The theology of Slumdog Millionaire

Paul Courtright, a professor of religious studies at Emory University, who specializes in Hinduism, offers an interesting perspective on Slum Millionaire, one of the nominees for best picture:

Religion—explicit religion, that is—has only a cameo with Jamal, Salim, and Latika’s Muslim identities being only incidental to the story. Only once, late in the film, do we see Salim in prayer asking divine forgiveness for a sin he is about to commit; earlier, when a gang of Hindu thugs overrun a group of women washing clothes, a young boy appears dressed as the Hindu god Rama.

There does seem to be a theology to the film, however. Embedded in the opening question, as noted above regarding the Slumdog’s success, is the question: “How did he do it?“ Throughout the movie we are left wondering whether Jamal is a cheat—the police assume that initially; lucky—seems plausible; a genius, probably not; or whether “it is written.“

As we work our way to the fade-to-white-light finish and the final answer, we become less and less persuaded that randomness, cheating, or even his personal brilliance drives Jamal’s story. Dev Patel plays Jamal as a fairly modest, ordinary guy: street-smart and resilient, but not a genius.

Despite the presence of primarily Muslims main characters, there doesn’t appear to be a particularly Islamic vision of divine mercy and inscrutability amidst the squalor, terror, and glitz of Jamal’s life in global Mumbai. Rather, the film evokes the Hindu idea of divine play (lila); Hindu literature is filled with stories of the devotee who triumphs over adversity through unwavering devotion to his or her deity, while the notion of one’s life being written or in the hands of destiny is a broadly shared Indian cultural perspective.

Read it all here.

Religion Dispatches also has interesting reviews of nominees Milk and The Wrestler.

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