Sunday, January 4, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Predestination in the 21st Century

Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?

A: He cheated
B: He's lucky
C: He's a genius
D: It is written

And thus begins one of the most beautifully done films in recent years. A stark contrast to the dark and emotionally complex world of Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire is as uplifting and generous as the blurbs hype it up to be. As a Christian, however, my primary interest in the film stems from the fact that predestination is central to the entire story.

The film follows two narratives; one running in the present surrounding the events of Jamal's success on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and the other narrative following events in his life which gave him the answers to every question he is asked on the game show. Though it could initially be seen as pure luck or massive improbability realized, Jamal seems to believe that his success on the show has been predestined. However, he does not believe that it has been predestined simply because he is destined for success and money; rather, he believes that he is meant to be with Latika, his love interest whom he has been separated from for years. Jamal claims that he went on the game show in hopes that Latika would be watching. Jamal seems to have an almost fairytale trust and belief that his correct answers have been "written." Though the source of this predestination is never named, I presume that given Jamal's Muslim faith and the phrase "it is written" (a decidedly Muslim phrase), Allah is the one Jamal sees as ordering the events of his life.

More metaphysical than spiritual, however, director Danny Boyle bring this predestination to the forefront; as Jamal gets each question correct you begin to sense that something larger than life is going on here and that there are other forces at work in the universe bringing Jamal closer and closer to the final question. In the end, Jamal trusts so greatly in the forces at work that he literally guesses the million dollar question. I won't spoil whether he gets the answer right or not, but the audience knows that if Jamal gets the question right, then he is destined to be with Latika. It's as simple as that.

The film is upfront about what it has to show from the very beginning. From the earliest parts of the movie, you know that Jamal Malik gets all the questions up to the last one right. You know that he survives all of the events in the flashbacks that bring him to this point in his life; you just want to see how it all happens. The interesting thing is, that's sort of what predestination is like. Detractors of predestination argue that our actions have no meaning if they are already decided beforehand; Jamal, however, seems to believe otherwise. Though God knows everything that will happen (He has determined it already, after all), we still must do what He has planned, and sometimes it's as interesting to see things unfold as it is to know the ending ahead of time.

Since the film is not direct about the nature of the destiny Jamal experiences or the source of it, it would be difficult to get into the doctrinal minutiae of predestination or the fact that this is not a Christian form of predestination being presented. To my mind, the predominantly interesting fact is that any movie could be shot in this day and age which presents predestination as a positive thing and not as a grim and fearful "doom."

A beautiful, emotionally rich fairytale, it is really hard to think of anything negative to say about the film. Many Americans won't be interested in the film because about a third of it is subtitled in Hindi, but my hope is that the positive word of mouth and the potential flood of awards will make this movie the sleeper hit of the year. First 28 Days Later, then Sunshine, and now with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle is on a roll in my book; I can't wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.


  1. Just linked to your review. I had one of my own. I think this movie was very well done. And yes, Sunshine just flew under peoples radars. It was a great film that touched on total depravity. I can't wait to see what Boyle does next.

  2. This movie is on my "to watch" list. Don't recall the first time I saw the trailer but I've been waiting a while now!


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