Slumdog Millionaire: Jamal’s Outhouse Escape

I can’t decide if Slumdog is the saddest Happy Movie I’ve ever seen, or the other way ’round. The genius of Danny Boyle’s squalid little love story is that it’s probably both; it constantly slaps you in the face with the aggregate horror of life in the slums of Mumbai and Bombay, even as it gently nurtures a vision of individual, indefatigable hope.

This is exemplified eleven minutes into the film, in a scene that plays as nightmare-comedy: young Jamal is trapped in an elevated outhouse by his impulsive, controlling older brother, and the only way out is… down. “Down” meaning “into the fetid cesspit below.” It’s an option Salim (the older brother) clearly doesn’t believe Jamal will accept. And who would? No matter how miserable your life might be, no matter what challenges you face, everything is worse when it’s covered in shit.

But this is Boyle’s opportunity to establish that his central character is different than the rest of us. Jamal’s movie-star hero is visiting the area only a few hundred yards away, and no amount of crap –figurative or literal– is too great an obstacle for his personal brand of devotion. He holds a well-worn, well-loved photo of the actor above his head, and drops fearlessly into the muck. When he emerges, covered head-to-toe in a viscous layer of leavings —oh God, it’s dripping into his eyes!— the effect is that of a negative-image baptism. As he receives a hard-won autograph from his idol, the joy in Jamal’s expression is only accentuated by the filth that shrouds it.

And that’s really what makes the latrine scene stand out for me: the way all the major points of the story are contained within it. Were its creators so inclined, the movie could end right there, with the audience knowing everything essential about the central characters and conflicts. It’s as if it’s the smallest cinematic matryoshka doll in a set that grows larger and more elaborate as Jamal’s heartbreaking losses and quiet triumphs mount. Or looked at a little differently, it’s the seed from which a grand pattern is derived, the Mandelbrot visualization of a life.

Fractal storytelling, I guess you could say.

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