Questioning the happy ending to Slumdog Millionaire

I’m hooked on India so I was bound to pay attention to the release of Slumdog Millionaire. Less predictably, my reaction to the film blended in with news of the foreign secretary’s visit to India during the week.

The reasonably obvious connection was that both the film and David Miliband’s travels ended at locations of the December terrorist outrage in Mumbai. Miliband delivered a landmark speech about terrorism at the Taj Hotel whilst the film, made before the tragedy, finds romance instead of bloodstains at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

As I left the cinema, I wondered whether there’s a deeper resonance between the politics and the entertainment.

The foreign secretary is one of few politicians to earn morsels of appreciation at OneWorld. He once blogged about our social networking initiative, OneClimate. His speech even suggests that he may have been studying the OneWorld Terrorism Guide.

This was the first public denunciation by a British minister of the vision of a war-on-terror. In dismembering the Bush/Blair strategy, Miliband rejected the idea of a war whose beginning was 9/11 and whose military campaign would trace a narrative thread culminating in victorious conclusion.

The reality, he suggested, is very different. Terrorism is the tactical pursuit of disparate local agendas, grievances that are part of the continuum of organised society, rising and falling in importance over time. Our response should be a combination of criminal investigation grounded in law and inducement for sympathisers to shift into mainstream politics.

Back in the Winchester cinema, about halfway through Slumdog Millionaire I acquired the distinct sense of a director who didn’t want to do what he had to do. Commercial film imperatives play the Bush/Blair role, compelling Danny Boyle to conclude the story with the slum boy Jamal defeating the enemies of humanity and winning millions of rupees as well as the girl of his dreams.

Yet the impressionist technique which defines the film’s most memorable scenes surely demands the Miliband vision of greater ambiguity in its outcome. In failing to resolve this tension, the film goes on too long and sheds layers of possibilities.

The champion of the slum genre therefore remains the 1988 Salaam Bombay, many of whose characters are cribbed by Slumdog. The protagonist, Krishna, a chai wallah like Jamal, has more modest dreams of riches – 500 rupees to travel back home. But his savings are stolen and his girl refuses to run away from the brothel-keeper. The film ends with Krishna back where he started, alone in the vast city, his hopes of advance crushed by the human tide. That’s life. And the politics of terror can learn from it.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK