I don’t see movies all that often, and I hardly consider myself an expert, but I highly recommend Slumdog Millionaire and encourage you to see it as soon as you can. Critics have raved about its classic rags-to-riches story within the allegorical tale of the birth of modern India. Within its two hour duration viewers are exhausted keeping up with protagonist Jamal Malik, running through the slums and decades past of the gargantuan Mumbai metropolis. It features great acting, an even better plot, and a captivating message that will inspire all.
But through it all, I noticed something that seemed both critical and somehow overlooked within the film. So much of the focus is on Jamal’s accomplishments; how his rise to fame and success somehow is fait accompli, each moment perfectly crafted for the next. Much of the plot is predicated on Jamal’s fate; that he is somehow destined to be successful. However, what seems to be overlooked is the deus ex machina of the movie—the game show itself—the very vessel that has enabled Jamal to utilize his diverse upbringing for fame and fortune. Without it we are titleless, for Jamal remains a slumdog without his chance at millions.
And with that we are given the true lesson of Slumdog Millionaire, albeit with one important caveat: fate, without opportunity, is meaningless.
Jamal is accused of being a cheat by the police who cannot fathom any other way an orphan from the Mumbai slums could answer questions that would stump even the most learned scholars. Jamal is relentless, however, and insists that he is neither a cheat nor a genius. It is fate, he claims, that has allowed him to win as much as he has. Each anecdote is tied to a question, and with each tale comes another peg in the game. It is the gameshow that provides Jamal the medium to utilize his life accomplishments. Without it, his tale would not be written and his rags-to-riches journey would remain at the rags part. We know how Jamal knows the answers to the question, but why doesn’t the movie focus on how he became a contestant on the show itself? It’s not a McGuffin so much as a creative plot device, but overshadowing it by the colorful odyssey he takes certainly does not do the moral of the movie any justice.
Being the teacher/blogger that I am, I cannot help but editorialize on this point. As teachers we don’t strive for our students’ success because we feel that they are destined to succeed, that somewhere it is written. We are unfortunately not afforded such omniscience. Furthermore, such thinking seems almost archaic in today’s empirically-based scientific world, where we would be hard-fetched to explain purpose in terms of a greater divine plan of great proportion. This is the appeal of stories like Slumdog Millionaire, where miraculous success occurs with inexplicable explanations. We lump these fascinations into a singular term called fate, and we cheer for Slumdog Millionaire because it tickles this very idea. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire has been unjustly marketed, for it’s not a simple movie about fate, but rather the opportunity rarely granted to achieve remarkable things.
But what is fate without the critical element of opportunity? Jamal’s experience is for not if he is not able to appear on the game show, just as Michael Jordan’s grit and determination is for not if he was not given a chance to play on his freshman basketball team. For all the talent, training, and impulse we attribute to those most successful, we often overlook the simple fact that all were given a chance, and made the most of it.
Ultimately teachers do not teach because they believe their students are fated for success. Rather, they strive for opportunity and the chance to succeed. Destiny and genius are not inherently tied, but genius and success are both biological entities with the potential to blossom. I’ve coined this term the Good Will Hunting theory: where even the most gifted person can waste away if they aren’t given the opportunity to display their talent. We are not grooming the next Jamal Malik or the next Michael Jordan. Rather, we are giving each student the opportunity to become their own millionaire in their own right.
If we think about it that way, the appeal of Slumdog Millionaire is the same appeal as the classroom. It is the moment—often serendipitous and unplanned—where a lifetime of experience transforms into something beautiful, that we realize that fate is like a flower, waiting for the right conditions to bloom and manifest itself. And whether the prize is 40 million rupees, true love, or the simply satisfaction of an great academic achievement, we leave with the same feeling: that somehow, it was meant to be.