Slumdog Millionaire: In the Midst of Spiritual Winnowing, Love Wins

By Cathleen Falsani 1-09-2009

A few days ago, I had one of those conversations that seem to make the world spin slower, allowing me to see crystal clearly, if only for a moment.

We were vacationing at a friend's cottage on the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario when a knock came at the door one evening. I answered it and was overjoyed to see a small, familiar face peeking through the frosted glass -- Jack, the precocious grandson of the next-door neighbor.

I'd met Jack on vacation a year ago, when he was 5 years old, and was besotted from the moment he sang the first few lines of the Canadian national anthem (in French) for revelers at his parents' pre-New Year's cocktail party. Jack is an absolutely darling boy. Smart, attentive, sensitive, and sociable.

This year, Jack wanted to show me the contents of his pockets -- Canadian coins -- and asked me to show him how they were different from American coins. After we compared quarters and pennies, Jack turned to me and said, "Know what I love about money?"

"You can help people?" I answered, thinking it might be what he was thinking, too.

"Yeah, that's good, but also you can buy things," Jack said.

My heart sank a little. Don't get me wrong; Jack's mother and father are wonderful parents, and I didn't chalk his honest answer up to anything other than a society-wide post-Christmas toy coma. Also, earlier in the day, he'd taken some of his own money and bought an awesome radio-controlled car. He was clearly proud of his big-boy purchase, and his guilelessness was adorable.

Still, Jack's answer gave me pause. I think it was the fact that he used the word "love" when talking about money.

"The love of money is the root of all evil," scripture says. Not money itself, mind you, but the love of money.

I thought of Jack and our conversation while watching the phenomenal film Slumdog Millionaire this week. Set in the slums of Mumbai (when it was still Bombay), the film follows two orphaned brothers as they cannily survive the unthinkable abuse and hardships that come with being born "slumdogs."

The brothers are, in many ways, night and day. Jamal, the younger sibling, is seemingly altruistic at heart; trusting, generous, and loving. The elder, Salim, is harder of heart, even as a young boy. He's scrappy, conniving, and longs for the wealth he doesn't have, which he eventually attains but at a dire cost. (Interestingly, Salim is the more overtly religious of the two. In one scene, as he's about to do the bidding of his boss -- a violent gangster -- he first kneels to pray asking God's forgiveness for his sins.)

When Jamal and Salim are orphaned in the midst of a religious riot -- Hindus against Muslims -- in the slum, they flee for their lives trailed by another orphan, a young girl named Latika. Salim doesn't want to risk helping her, but Jamal insists, sparking an unrequited love affair that lasts into their improbable adulthoods.

Slumdog Millionaire, which rightly has garnered heaps of critical praise and near-deafening Oscar buzz, was directed by Danny Boyle, the British filmmaker who also made Trainspotting and the magnificent Millions. Brotherhood, childhood, lust for money, and righteous souls are themes Boyle has visited masterfully before and with an eloquence in Slumdog that resonates perfectly at this difficult time in our history.

Jamal becomes the unlikely winningest-ever contestant on India's version of the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and as he recounts the story behind his story in flashbacks, we see -- in the glare of the literal spotlight -- the stark contrast between the love of money and the love of other.

Jamal has nothing. He suffers for love. He struggles not for wealth, but for connection -- to the people he loves, to the destiny he believes God has written for him, a destiny ultimately beyond his control.

Sure, 20 million rupees would help make his physical life a whole lot easier, but without love, he still would have nothing. It sounds trite, but there was a soul-moving truth to the story Boyle tells in Slumdog, one that has connected with millions of moviegoers who themselves are struggling with money, meaning, connection, and what really matters in life.

Rather than anything he could have hoped to plan for along the way, it is the seemingly insignificant details of life that pave his road to riches (spiritual, romantic, and otherwise). As the intricate plot unfolded, I thought of something the writer Frederick Buechner said: "All moments are key moments."

The briefest of conversations. A chance encounter. Just a glimpse of something ultimately can wind up being the key to everything.

This economic-shame spiral we're living through is an opportunity for a kind of spiritual winnowing. When we have less, when we lose what we think we can't live without, we have a choice: We can focus on what was lost, or on what we have.

We're being pared down, as a society, as a people. The majority of us will have to make do materially with a lot less than what we're comfortable with, and that can be frightening. Or ... it can be enlightening. Liberating, even.

The love of money is the cause of many problems in our world.

The love of other is the greatest commandment and, it would seem, the solution.

No matter how the game is played, love wins.


Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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