One of the most memorable and problematic images from Slumdog Millionaire is of a young Jamal, covered in excrement, triumphantly raising his arms in and letting out a joyful cry. He has pushed through a flock of onlookers and received the autograph of a favorite movie actor.
He is, of course, still covered in shit. But he got the autograph, and the effort of crawling through the filth will be cosmically rewarded when that same actor is the subject of a question on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on which the adult Jamal is a contestant.
Are the autograph and the moment of joy it provokes adequate compensation for the degradation endured to procure it? Do the twenty million rupees won make up for the harrowing experiences that comprise the background to the foreground of Jamal’s hard-earned trivia answers?
There are some thematic red herrings here about prejudice and the assumptions that Jamal couldn’t possibly know anything of value because of his class, but the real message of the film is as old as Job, and it elicits many of the same questions. What is, or should be, our relationship to past suffering? Are there causal connections between hardships and subsequent joys, and if so, are the latter compensations for the former or simply inevitable turns of the wheel of fortune?
Slumdog Millionaire says the answer to all these questions is “D: It is written.” And while words like “fate,” “destiny,” or “karma” don’t always carry the same associations as “providence” and “predestination,” their use leads to the same conundrums. Who wrote it? Why? Even if we accept our own suffering as a precursor to our own joy, how do we reconcile the suffering of others with a theodicy that justifies it through benefits (spiritual or tangible) bestowed on us?
What I Said Then
(Excerpted from All Things Ken blog post, “In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire“)
You know, we don’t have an answer for why the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just, but we don’t reflexively sneer at films that depict it doing so. When a work of art shows the unredeemed or the unrepentant sharing in some universal blessing, we may, like Solomon (or Quoheleth, if you prefer) question why it should be so, but we don’t (at least in my experience) chastise the artist for lying to people about the way things really are.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That sucks, but that’s life.
Sometimes good things happen to bad people. That can be hard to bear, but that too is life.
Sometimes, though, good things happen to good people. Not merely because they are good. Not necessarily as a reward for their goodness, but because for one soul-lifting moment the veil is lifted and the fog of so many things we can’t understand rolls away to give us a glimpse of the universe we know must be latent somewhere beneath the dirt, and death, and shit, even if we too often despair from the weight of doubt borne out the infrequency of such glimpses.
This, too, is life.
What I Say Now
My 2008 “defense” of Slumdog Millionaire had been forgotten; revisiting it was almost as much fun as revisiting the film. While I seemed more positive towards the film than I remember being, I note without much surprise that I was wrestling with the same questions regarding how the film instructs us to think about the suffering of Jamal and his friends.
I haven’t turned on the film, but it did take me longer — until the very end — to get past my reservations about art that sentimentalizes suffering. Two things helped me do so.
The first is Dev Patel. He’s quite good, and he conveys a post-traumatic state very well. “I wake up every morning wishing I didn’t know the answer to that question,” Jamal says regarding an early-round missive that evokes a particularly painful childhood trauma. The attitude that suffering is redeemed by virtue of the fact that it was a means towards the end of greater riches is one that the film depicts but doesn’t necessarily endorse. Jamal, like many poor people, is an inheritor not only of the rich society’s institutions and power structures but also its metanarratives. Prem is always trying to take Jamal’s story and turn it into something more recognizable and dramatic for his audience. Jamal has to play a certain role, but he insists (both to Prem and to the police) in his ultimate right to interpret his own narrative.
The Last Word
The second thing that helps me past my reservations is the film’s end. I said in earnest on Letterboxd that I don’t think Slumdog Millionaire wins the Academy Award without the final credits dance sequence. Yes, it is a homage to Bollywood productions, but it also deftly integrates elements of the film outside of the structure of the plot itself. (The dance might be a cinematic example of what Genette called a Paratext.). In the final meeting between Jamal and Latika, he kisses her first on her scar and then on her lips. That gesture was important in winning me over. In genuine happy endings, suffering is not annihilated from memory. It is not dismissed or minimized as a mandatory toll paid to get one to the point where there is less (no) suffering. Paradoxically, joy and comfort make one more tender towards the scars, more humble in the face of the suffering. I kept thinking during the dance, “this must be what heaven is like.” Joy comes not from the present enjoyment of what the suffering led to but from the realization that the time of and for suffering has passed. Our sufferings are not meaningless. Not because they change our situations, but because they change us. If they change us for the better — make us more joyful and compassionate and humble — then that is a far greater and more rewarding effect than their providing the key to a treasure chest of earthly riches.