Study Guide

Slumdog Millionaire Analysis

  • The Color Yellow

    When you think of yellow, what do you think of? Maybe the sun. Maybe butter melting on a stack of fluffy pancakes. Maybe sunflowers. Maybe school buses.

    Our point is this: yellow is a pretty dang happy color. If you're feeling depressed in the middle of January, wearing a bright yellow sweater will probably perk you right up. There are very few times in life when the sight of something yellow is going to make you think "Oh deary me," unless you're being chased by a huge, demonic Pac Man.

    And when we picture Latika, the first thing that comes to mind is that iconic image of her standing in the bustling train station, her golden yellow clothing shining through the multitudes of people. This image comes from Jamal's viewpoint; this is what he sees when he thinks of Latika. In fact, throughout the film we get it ground into our collective brainpans that yellow = Latika. When we're introduced to Latika as a child, she's wearing yellow—a pale yellow dress.

    And because this film is set in India, it's worth noting that the symbolic associations of yellow in India are even—if this is possible—more cheery than in the US of A. In India, yellow is associated with healing (Latika sure heals Jamal's aching heart), holiness (she's definitely pure and good), and the spice turmeric, which is used as a beauty aid (although Latika doesn't need any aid in the beauty department). (Source)

    But Latika isn't always decked out in buttercup-hued clothing.

    In the middle of the film, when Jamal and Salim find her in the red-light district, she wears a green dress. The color green has associations of nature and new beginning in India—Latika is being outfitted in a pine-colored sari because she's being paraded around as a super valuable virgin. She's being presented as a super-gross manifestation of a "new beginning." (Source)

    Yet in this moment she's shrouded in a golden yellow light, a reflection of the way Jamal still sees her.

    Later, when Jamal meets Latika in Javed's compound, she is wearing expensive, but colorless clothes. Perhaps this absence of color suggests her loss of passion as a captive of Javed. Yet when she goes to meet Jamal in the train station, Latika is wearing that iconic yellow top, a radiant source of light in the bustling crowd.

    The inclusion of this visual motif is no coincidence. As costume designer Suttirat Larlarb explains, the decision to dress Latika in yellow arose from the need to make her stand out in a massive group of people. (Source)

    Yellow clothing, y'all: practical, eye-catching, and symbolic of holy healing.

  • Stacks Of Cash

    No brainer, right? Stacks o' cash can only mean one thing: total bliss.

    Eeeeeep. Wrong answer, folks. Making it rain in Slumdog Millionaire is shorthand for greed, violence, and sacrifice.

    The opening of Slumdog Millionaire consists of a series of images, flashing on the screen briefly before fading into the shadows. Among the more prominent images that appear in this sequence is money—a pair of hands tossing around thousands of 1,000 rupee notes into a bathtub. As the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire introduces our hero Jamal Malik on the show, the image of this cash recurs.

    Money clearly plays an important role in Slumdog Millionaire because it directly ties to the story's central plot device: the game show. But the real-deal significance of these initial images of cash money doesn't become clear until the end of the film, when we discover the owner of those rainmaking hands: Salim.

    With the help of some crafty editing, Jamal's victory on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire parallels Salim's sacrifice, as the elder brother makes his last stand against Javed in the bathtub full of 1,000 rupee notes. Oh yeah: and this death occurs while the entire country celebrates the younger brother's success. In this contrast, as the end of the film echoes the beginning, we see the true cost of wealth and power.

  • The Three Musketeers

    Slumdog Millionaire makes frequent shout-outs—or allusions, as we call them in the literary biz—to French writer Alexandre Dumas' classic story of The Three Musketeers.

    Early on in the film, we see Jamal and Salim as youngsters arriving late to school, where their classmates are reading Three Musketeers. Their teacher admonishes the brothers for their tardiness, calling them "Athos" and "Porthos," "our very own musketeers."

    Later on, following the riots and the death of their mother, Jamal and Salim meet Latika. Jamal suggests that Latika could become their "third musketeer," despite Salim's protests. Sure enough, Latika joins their team, and the three musketeers develop a strong bond… until Maman captures them, altering the course of their lives forever.

    The Three Musketeers returns for one last encore in the movie's climax, in the form of Jamal's final question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In a moment of irony, Jamal is asked the name of the third musketeer, after Athos and Porthos—a piece of information that Jamal never actually learned.

    (We at Shmoop think the moral of this film is to read Dumas… but our Lit Nerd-itis could just be flaring up again.)

    Jamal's able to speak with Latika, the third musketeer herself, via the phone-a-friend lifeline, but she doesn't know the answer either. (Again: if you get a literary nickname, learn the origin of your dang literary nickname. You'd want to know what was up if, for example, someone started calling you "The Prince of Denmark.")

    But Latika's lack of lit knowledge doesn't faze Jamal. He's happy just knowing she's a-okay. Confident that his third musketeer is safely free, Jamal guesses the correct answer: Aramis.

    In addition to being a clever motif that eventually brings us full circle in a serendipitous and satisfying resolution, the allusions to The Three Musketeers shows us the camaraderie shared between Jamal, Salim, and Latika—much like Athos, Porthos, and Aramis of Dumas' tale.

    But because we can't just take an allusion to a great French novel without unpacking it, we're going to look at the characters of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

    We know that a parallel is drawn between Aramis and Latika—so who's this Aramis guy? Well, he's basically a charmed dude. Aramis, like Latika, is effortlessly good at most things. And, like Latika, he's portrayed as virtuous.

    That brings us to Porthos, Salim's Dumasian counterpart. Porthos is a braggart. He's obsessed with status. He wants to be rich. Sounds like Salim, right? But when it comes right down to it, Porthos, like Salim, is a stand-up guy and willing to sacrifice a lot for his fellow Musketeers.

    Finally, we have Athos… or, as we like to call him, Old French Jamal. Athos is wise, knowledgeable, and totally honorable. He's also hopelessly in love with a woman he's been parted from. A familiar character? We thought so, too.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    For many of us in the audience, there is little that's "ordinary" about Jamal's world. Growing up in the hectic, teeming slums of Mumbai, however, our hero certainly has his routine—even if that routine consists mainly of skipping school to play cricket on the airport tarmac.

    Call To Adventure

    Jamal's life is turned upside down with the death of his mother in the Bombay riots, as he's forced onto the open road with his older brother Salim. Shortly thereafter, they find Latika.

    Refusal Of The Call

    When Maman captures Jamal, Salim, and Latika, things look dire. But Jamal and Salim are able to escape—just without Latika. Jamal has to make the difficult decision to forget about Latika. However, in order to survive, he has to press on.

    Meeting The Mentor

    There's no specific guide or mentoring figure who appears to help Jamal in his journey; instead all Jamal has is Salim, as the brothers learn to scrape, scrounge, and hustle their way to survival.

    Crossing The Threshold

    The course of Jamal's life is forever changed when he makes the decision to find Latika. With Salim's help, he is successful, as they defeat the first threshold guardian, Maman. However, the joyous reunion with Latika doesn't last long.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Salim emerges as an enemy, threatening Jamal and absconding with Latika. Jamal's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire questions in the present day timeline frame these past events, as he learns each answer through a different event in his quest to find Latika.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    After several years, Jamal is able to locate Salim once again, which means he's one step closer to finding Latika. Meanwhile in the present, Jamal closes in on the million-dollar question.

    Ordeal

    In confronting Salim, Jamal finally faces the primary antagonist to our hero's pursuit: the brother who betrayed him.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    From the information Salim gives, Jamal is able to deduce that Latika is being held in Javed's compound. Jamal successfully infiltrates this fortress and finds her. Though she urges him to leave, for his safety as much as her own, he tells her that he will wait for her every day at the train station until she escapes.

    The Road Back

    Much to Jamal's surprise, Latika arrives at the station, ready to leave with him. But Salim and a number of Javed's henchmen appear at the last moment to take her away, despite Latika's frantic attempts to escape. Jamal, with nowhere else to turn, decides to become a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as a last-ditch effort to find Latika.

    Resurrection

    Jamal, against all odds, fights his way to the million-dollar question, as our past and present storylines converge. After speaking with Latika on the "phone a friend" lifeline, and learning that she is safe, Jamal answers the final question successfully, winning the show.

    Return With The Elixir

    Jamal and Latika are at long last reunited; "Jai Ho" plays as they dance together in the train station in classic Bollywood style, an ecstatic expression of their love.

  • Setting

    Mumbai, India: Circa 1992-2006

    The setting of Slumdog Millionaire is unmistakable; India is practically its own character in this story. The frenetic pace and the vibrant colors are all distinctly Indian.

    Virtually all of the film's action takes place in Mumbai (except for a brief foray east to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal), and this rapidly modernizing massive city of over eighteen million people contains both extravagant wealth and destitute poverty. Slumdog Millionaire is something of a rags-to-riches story, and from the squalor of the Juhu slums, to slumlord Javed Khan's high-rises, we see both extremes.

  • Point of View

    Many times when a movie is adapted from a novel, a lot of the original structure gets left out. Dangerous Liaisons (and the '90s kitschy classic Cruel Intentions) omitted the epistolary awesomeness of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Jumanji takes huge liberties adapting the book Jumanji… including adding color (the kid's book was in creepy black and white).

    But when Danny Boyle & Co. adapted Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A into Slumdog Millionaire, they maintained the ambitious narrative style of the original text. As in Q&A, the film focuses on protagonist Jamal's appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, using the questions he receives in the present to explore the story of his past. Like Swarup, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and D. Boyle weave together these two separate timelines into one seamless plot.

    Given this complex, non-linear chronology, the game show serves as something of a frame story, anchoring the narrative with a creative and compelling backbone, enabling us to explore these pivotal moments in Jamal's past.

  • Genre

    Drama; Romance

    Slumdog Millionaire is most easily classified as a drama. (This movie sure ain't a fun-filled romp about richie riches playing polo and eating shrimp cocktail, after all.) The narrative wrestles with numerous challenging themes, like poverty, violence, morality, and loss of innocence, as our main characters face incredible conflict and strive to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

    Oof. That sounds heavy, doesn't it? But don't worry. Not only does the throbbing, M.I.A.-infused soundtrack take away from the weight of the Big Issues, but there's a totally swoon-worthy love story at the center of Slumdog.

    The romance between Jamal and Latika is the pounding heart that drives the action forward, and gives our characters hope when all is lost. The narrative draws to a close when the two are safely reunited and their destiny together finally realized.

    Finally, after so many struggles, these two crazy kids are free to lead a massive Bollywood dance party in the middle of a train station. (As you do.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Hoo-boy. These two little words have caused a big old stir in the worlds of cinema and human rights… as well as raising questions about plain politeness.

    The title Slumdog Millionaire, catchy as it may be, has stirred up no shortage of controversy. Some have argued that the term "slumdog"—and indeed the film as a whole—is dehumanizing and demeaning to slum residents.
    (Source)

    It's been claimed that this film is a sort of "slum voyeurism," or "poverty porn," and that the slum residents are being exploited by the filmmakers and producers for the sake of turning profit.
    (Source)

    Director Danny Boyle responded to this criticism, explaining that the intent of the title wasn't to degrade and disparage slum residents, but rather to emphasize the "underdog" aspect of the story. Either way, it's hard to argue that the title isn't both memorable and descriptive, totally underlining the rags-to-riches aspect of the film. It also sounded pretty good rolling off Steven Spielberg's tongue after winning Best Picture at the Oscars.
    (Source)

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Slumdog Millionaire's iconic finale is nothing if not memorable.

    Sure it comes a little bit out of nowhere; one minute Jamal and Latika are sharing a tender moment in an empty train station—a much deserved moment of peace after they're safely reunited—and the next they're leading a sprawling throng of extras in a full-blown, raucous Bollywood dance number.

    You might think that an ending like that couldn't possibly be divisive… but you'd be wrong. Slumdog Millionaire was super-polarizing, from start to busting-moves-in-a-train-depot ending.

    Some people have criticized this ending, seeing it as a jarring switch from the tranquil tenderness of the final scene, and a shameless attempt to force a commercial feel-good resolution. (Source)

    Others totally praise this sequence for its ability to capture the celebratory spirit and effervescence of the city and culture of Mumbai, and as a tip of the hat to Bollywood blockbusters…which never skimp on elaborately orchestrated song and dance. (Source)

    Regardless of how you feel about the ending, though, you're probably going to have a hard time getting "Jai Ho" out of your head. And by "have a hard time" we mean "have fun whistling it in the shower for the next twenty years."

  • Shock Rating

    PG-13

    The film was actually rated R by the MPAA upon release, but we think that's being a wee bit harsh.

    Don't get us wrong: this movie is not what you want to watch with your five-year-old niece. But there's no real blood or gore. Then there's some language, but nothing you wouldn't hear outside of a middle school. And instead of a bow-chicka-bow-bow finale with the two lovebirds, we get a very family friendly dance in a train station.

    We'd say though that above all else, Slumdog Millionaire is an inspiring, feel-good story, one that is uplifting and empowering enough to show the whole fam. (Well, everyone who's at least thirteen.)