‘Slumdog Millionaire’ affirms qualities of true wealth

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 4, 2009 

I took in the controversial Oscar-winning motion picture “Slumdog Millionaire” the other day and was not disappointed.

Set in the megalopolis of Mumbai and featuring a cast of kids from the slums, this is the story of one of those slumdogs who, as a young man, inexplicably becomes a very big money winner on an Indian version of the TV show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” He is accused of cheating and arrested. In his defense of himself before his cruel inquisitors, he recounts episode after flashback episode from his childhood and teen years that explain how he happened to know the answers to some very difficult quiz-show questions. In the end, the truth wins out, but not before the film’s audience is treated to some much-needed inspiration for coping in hard times with gentleness, courage and determination.

Director Danny Boyle’s film took eight Oscars, including Best Picture, at this year’s awards ceremony. But it has its detractors, too.

Mumbai-born writer Salmon Rushdie, for instance. The exiled author of The Satanic Verses has labeled the film a “patently ridiculous conceit.” Others have accused it of pandering more to a non-Indian audience than to an Indian audience. Still others have picked on unlikely geographical juxtapositions, such as scenes filmed at the Taj Mahal as if they were just down the tracks from distant Mumbai.

But no one can doubt the positive impact of Slumdog’s success, even among the residents of Mumbai, the heart of India’s thriving Bollywood film industry.

I e-mailed our Mumbai coffee companion Raj Patwardhan about this.

“I can tell you that the atmosphere here in Mumbai is very upbeat,” Raj responded, “though as usual there have been some groups who agitated a few weeks ago, one, for using the word ‘dog,’ and two, for depicting India in a poor light in the context of the slums. But credit must be given to Mr. Boyle for the challenge in picking real-life youngsters from the slum and training them to be the stars – almost like Pygmalion. Surely a must-see kind of movie, considering the rave reviews; certainly a proud moment for Bollywood and Indian cinema lovers.”

He went on to emphasize the hope expressed in the film.

“That’s what movie-makers should be doing, rather than breeding violence all the time. What the world needs right now is to hope and do the best one can to alleviate poverty and strife.”

(See my column of Dec. 3, 2008 on Raj’s hopeful response to last November’s terrorist assault on his city.)

In this regard, the slumdog quiz show contestant reveals a gentle innocence and non-retaliatory quality about himself that reaches out to others, and especially to a childhood friend, a girl who, like himself, is the victim of poverty, the elements, and bullying – someone, like himself, tempted to surrender integrity and loyalty for expediency and comfort.

It is this aspect of the film that has especially moved me, reminding me of those famous lines from the 19th century Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon (with a coffee-cup toast to Westbank, B.C., reader Angus McNee, formerly of Ghost Lake Village for bringing the poem to my attention some years ago).

Gordon, of seafaring and horseracing fame, in losing much in his life came to understand a pair of fundamental values that have guided many through hard times:

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

Herein, I believe, is the pulsating heartbeat of Boyle’s film: kindness and courage, with determination. And herein lies inspiration for a whole world in the grips of economic woes and despair. Here, I’m thinking not just of lost incomes and the gloomy outlook in North America. I’m thinking of the unbelievable poverty and devastation in places like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Sudan. I’m thinking of the loss of life and property in the fires of Australia and in the strife in the Middle East.

Tough times can bring out the worst or the best in people. For some, as we see in “Slumdog Millionaire,” it brought out the worst in a devious brother and some treacherous rescuers. For one young man, however, it brought out the best – a reminder of the qualities of true wealth.

What about us? What qualities in our own lives will come to the fore as we face an uncertain future?

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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