Art Imitates Life for "Slumdog" Professor

Boaz Johnson in a Mumbai slum

Boaz Johnson is a professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He shares his reflections on the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” his own life, and the meaning of Lent.

CHICAGO, IL (March 20, 2009) – I watched the recent Oscars with a lot of interest. A movie depicting life in one of the slums of Mumbai, India, was supposed to be the clear favorite this year. (The movie, “Slumdog Millionaire” had already won four Golden Globes.) I also watched the Oscars, because the movie reminded me of my childhood days. I was raised in one of the slums of New Delhi. I remember being called a slumdog.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is based on a book written by Vikas Swarup entitled Q & A. The film version depicts the life of three kids raised in one of the sprawling slums of Mumbai—Jamal, Salim, and Latika. It centers on the life of 18-year-old Jamal seeking to win a million rupees in the Indian version of the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It weaves the story of Jamal’s life from his childhood days to the present.

It is a horribly sad story. Many have told me that they were not able to watch the whole movie. Some had to walk out. It depicts the horror of child abuse; the blinding and maiming of children by greedy high-caste slumlords; and the prostitution of young girls. It is a very hard movie to watch.

But, I can attest to the fact that it is reality. I have seen much of that happen in the slum where I was raised.

Many Indian film critics have given the movie poor reviews. One critic, Arindam Chaudhuri, wrote in the Times of India on February 2 that “’Slumdog Millionaire’ is a phony poseur that has been made only to mock India for the viewing pleasure of the First World.”

I ask of people like Mr. Chaudhuri, “Is it really viewing pleasure? Or is it viewing horror and displeasure?”

The movie shows a very broken and complex world. One, the high-caste Hindus have enslaved and mistreated low-caste Hindus for hundreds of years. This is not a new problem. High-caste Hindus form 12 percent of the population; outcastes, 22 percent; and low-castes 52 percent. Two, there has been animosity between Hindus and Muslims for decades. Three kids are caught in the middle of this horrible world. Jamal and Salim, both brothers, are Muslims. They have seen their mother brutally killed.

They are smart kids, but all of them become entangled in this dirty underworld. Salim, the older brother, gets pulled by greed into world of the enslavers. Jamal escapes, but only barely. Latika, a low-caste Hindu orphan, is forced to sexual servitude.

Yet Hollywood, as it always does so well, sweeps the complexity of this brokenness under the rug. I have often thought about the complexity of the issues faced by the slums of India. Are there any answers?

I searched in various religions. Finally, I found the answer in the incarnate one—Jesus the Messiah. It seems appropriate for me to reflect on this a little, in the light of this season of Lent. Jesus the Messiah is God incarnate. He became human to live with the outcaste, low-caste, and the downtrodden. He died on the cross, and rose from the dead, to redeem everyone enslaved of this world.

I am witness to this act of redemption. I have seen this transformation take place in my life, and have also seen it take place in several slums of India. The answer is not in the final love song of “Slumdog Millionaire.” It is in the love song of the Suffering One— Jesus, the slumdog Messiah.