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Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

by | Jun 9, 2017

A young man from the slums of Mumbai attempts to achieve the life that he feels destined to live with the girl whose love he feels destined to share.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Simon Beaufoy

Director(s): Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan

Production Co.(s): Celador Films, Film4, Pathé Pictures International

Story by: Vikas Swarup

Adapted from: Q & A (Novel) by Vikas Swarup (© 2005)

The Story on the Screen

When we-the-audience first meet Jamal Malik, the main character of Slumdog Millionaire, he is in police custody in Mumbai, India, undergoing torture to wrest from him a confession that he is cheating (and how he is doing it) on the Indian television show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Jamal works as a "chai wallah" (tea worker) for an Indian telemarketing firm, hails from the slums of Mumbai, and is not formally educated. So when he appears as a contestant on the show, he is mocked from the outset by its arrogant and condescending host/producer, Prem, who expects him to fail early on. But Jamal possesses a natural intelligence honed by years of living on the streets, and when he succeeds in answering questions to the penultimate level (winning ten million rupees), Prem has him arrested for cheating.

The main character, Jamal, who works as a "chai wallah," must explain to the police his preternatural success on a television game show.

When Jamal maintains his innocence despite beatings and electric shock treatments at the hands of a police sergeant, the police inspector interrogates him, playing a videotape of the show and questioning Jamal regarding how he knew the correct answer to each question. Jamal's explanations provide a cascading series of jumping-off points that work to create a rich, retrospective tapestry of Jamal's life—from his impoverished childhood in a Muslim slum in Mumbai, through a vagabond life of trickster-ish and mildly lawless youth with his brother, Salim, to his appearance on the television show.

Jamal's explanations in his defense provide jumping-off points for the story and reveal his primary driving force, an affection for an orphaned girl that he meets on the day that his mother is killed.

In the process, we find out how Jamal comes to know the sometimes-obscure bits of information that have allowed him to succeed on the show, such as the name of a famous Indian actor, what the Hindu god Rama is depicted as holding in his right hand, and the author of a famous Indian poem. And each answer reveals another aspect or element of his life journey—in this case, respectively, his dogged determination to achieve his life aims (even if it means dropping into a pit of human excrement), the loss of his mother in a Hindu massacre that spread through his Muslim slum, and his subtle capture by a man named Maman, who uses children as professional beggars.

But most important, we are introduced to the primary driving force in Jamal's life journey—his affection for Latika, an orphaned girl that he meets on the day that his mother is killed and whom he invites that night to share shelter from a driving rain. Although his story from that point forward takes many twists and turns as he and Salim navigate the seas of life on the fringe of criminality, it is his love for Latika and strong belief that they are destined to be together that serves as the recurring focal point for his most significant actions and feelings.

When Jamal's friend Salim saves him from having his eyes put out by the insidious Maman, who uses orphaned children as beggars, they begin a journey of escape and discovery.

When Jamal, Salim, and Latika find themselves in a camp run by Maman, Jamal tells Latika of his desire to become a rich and famous singer (duped as he is by an insidious deception of Maman). But when he speaks of his dreams of success, he does so in terms of what it will mean for he and Latika together, not in terms of himself alone. And when he is saved by Salim from having his eyes put out by Maman, he is nonetheless furious that Salim did not save Latika as well, when doing so involved simply holding more tightly onto her hand.

When, as a teenager, Jamal witnesses an open-air opera in front of the Taj Mahal, where he and Salim are making a living scamming tourists, he thinks of Latika. And shortly thereafter, he compels Salim to return with him to Mumbai to find her—which they do, in a place where she is still forced to serve Maman and to work as a virginal young dancer named "Cherry." And when Salim helps save her, then steals her away from Jamal at gunpoint and disappears with her in tow, Jamal is devastated, unable to shake the notion (still) that he and Latika are destined to be together.

Their journey brings them back to Mumbai, where Jamal discovers that Latika, now a young woman, is forced to serve Maman as a dancer.

Years later, when the job at the telemarketer provides him with an unexpected opportunity to perform a clandestine phone number search, he succeeds in finding Salim, who is happy to hear from him. But his first questions to Salim have to do with Latika—where and how is she? And the unsatisfying answers that he receives lead him to launch his own mini-investigation and to risk life-threatening danger in the mansion of the criminal boss whom she is now forced to serve... merely for the opportunity to see her again, to offer her the chance to escape with him, and to express his belief that they are destined to be together.

Jamal becomes a contestant on the game show for one reason only—so that Latika might see him and find him again.

And when circumstances separate them again, this time seemingly for good, he uses a bit of insider knowledge he has obtained from a tech worker at the telemarketing firm to become a contestant on the show. But he does so for one reason only (as he tells the inspector)—not to win the money but to create the chance that wherever she is, she will see him. The money does not interest him all that much. He will not be satisfied until he and Latika are together and sharing the life he believes they are destined to share.

Behind the Scenery

From the standpoint of his type of intent, Jamal must be considered to possess a gain intent. Although many of his actions involve keeping (such as when he tries to ensure that she is saved from Maman along with himself and Salim) and regaining (such as his repeated attempts to find her when circumstances separate them), his primary drive involves a treasure that has never existed—that is, the "destined" life he dreams of, shared with the woman he loves. And all of the other actions serve this intent. Consequently, Jamal is a gain character, and Slumdog Millionaire is a gain story.

Jamal is a gain character, and his treasure is the "destined" life that he dreams of with the woman he loves.

And although the story touches on important subjects such as wealth, poverty, class, and survival, its central issue (as expressed in the actions of the main character) can be stated as "doggedly pursuing what one believes to be his destiny." It is this issue that empowers and defines Jamal's attempts in the story, and it is the issue on which the other characters cast opposing shadows. (Salim advises Jamal more than once to forget Latika, and Latika herself makes the same appeal—because she fears for his safety and is resolved to what she considers to be her fate.)

But the storytellers appear to consider the issue as the basis of an advisable endeavor; therefore, the proposition for the story can be stated:

  • One should attempt to pursue with dogged determination what he feels to be his destiny, because success in the attempt will provide him with the sense of fulfillment and happiness that comes from finding one's true place in life.

In the end, Jamal succeeds in every way, including those that do not matter greatly to him. He is released from police custody and allowed to return to the show, where he answers correctly the final question and wins twenty million rupees. But more important, the events leading up to his final answer free Latika from her servitude to the criminal boss and unite them—this time apparently forever. And although his story is not without collateral damage, especially regarding Salim, the glorious achievement of Jamal's union with Latika renders the audience pleased. Therefore, Slumdog Millionaire may be easily classified as a succeed/pleased story with a bittersweet but happy ending.

Aspects of the Storytelling

Although the film begins with Jamal near (but not at) the end of his journey, most of the story takes place in the past and is told by means of flashbacks. As Chapter 5 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story points out, flashbacks are often used in regain stories, because they help identify the treasure that prompts the attempt of the main character to obtain something that existed at one time but has been lost, taken away, or destroyed.

In Slumdog Millionaire, flashbacks are used not to illuminate a treasure that lies in the past but to develop the story from its beginning.

In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, however, the flashbacks are used not to illuminate a treasure that resides in the past but to develop the story from its beginning and render the audience up-to-date with a story that has not yet completed. And in this sense, they may be viewed not as "flashbacks" per se but as progressive scenes of a story that begins with the "flash-forward" of Jamal under interrogation. Consequently, they are not used to say to the audience, "This is what happened in the past that is of consequence to the story taking place in the present," but rather "These are the scenes that have brought to this point in our as-yet-incomplete story."

So this story illustrates an important principle that may serve practical use in similar tellings—that the storyteller has at her disposal at least two types of "flashbacks." One type illustrates events in the past and their impacts on a story that takes place entirely in the present. The other type serves primarily to bring us-the-audience up to speed on a story that started in the past but is still ongoing.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.

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