If Slumdog Millionaire were generally disliked, I would never bother to write a review about such a ridiculous movie. But as it was praised by critics, won many awards, including the Academy Awards Best Picture, and was incredibly successful at the box office, I find myself stunned. Sure, I could dismiss the whole thing as being a matter of taste, about which there can be no dispute, but that still leaves me wondering, “Why is my taste so different from everyone else?”
Let us sort out a few of the elements. First, I do not know what India is really like in general, but that which is presented to us in this movie is horrible. The great pessimist Schopenhauer, reflecting on the pain and suffering of existence, declared that the world ought not to exist, that the moon is a better place than the Earth, because there is no life on the moon. Overall, my life has been pretty good, living in middle-class America and being in good health, but if there were such a thing as reincarnation, and if I were given a chance to come back in a new life, I think I would pass, preferring oblivion instead. In the movies, people always comes back in good health as white, middle-class Americans, but I would be afraid that I would end up in some country like Syria, suffering the ravages of war, or some famine-stricken or plague-ridden country in Africa, or end up as an untouchable in Calcutta, scrounging around for my breakfast in a garbage dump. In other words, if the India in this movie were typical of existence on this planet in general, then I would never want to be reborn. This is especially so when one considers that most of the suffering in this movie is not the result of war, famine, or plague, but of cruelty. Instead, I would have to agree with Schopenhauer that it would have been better had we never been born in the first place. Nevertheless, the tone of this movie is, beyond all reason, life-affirming.
Second, the movie centers around a quiz show, the equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I have never cared for quiz shows. I have never bought a lottery ticket. And, in general, I have never dreamed of getting rich in one big, lucky stroke. I suspect that the people who buy lottery tickets and watch game shows are probably the same people that loved this movie. In other words, Slumdog Millionaire plays into the fantasy shared by so many that no matter how bad things may be, there is always the hope, taken very seriously by such people, that one day they may hit it big. Never having indulged in such a fantasy, however, this movie was simply not believable to me, not even qua fantasy.
With quiz shows like Jeopardy! the successful contestants are those with prodigious memories for facts, figures, names, dates, and places. But the quiz show Jamal participates in is multiple choice, which means that, as Jamal himself notes at one point, you don’t have to be a genius to answer those questions. In fact, pure luck might get you by. Most of the time he is able to answer the question correctly because some horrible thing was going on in his life at the moment he happened upon the information that allows him to answer the question, such as his seeing a statue of a god just after his mother got her brains bashed in. But if he is asked a question for which there was no corresponding traumatic event in his life, he is in trouble. So, when he is asked about India’s emblem, whether it says that it is truth, lies, fashion, or money that triumphs, he has not the slightest idea what the answer to that question could possibly be. The policeman who is torturing him into confessing that he is cheating says that his five-year-old daughter could answer that question. Quite right, because nothing more than common sense is needed. In fact, Jamal does seem to be something of a mouth-breather.
But this plays right into the above-mentioned fantasy. Most of us know we could never win at Jeapardy! but since we could do even better than Jamal at that point, we can easily imagine winning such a game show, especially if we are lucky enough to be asked questions about trivia that happens to come to our attention when something awful happens to us like jumping into a cesspool of human dung.
The final question is the name of the third musketeer in the novel by Dumas. We all know the answer to that question, especially when prompted by the multiple-choice format, so now we can really fantasize about how we might win such a contest. He does not know the answer, but that’s all right, because he just guesses that it is Aramis. Why is he so lucky at this point? Because Latika was Jamal’s and his brother’s “third musketeer.” How could he lose?
On the night he wins the twenty million rupees, Latika is freed from the gangster who has been beating her and raping her for years, so now Jamal and Latika can live happily ever after on his millions. Schopenhauer once said, “Lovers are traitors to their species. For the sake of a mere passion, they perpetuate the want and misery that would otherwise so speedily come to an end.” And so, as the musical finale takes place, as uplifting as the ending of The Music Man or Grease, my only thought was that they are going to get married and start having babies, oblivious to nightmare world that has characterized their lives up to that point.
The only way this movie makes any sense to me is if the whole thing is Jamal’s hallucination while being tortured in a police station for stealing a bicycle.