Photo above by Humayunn N A Peerzaada

Slumdog Millionaire, a film just nominated this week for 10 Oscars, is about more than a quiz show; it’s a journey through India that raises existential questions about fate and chance.

At the core of Slumdog Millionaire is the question: Have our lives already been written before us, or do we ultimately influence our destiny? The answers to the question unfold against a vibrant and colorful, but often raw geographical and human landscape in which India is as much a character as the protagonist, Jamal.

At last week’s Golden Globes, director Danny Boyle (whose past work includes The Beach , a polarizing film amongst travelers), picked up the best drama and best director awards for his tale of Indian slum dweller Jamal Malik, who finds himself one question away from winning the TV quiz show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”

Photo above by babasteve

But before possibly walking away with the prize money, the nation’s hearts, and even the love of his life, Jamal has to endure torture at the hands of Mumbai’s brutal police, who believe he cheated at the game. The suspicious inspector asks, “How could a slumdog know the answers to those questions?”

The answer: Destiny.

“I knew I’d find you in the end. It’s our destiny.”

Under interrogation, Jamal tells the inspector his incredible life story. None of the young boy’s experiences from childhood to this moment, sitting handcuffed in a chair, are of his own doing. In fact, all Jamal ever did was simply survive as life propelled him from one life threatening or life affirming experience to the next. As we come to realise, though, there was greater meaning to it all.

Underlying the story of Jamal’s life are questions that affect us all: Are our lives really mapped out for us? Does everything happen for a reason? Surely our lives aren’t pre-determined; we shape them through our decisions. Choice, not chance…right?

These are questions with particular resonance for travelers, who know that the momentary decision to go one way or the other will change one’s journey– and even one’s life–and nothing is likely to be the same again. We can’t leave such meaningful decisions to the heavens; we’re in control. Or are we?

Photo above by Meanest Indian

A Nation of Apparent Contradictions

You’ll ponder these questions throughout Jamal’s story, but the real subtext of this film is India. Danny Boyle’s visceral film-making drops you right into the streets. Filming hand-held, guerrilla style, on location, Boyle conveys the the beauty and extremes of India–from dilapidated Mumbai shantytowns and endless garbage-strewn landfills to exhilarating train journeys and colorful mass riverside laundrettes– in an intimate way.

‘You don’t take [Mumbai] for granted, ” Boyle said in an interview promoting the film. “You know nothing about how it assaults your senses. For a dynamic film-maker like myself, it’s everything I could ever want.”

That “everything” includes characters. By setting Jamal and his narrative among the country’s lowlifes, degenerates, innocents, and angels, Boyle ensures that Jamal’s experiences shock and inspire viewers in equal measure.

“I think one of the reasons the film seems to work for people is that it is very extreme,” Boyle said. “That’s what they have there. You’ve got to portray it as an extreme experience. Everything is full-on.”

“It’s a tough place! There’s a lot of poor people living there leading very tough lives. You’ve got portray that accurately. There are beggars who have been crippled deliberately to make them better beggars. You’ve got to get your head around that.”

“You get it rougher in India at the moment,” concluded Boyle, Empire. “….[I]t allows you to tell a story like this.”

Photo above by AshuGarg

Final Answer?

Beyond raising questions of destiny and beautifully portraying Mumbai’s darker side, “Slumdog Millionaire” is also likely to help travelers reflect on their own experiences of India.