Spoiler alert: this post discusses important plot points.
This past weekend I finally went to see Slumdog Millionaire. I have to admit that I loved the film and Jamal’s rags-to -riches tale. The film has a fairytale bent that makes it likable (who doesn’t like for the beat up hero to overcome and be happy in the end?) and at the same time problematic. However, the issue isn’t with the main protagonist Jamal. In fact, he shows a strength, kindness and humanity that is almost superhuman. Plus, it was nice to see a Muslim male that wasn’t a terrorist or a thug. Even with Jamal’s brother, Salim, being a gangster and working for another one, Javed, there isn’t a sense that Danny Boyle (the director) set out to demonize Muslim men. After all, a young Jamal and Salim become part of a beggar gang headed by a non-Muslim man.
While Muslim men were presented as nuanced and complex, especially Salim–who I thought in some ways was even more complex than his brother–Muslim women are not. Women don’t play a very prominent role in the film. We’re introduced to Jamal and Salim’s mother very briefly. The one woman who is prominent in both of the brother’s life is Latika (portrayed by Freida Pinto), who the boys initially meet on the streets of Mumbai as kids on the street. She causes a rift between the brothers from the moment they see her. Jamal wants to help her and eventually falls in love with her while Salim sees her as a burden and the girl who his brother always seems to put first, before either of them.
Watching the film, I felt that Latika had no presence of her own. Her character seemed to come from her interaction with Jamal and Salim. To Salim, she presents an undue burden who comes between him and his brother. Yet there is also the sense that he is sexually attracted to her and despises the relationship between her and Jamal because of his own attraction to her. She seems to be one of the things that the brothers compete over throughout the movie. In fact, Salim’s rape of Latika is a way reestablishing his authority as the oldest brother.
Latika is the princess to Jamal’s prince. He becomes infatuated with her from the moment they meet. He feels a constant need to protect her. In their initial meeting, Latika is standing in the rain after the Mumbai riots of 1993 with no shelter. Jamal convinces his brother to let her share their shelter with them. The scene is poignant and it also sets up the relationship among the three throughout the film. The protection theme runs throughout the film with Jamal constantly trying to protect Latika. He obviously loves and cares for her. However, one aspect of their relationship that I always wondered about was why he loved her. I don’t say that in a mean way: I wondered about that because the audience is never given a glimpse into her character. We only see Latika as a victim of various men or as the love interest of Jamal.
This was the main issue I had with Latika’s character: she’s either a victim or a princess. It’s bizaare because she is a main protagonist, but her character felt much more underdeveloped than Jamal’s or Salim’s. Perhaps this was done to fit in more neatly with the film’s theme. Still, I do wish that Latika’s character had been more nuanced. While I do wish we could’ve gotten more of a glimpse into who Latika really is, I have to admit that I was rooting for Jamal and Latika to be together at the end. I was also happy to see a positive Muslim relationship instead of a Muslim woman having to be saved from a Muslim man by a non-Muslim man. That made my day.