I’m not what you’d call a big moviegoer. I’m terrified of crowds. I don’t enjoy the smell of popcorn. I can’t sit still for two or (oh, God) three hours at a time. I’m busy. And for the last year, everything at the theater looked unappealing to me. So, I was a little remorseful when, two nights ago, I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire on cable. Because while it was lovely on TV, it would’ve been brilliant on the big screen.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it deserves all the praise it’s received. The cinematography is beautiful. The acting is superb. The story unfolds like the best kind of novel, flipping between past and present without ever losing its viewer. Drawing her in and widening her eyes with anticipation for what’s to come next. Looping back and connecting all the dots, like a thoughtfully constructed puzzle. The characters are by turns charming, vile, frightening, loving, dejected, resolute, hopeful — everything that people are in real life.
But it was the setting of the movie that really stuck with me, the abject, heartbreaking poverty that compels the main characters to do what they do, to find ingenious ways to survive, to succumb to breath-arresting exploitive cruelty, to ponder — and sometimes become convinced of — the idea that destiny has a hand in everything. That fate or God has preordained one’s existence to the utter preclusion of alternatives, good or bad. That wondering about this for too long only leads to the maddening recognition of existence’s circularity, of the balance of trying one’s damnedest against the idea that destiny necessitated such exertion in the first place.
One could think about this until she went crazy.
Or, if you’re me, you could set the idea of destiny next to its philosophical twin — that life is a total crapshoot. Because we don’t choose to be born in the slums of Mumbai any more than we have the power to be born in the Seventh Arondissement of Paris. We don’t elect to be birthed into a lowly Indian caste or an isolated housing project in North Korea any more than we are entitled to be birthed in the Upper East Side. We don’t get to pick when we make our appearance on Earth, or where, or in what time frame or into which slice of the socio-economic pie. And if we really want to get nitpicky about this, we don’t get to select our skin color or our IQ or our level of hotness. It’s this awareness that makes me cringe when I see people act with an unattractive sense of entitlement. Why snobbery and arrogance and a general I’m-Better-Than-You attitude grates me in the worst possible way. Why racism and sexism and every other kind of –ism makes no kind of sense. Because the truth of the matter is that no one’s inherently better than anyone else. That it’s what’s on the inside of a person that really counts. We learn these extraordinarily basic axioms in elementary school. Somehow, we forget it by the time we’re in middle school. We forget it so violently that we spend the rest of our lives trying to one-up each other, to compare ourselves by how much stuff we have, how many designer labels and exotic cars and vacation homes we can claim. How many people we know, how many important people we know, how much money we have, how much clout. We laud the beautiful and the privileged, spend eternity trying emulating and envying them. And in our ugliest moments, we are thankful that if we cannot be X, then at least we are not Y.
Are there really any answers?
Of course, I’m not immune to any of this. I mean, I live in the real world. I’m insecure. I’m competitive. I’m petty. I’m vain. Hell, I’m a girl. And I’m not one to pitch a person’s controllable faults into the wastebasket of “life is a crapshoot,” either. But I’ve also been soul-searching a bit recently, which might be one of the best and worst consequences of writing character-driven fiction. And I’ve been thinking about this elusive notion of where my characters — and as an extension, where I — fit into this crazy world. And for all the whys and what fors that I can pitch, I realize that the answer that works best for me brings me back to the central character of the movie — try, try, try, world unending, amen. Be better today than what you were yesterday. Be better tomorrow than what you are today. And be kind. Always. Because you never know who might loop back around in this drama of life. Who might need a hand or be the one to extend one.
There is, of course, the central matter of love in Slumdog Millionaire. Enduring, unflinching, bet-your-life-on-it love. It is, to be punny, lovely. But I’m not a movie critic tasked to relay central themes. I’m a writer who is inordinately distracted by shiny objects in the distance. With a blog in which she gets to describe what she just saw. ☺