There has never been a better definition of an underdog story than that of Slumdog Millionaire. This is the story of Jamal (played by Dev Patel) who goes on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. When he starts winning, to everyone’s disbelief, he is accused of cheating. In order to clear his name to the police and the gameshow, he recounts his life story of just how he knew the answer to each question.
The way Slumdog Millionaire unfolds is from a nonlinear perspective. We are with Jamal in the present as he is on the game show with host Prem Kumar (played by Anil Kapoor), but as questions begin to appear we are treated to flashbacks to Jamal as a child with both his brother, mother, and best friend/soulmate Latika. Each time a question is asked, we travel back in time to when Jamal heard the answer. It almost acts like a traumatic memory resurfaces as most of these memories are of all of them struggling on the streets as kids trying to survive. There was one instance where Jamal was asked the question about who made the first ever revolver? We are given a scene where a teen Jamal gets a Colt revolver shoved in his face by his brother, Salim. When the audience and our protagonist return to the present to answer the question, he is on the verge of tears, as if the memory was too much to bear as he answers the question correctly.
Speaking of Jamal, he also is probably, in my opinion, a perfect protagonist. This is a good-hearted kid, an orphan, from the slums of Mumbai. He has seen some terrible acts committed and has even done some questionable acts in order to survive. But what never waivered was his integrity and love for Latika (played by Freida Pinto). He continued to love and search for her even when they were separated for years. When they were together, it was almost as if the world stopped moving, you could just tell they were living in a real life fairytale. Jamal also seemed to be the most intuitive person in the room as well, not smart but intuitive. There was only one question he didn’t know on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and during a commercial break, the host seems to give him a clue. However, with everything Jamal has learned over the years and about the guy in front of him, he knows the clue given was a red herring. With the new knowledge, he answers correctly; but is violently escorted away on accusations of fraud.
His brother, Salim (played by Madhur Mittal), has to be one of the most complex characters of the film. He is the definition of a survivor. Salim not only saved his brother from being blinded by hustlers to make more money on the streets as children, he protected his brother from almost everything bad. When they became teens however, Salim couldn’t protect Jamal any longer and chose to push him as far away as possible. They went years without speaking, but once they reconnect, Jamal is not having it. Salim has been conflicted about betraying his brother during the last half of the film, the biggest mistake he made was taking Latika away from Jamal in front of him. However, he soon saw the error of his ways and found redemption by letting Laitka go, in order for the both of them to live a happier life than they were given.
With a perfect protagonist, Slumdog Millionaire also has a perfect ending. The entire film has positive themes of destiny and perseverance despite its more depressing tone. But I think that’s the point of Slumdog Millionaire. It gives us more reason to root for Jamal and Latika as they struggle to survive in the slums of Mumbai and be together. Once we reach the resolution of their story, everything is thrown in reverse, as if each moment in their lives was meant to happen in order to get to this moment. Their journey may not have been the kindest, but at that point they didn’t care, nor did we. It gives great closure and an emotional payoff that will leave even the most cynical people crying tears of joy long after the credits roll.
Slumdog Millionaire is one of those films that sneaks up on you. It did back in 2008, becoming financially successful and winning 8 Oscars that year, including Best Picture. But awards don’t make a movie memorable; the movie does that. It has an identifiable story, with a likable protagonist, stellar pacing, compassionate themes, and deft direction. Bring all those ingredients together, and you can make a film that is impossible to hate. This is a film that not only is a great, unhateable film, but a timeless one to boot.