Danny Boyle seems to have a thing for dreamers. Four years ago, he directed "Millions,'' a small but wondrous film about a 7-year-old English Catholic boy who talks to saints and comes upon a lot of money. Now, the British director is back with "Slumdog Millionaire,'' a fantastical yarn about an Indian Muslim boy who is inhabited by a driving sense of destiny and also flirts with a great sum of cash.
The film opens today in Boston; I'm leaving the reviews to the critics (the Globe's Ty Burr is giving it a perfect four stars) but as a religion writer, I'm intrigued by Boyle's dance with faith in film. Slumdog, which I've seen twice in screenings, is not about religion, but there are obvious religious overtones. The three main characters, brothers Jamal and Salim and their friend, Latika, are all Muslim children who are orphaned in a horrific anti-Muslim riot instigated by Hindu nationalists. In a classic Boyle touch, as the riot is unfolding, Jamal has a vision of an icon of a Hindu deity, Rama, who springs menacingly to life with a bow and arrow in hand; Jamal blames Rama for the most tragic event of his life. There are other explicit religious references -- Salim, in particular, seems to become more pious as he becomes more corrupt; he is seen at one point kneeling in prayer on a prayer rug, and at several key moments he utters "God is good,'' a rough translation of Allahu Akbar, the standard expression of praise by Muslims. But Islam is almost incidental in the film; religiosity is mostly suggested via Jamal's urgent, unrelenting, fatalism.
I called the director, Danny Boyle (above), to ask him about the film. Here's a partial transcript of our conversation:
Q: What's with the characters' use of the expression 'It is written'?
A: For the Western audience, it's kind of cute, romantic -- it's cute and lovely. But in India, it means something very different. It means something quite extraordinary -- that you have fulfilled your destiny. We think of destiny, and of things being fated, as quite passive. But not there. It's something you have to fulfill -- your destiny...We wanted to make it the driving force of the film. Jamal is determined. He's not just an underdog having a dream, but he believes so much that it is destined to be, and he will do anything to achieve it.
Q: What is the role of religion in the world of the film?
A: It's quite interesting. Religion there feels much wider than it is here. It's not just that there are so many gods (in Hinduism). It's the penetration of religion. It feels like it permeates life.
Q: Are you religious?
A: I was brought up Catholic, and kind of abandoned it. I admired the way they prayed (in India) to deities. It's difficult to explain in Western terms the way they approach it, but it is not through narrowness. We think of God in quite a narrow way, but they think of God in the spiritual part of your psyche, the spiritual side of life.
Q: What role does Jamal's Muslimness play?
A: It's very important in the beginning, because his mother is killed in a riot, a religious riot, prompted by right-wing Hindu nationalists. But, beyond that, their religion was just part of their lives in a very ordinary way.
Q: Do you see similarities between the Muslim boy in this film and the Catholic boy in Millions?
A: There's a dreamer in both of them, whose dedication to his imagination is more important than the tactile stuff.
I was struck by the presence of Muslim protagonists in a film that is not about terrorism, and I was interested to note that the religious affiliation of the characters is not mentioned in the publicity material for the film or in much of the press coverage to date. But Muslim critics are paying attention; over at altmuslim, for example, Wajahat Ali enthuses, "I must point out that Jamal, the protagonist, is a sweet hearted and resourceful Muslim Indian boy who never once commits terrorism or a religiously motivated act of violence. Hallelujah! Furthermore, a really good-looking girl, his beloved Latika, actually fancies him without duress or coercion - what a welcomed rarity!"
Christian critics have focused on Jamal's (and Boyle's?) insistent hopefulness. In a rapturous review in Christianity Today, Brandon Fibbs writes, "Boyle infuses all of his films with a haunting spirituality, seen as plainly and overtly in Millions as in his elegant zombie movie, 28 Days Later. Each of his stories operates as vehicles to steer us closer to a worldview fired by shameless optimism." And the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (which recommends the film for adults) says of the film, "Though harrowing at times, director Danny Boyle's sweeping panorama of Third-World life -- adapted from Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup's novel 'Q & A' -- is ultimately hopeful, stressing the dignity of the underprivileged and the primacy of spiritual over material values...As the portrait of a man who encounters evil in many forms yet remains fundamentally innocent, and who gains wisdom from all he endures, 'Slumdog Millionaire' is an exhilarating celebration of humane values."
(Photo, by Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures, shows Danny Boyle at the Taj Mahal.)