully.

A few more notes.  
  • Malik, the last name of Jamal/Jesus and Salim/Adam, is the Arab word for "king."  
  • The movie has a few scenes set in "heaven" before young Jamal's return to Mumbai to rescue Latika--I'll leave it to viewers to figure out which famous Indian place this is.
  • A month ago, Jenny and I watched Danny Boyle's breakthrough film, Trainspotting, on cable.  This really helped us to appreciate Boyle's work in Slumdog.  Both films are beautiful stories of redemption (Trainspotting chronicles a Scottish man's escape from heroin).  They are very, very gritty and dirty, too.  Both have a scene with a dirty toilet, which seems like a strange hallmark for Boyle.
  • If you're wondering, I got the quotes from the IMDB site for Slumdog Millionaire

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