Slumdog Millionaire is set in truly horrific circumstances, involving extreme poverty and the foulest kind of child exploitation. I also discovered it is a Power of Idealism film about the triumph of love and the human spirit. It is must-see viewing this 2008 holiday season. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Power of Idealism films are about the difference between fate and destiny. Chance, God or the Universe determines fate. It is written. You can’t change your fate. It is outside your control. Your destiny is an opportunity that lies before you. You recognize this chance and choose either to walk away or hurry toward it. This choice defines who you are. Seizing your destiny determines how and for what you are remembered.
Dr. Howard Suber, film structure professor to generations of UCLA students, teaches and writes eloquently about the distinction in his wonderful book, The Power of Film. In brief, Dr. Suber says: “You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate.”
In addition to Slumdog Millionaire, two other very diverse Power of Idealism films demonstrate the same principles and choices—Lawrence of Arabia and Ratatouille.
The hero’s circumstances in all three films are determined by his birth. Fate would have it that these circumstances are impossible to escape. It is a condition that cannot be changed. It is completely outside the hero’s control.
In Lawrence of Arabia, young Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is born an unrecognized illegitimate son of a wealthy man. Lawrence is eccentric and a social misfit. In the class-driven British system such an outcast should never rise to orchestrate and lead one of the greatest military campaigns in history.
Young Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille is born a rat. Chefs consider rats filthy vermin. Remy is also an outcast and should never rise to become a famous chef.
Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire is born in overwhelmingly dire poverty in Mumbai, India. He is considered no better than human vermin. Jamal, too, is a social outcast and should never hope to rise above and triumph over his circumstances.
Each of these Power of Idealism heroes has an over-riding passion, a great love that calls him to seize his destiny and attempt the impossible. Lawrence’s great love is the desert and freedom of the Arab people. Remy’s great love is gourmet cooking. Jamal’s great love is the beautiful young Latika (Freida Pinto).
A key scene in Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the difference between fate and destiny. Lawrence attempts the impossible, to cross the worst desert on earth, “The Sun’s Anvil,” with a handful of Arab fighters. He aims to launch a surprise attack on the city of Aqaba. Near the end of the arduous journey Lawrence notices one young fighter (Gasim) is missing. Gasim’s camel trots along riderless. Lawrence demands they go back into the desert to find him. Sheik Ali (Omar Sharif) refuses.
Sheik Ali: “In God’s name understand, we cannot go back.”
Lawrence: “I can.”
Sheik Ali: “If you go back, you’ll kill us all. Gasim you have killed already.”
Lawrence: “Get out of my way.”
Another Arab Fighter: “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence. It is written!”
Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”
Sheik Ali (riding along with and haranguing Lawrence): “Go back, then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer! But you will not be at Aqaba!”
Lawrence (riding ahead he turns back toward Sheik Ali): “I shall be at Aqaba. That is written… (He points at his heart)… in here!”
Lawrence then courageously retraces his steps and finds the half-dead Gasim. He returns with the young man strapped to his saddle. Lawrence defiantly repeats to Sheik Ali: “Nothing is written.”
Later in the film, Sheik Ali acknowledges Lawrence’s remarkable courage and fortitude, first witnessed in Gasim’s rescue. Sheik Ali says: “Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”
Nothing is written for Lawrence, Remy or Jamal unless each writes it in his own heart. For each of these three characters, seizing his destiny is an extraordinary act of faith powered by an overwhelming passion for one great transcendent love.
The lesson of being an extraordinary Power of Idealism hero is voiced in Ratatouille by Restaurant Critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole). He writes about the talented rat and chef, Remy saying: “…Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”
Here is how Jamal follows his passion for his great love in Slumdog Millionaire. At the beginning of the film, Jamal is interrogated by the police. He is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal makes it to the final round of the quiz show and is in reach of the grand prize. Before the final round is played, Jamal is kidnapped, arrested and accused of cheating. Even under torture, he insists that he did not cheat.
The police chief is willing to give Jamal the benefit of the doubt if Jamal can explain how he answered the show’s questions. Jamal tells the story of his life, turning his suffering and pain into an inspiring tale of enduring love. The film flashes between the questions on the quiz show and Jamal’s childhood.
He recounts how he and his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) grew up in the chaotic squalor of a Mumbai slum. They are orphaned when their mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot and subsequent widespread arson. The boys escape the burning slum together. Despite Salim’s objections, Jamal invites the orphaned Latika to join them. It is love at first sight.
The three children scavenge in one of Mumbai’s largest dumps until they are taken to an orphanage. The orphanage is a front for a begging operation that uses horrific tactics to make the children more pitiful. Jamal is taught to sing. Salim (a young Power of Will character) is recruited to bully and capture other children.
Salim is not afraid to use violence to help him and his brother survive. He protects Jamal and stages their escape. When the boys jump on a freight train, Salim lets go of Latika’s hand and she is left behind with the gangsters. Salim is jealous of Jamal’s love for Latika.
The brothers spend years scamming and stealing from tourists. Jamal refuses to forget Latika. He obsessively searches for her. Jamal finally finds her only to lose her again. His brother rapes Latika and vanishes with the young girl. Jamal eventually finds work delivering tea in a call center. Searching the computer company’s mobile phone records he locates his missing brother. When he finds and follows Salim he also finds Latika.
Salim and Latika live in the thrall of a powerful Mumbai crime lord. Latika is one of the man’s concubines. Salim is one of his thuggish enforcers. Jamal convinces Latika to escape and meet him at the train station. Salim follows, recaptures and brutalizes her.
To escape his other larger problems, the crime lord is forced to leave Mumbai. He takes Salim and Latika with him. Jamal attempts to find and reach out to Latika by becoming a contestant on her favorite quiz show, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Jamal’s fate is that of a slumdog. He is poor, uneducated and one of millions just like him. Fate should dictate that he live and die in the slum, unheralded and unsung. He should accept his fate as a piece of human garbage, disposable and easily forgotten.
Instead, Jamal turns the pain, humiliation and hopelessness of his life into the answers that complete an epic quest for the love of his life. Jamal refuses to surrender to his fate or to the gangsters who control the slums. He chooses instead to seize his destiny and pursue the impossible. The police chief’s reaction is much like Anton Ego’s in Ratatouille. His preconceptions about Jamal are shattered. He rips up Jamal’s arrest warrant and returns him to the quiz show to play the prize-winning final round.
Jamal’s destiny is Latika. However unattainable their love is, Jamal chooses to race toward his passion. His choice defines who he is. Seizing his destiny ensures Jamal will live forever as a legend in slums. He never gives up. He never gives in. His unending quest finally inspires the love of his brother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in recognition of the unquenchable intensity and purity of Jamal’s love.
Jamal and Latika find each other at the train station at the end of the film. The two have a tearful and passionate reunion.
Latika: “I thought we would meet again only in death.”
Jamal (shaking his head): “I knew you would be watching.” (Jamal turns her head to gently touch the scar disfiguring the side of her face, which is Salim’s punishment for her previous escape. She tries to turn away.)
Jamal: “This is our destiny.” (He kisses her scar tenderly) “This is our destiny.” (He kisses and holds her tight)
I am happy to close out 2008 with a post about such an inspiring film. Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer-winning American author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature famously wrote: “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”
I challenge you all to be young at heart in 2009, seize your destiny and aim for the impossible. As President-elect Barack Obama proved—Nothing is written unless we write it in our hearts. This year, resolve to write your best self. Defy the odds. Fly in the face of your fears. Make a Leap of Faith. I will be there with you, every step of the way.