Friday, March 13, 2009

It Is Written: On Slumdog Millionaire and Easter Hope

The beginning of the surprising smash-hit movie Slumdog Millionaire opens with the main character Jamal being beaten and tortured under the suspicion of having cheated on India’s most popular game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Jamal is on the cusp of winning 20,000,000 rupees and no one can fathom how a lowly, sharp-tongued “slumdog” could answer questions that not even doctors and lawyers could answer. The movie poses this question at the beginning of the film as if it were a question on the game show itself and suggests four possibilities: a) he is cheating b) he is brilliant c) he is lucky or d) it is written. When I first saw the movie I can remember thinking it was cleverly done and quite straightforward with regard to depicting the hardships endured by those living in the slums of Mumbai. I think there was a part of me, however, that kept the movie at arm’s length. Maybe I did it because of the crushing and abject poverty displayed in the movie which at times was hard to stomach. Perhaps it was due to having lost my mother at a tender young age like Jamal and Salim and not wanting to have that cord reached. Whatever the case, it never occurred to me that there just might be a substantial theological point that could be mined beneath the clever plot and relatively predictable ending. After “taking in” the movie for a second time, I walked away with a great deal more. I use the words, “taking in” because, for some reason, I was more open to where and how the spirit of the movie wanted to reach me. I enclose the words taking in with quotes because I feel like I drank in the movie whereas the first time it more or less washed over me, like water off a duck. In taking in the movie, this is what I took away from the movie. What I believe Slumdog Millionaire proclaims in terms of theology is nothing short of the redemption and redeeming love that we are preparing to celebrate this coming Easter. With each question posed to Jamal by the game show, what is lifted up from the depths of his memory are the phantoms of horrific events that played out in the game of his life: memories of a mother murdered before his eyes, the abuse of his childhood friends, encountering one of the abuse victims on the streets of Mumbai several years later, staring down the barrel of a gun totted by his brother who, while gaining an ever tighter grip on the revolvers handle, was losing his grip on the beauty and innocence of his life. What was really being raised by Jamal’s memory with the posing of each question wasn’t so much an answer to a piece of trivia as an answer to his life and to life itself. What the movie Slumdog Millionaire raises as a theological question with the disturbing slums of Mumbai as the backdrop is, “What is the value of a (slumdogs) life?” So many of Mumbai’s citizens cheered with abandon for Jamal throughout the movie and no doubt for the movie itself when it brought home the Academy’s prestigious hardware for Best Picture. Perhaps they were cheering the undaunted hope and steely integrity reflected in Jamal’s eyes throughout the movie and his ability to live with an unshakeable resolve to love - despite having so many reasons to hate. Maybe they were simply cheering because it was one of their own. Whatever the reason for cheering for the movie and whether you are from Mumbai or not, you can add this to the list of reasons for admiring Slumdog Millionaire: it hints at the promise and nature of God’s redeeming love. Just as Jamal’s painful memories were raised and exorcised of the threat they once posed to his integrity and human dignity, so God in Christ and Holy Spirit will raise up and redeem our memories of love and loss, thereby fully healing our integrity and dignity. The simple reason why we can believe and hope in this is the same one that the movie gives for how Jamal knew the answers posed to him: d) It is written. Fr. Pat, TOR