Jamal Malik is the undisputed protagonist and hero of Slumdog Millionaire. You don't even get to argue on this one.
The dude's by no means the biggest, baddest, hunkiest, or even the most charismatic leading man we've ever seen—but he's a hero nonetheless. In fact, director Danny Boyle has explained that British actor Dev Patel was cast in the role of Jamal exactly because he wasn't a stereotypical, macho male movie star… a type that is especially common in Indian cinema.
But don't take our word for it. Take Latika's. She says:
LATIKA: You're a sweet boy, Jamal.
Not "hawt." Not "magnetic." Not "tortured, but in a sexy way." He's sweet.
So, in many ways Jamal really is an average guy. But we think that's kind of what makes him so appealing.
Of course, this isn't to say that Jamal doesn't have anything going for him. To the contrary, Jamal is a pretty exceptional human.
For starters, he's as humble as they come, never succumbing to the temptations of money and power (unlike a good chunk of the other characters in Slumdog Millionaire, as well as the entirety of the human race). Prem, Javed, and Salim—at least until the end—are obsessed with attaining and maintaining wealth and status. And each, in seeing Jamal as a threat to their power, attempt to bring him down.
But Jamal's motivations were never about pursuing fame and fortune. He went on the game show not to become a millionaire, or a celebrity, but simply because he "thought Latika would be watching." The twenty million-rupee jackpot was just icing on the cake, proving that good things come to those who truly deserve them… and those who think that l'amour conquers all.
Plus, Jamal's remarkably chivalrous and extraordinarily brave—he's willing to risk everything for Latika. Time and time again, Jamal puts his life on the line to try to rescue his loved one, from the first moment he invites her in to share his shelter, to his bold attempts to help her escape from the clutches of Javed. "I will wait for you, everyday," he tells her, knowing full well the danger of this game plan. We know he isn't kidding.
But if there's one thing we know about Jamal, it is that he's tougher that just about everyone gives him credit for—just ask Constable Srinivas, who spends all night torturing him without even learning so much as his name.
To say that he's "determined" to achieve whatever goal he sets his mind is pretty much the understatement of the century. Whether he's trying to get the autograph of his favorite movie star (while covered in some pretty nasty doo-doo) or tracking down the love of his life, he's got his eyes on the prize.
And he's also about as clever and resourceful as they come, using his quick thinking and ingenuity to get out of trouble (as well as getting cash money for gullible European tourists):
EUROPEAN TOURIST: It says nothing of this in the guidebook.
JAMAL: The guidebook was written by a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing Indian beggars.
Yup: Jamal keeps on keepin' on when the odds are stacked against him. When are the odds stacked against him? Um, pretty much always.
Oh yeah: and there's also the teensy weensy detail that he was born into staggering poverty and orphaned at an age when most people are still learning to read, all while growing up in a world where both the mafia and police prey on folks like him just because they can.
In this sense, the character of Jamal (and the movie as a whole) helps put into perspective the realities of those living in destitute poverty, the impossible challenges, the violence, the exploitation, and the heartbreak that millions of people around the world face on a daily basis.
So Jamal, despite not being as hunky as Michael Fassbender or as ripped as Sly Stallone, is pretty exceptional. In fact, he enthralls and inspires an entire country with his victory on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?"
But here's where it gets a bit more complicated: despite all these noble qualities, do we still sympathize with Jamal in his quest?
Jamal is certainly a romantic, never doubting for a moment that it is his destiny to wind up with Latika:
LATIKA: You came back for me.
JAMAL: Of course.
LATIKA: I thought you'd forgotten.
JAMAL: I'd never forget. Not for one moment. I knew I'd find you in the end. It's our destiny.
And his unwavering belief in destiny has more to do with his own deep-seated sense of idealism than his faith, which is severely shaken after the death of his mother in the Bombay riots. In other words, his belief is 100% Jamal, which is usually a pretty awesome thing to have in a protagonist: we're all suckers for heroes that follow their heart above all else.
But there are a few questions brought up by Jamal's unwavering optimism… and not all of them are pretty.
Does Jamal naively endanger himself and his loved ones in this unrelenting pursuit of his perceived destiny? Sure, he's vindicated by the movie's fairy tale ending; he's successful in his goal of reuniting with Latika, and they're presumably free to live out their destiny together. But in his wholehearted dedication to this "destiny," was he at all selfish, stupid, and naïve? Or did he just have nothing left to lose?
The happy ending of Slumdog Millionaire totally emphasizes Jamal's many admirable qualities. And regardless of how we really feel about our hero, it's impossible to deny that he has accomplished more in his few years on earth than most folks accomplish in a lifetime—all while facing unfathomable hardship.
Jamal's a genuine underdog, and it is not hard to find at least a little bit of inspiration in his story. We just hope the rest of his life with Latika can be a little more relaxing than the first part.
In Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A (which Slumdog Millionaire is based on) there's no Latika. The protagonist simply recounts his life story, in a series of largely unrelated vignettes, explaining how he came to know the answer to each question he encountered on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
But screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has explained that he created the character of Latika to bring to his adaptation a certain continuity that the novel lacked, using a love story to anchor the plot. And the inclusion of Latika is essential to the film; Slumdog Millionaire simply wouldn't be Slumdog Millionaire without its magnetic muse. (Source)
We catch our first glimpse of Latika in the opening minutes of the film. She's a radiant blast of color and light amidst the hustle and bustle (and drabness) of the train station. From this moment, however brief, Latika has captured our imagination; Jamal can't seem to shake that image of her, and neither can we.
Though we don't know for certain, Latika was probably orphaned in the Bombay riots, much like Jamal and Salim. And given their similar age and experiences, the "three musketeers" develop a tight bond, working together to survive on their own – that is until they meet Maman. When Jamal and Salim are able to successfully escape from the gangster, but Latika is recaptured, it appears that their roads have split for good.
As the story then focuses on Jamal and Salim for the next several years of their lives, we don't know for certain what happens to Latika. But when Jamal decides to return to Mumbai to find her, he learns that she has become Maman's "prized possession." Ooh. That doesn't sound good.
Known by the name of "Cherry," it is implied that Latika has been kept a virgin to increase her value for her eventual sale into prostitution. (Yeesh.) Jamal and Salim are able to find and escape with Latika, but the reunion doesn't last long, as Salim, now jacked up on testosterone from killing Maman, decides that it's his turn to take ownership of Latika.
After this moment, we lose track of Latika all over again. But through some crafty sleuthing, Jamal's able to hunt her down, discovering that she is now a trophy of slumlord Javed Khan. When the two are finally able to meet in Javed's compound, Latika is incredibly reluctant to leave with Jamal, explaining that "it is too late," and that Jamal has to forget about her.
But it's clear that this decision has more to do with Javed's ruthlessness—"he'll kill us both," Latika says—than her feelings for her childhood friend.
Despite her concerns, she attempts to escape anyway… although her plan is thwarted by Salim, who runs her down and captures her in the train station. For this transgression, she receives a pretty nasty cut on her cheek.
It isn't until the end of the film that she's able to escape a second time—this time successfully, thanks to Salim, who, in a change of heart, gives Latika his car keys and cell phone and tells her to go after Jamal:
SALIM: Go. Just drive. There won't be another chance.
LATIKA: He will kill you.
SALIM: I'll take care of him.
Thanks to his sacrifice, Latika is able to escape captivity once and for all. As a result, Latika and Jamal are finally able to reunite safely, and live out their lives together in peace.
Okay, we'll say it; plot-wise Latika really doesn't do that much. She doesn't even get that much screen time. She spends most of the story essentially in captivity, getting tossed around from one obnoxious slumlord to the next, so Jamal can have something to do for most of the movie in tracking her down.
In this sense, her character has been criticized as a damsel in distress, lacking any real agency of her own: she's merely waiting for her knight and shining armor to rescue her:
LATIKA: You came back for me.
JAMAL: Of course.
LATIKA: I thought you'd forgotten.
JAMAL: I'd never forget. Not for one moment. I knew I'd find you in the end. It's our destiny.
Oh yeah, and let's address the other elephant in the room; she is the only major female character in the movie. In fact, she's the only female character who shows up for more than three scenes. There's Jamal's mother, who barely makes it fifteen minutes into the film. There's that one producer on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, who speaks literally one word. And then there's Latika. That's it.
But maybe there is more to Latika than we're giving her credit for. She's faced unconscionable hardship in her life, but has managed to persist and survive all the same. As a young girl, she is sexualized and objectified, exploited and abused. And as she grew into womanhood, those realities only intensified. In this sense, Jamal, nor Salim, could have any idea what she has gone through.
And that's where the tough cookie part of Latika's character begins to show: she might have used her sexuality to her advantage, using what little agency she had to create a relatively safe and comfortable life for herself… even if it is among brutal gangsters. Maybe her character really embodies quiet strength and perseverance rather than powerlessness and passivity.
So is Latika yet another example of a token love interest with no mind or agency of her own, simply a prop to push the plot forward? Or is she actually one of the toughest characters in the entire story, showing remarkable strength and perseverance in the face of repeated abuse and exploitation and using what power she has as a woman to survive?
You could certainly make a case either way. But it's difficult to argue against the fact that Latika's presence, however limited, infuses in Slumdog Millionaire a certain passion and emotional richness… as well as making the movie super-duper romantic and warm fuzzies-inducing.
It's safe to say that Jamal Malik is the undisputed hero of Slumdog Millionaire. But you could make a pretty dang convincing case that it isn't Jamal, but rather his older brother, Salim Malik, who's the most dynamic and interesting character the story has to offer.
He's complex. He's conflicted. His motivations are unclear. And where pretty much everyone else in the story falls into pretty clear categories of "good" and "bad," or "sympathetic" and "unsympathetic," Salim is hard to pigeonhole.
For starters, Salim occupies a variety of character roles in the film. These include protector and mentor to his little brother, Jamal, as well as the primary antagonist in Jamal's quest. In this sense, perhaps Salim best fits the archetype "shapeshifter,"
as the skeptic whose role is to "question and deceive," adding a healthy dose of cloudiness to the plot. Sure enough, Salim's motivations are often murky, and there are times when he both hinders and helps the protagonist.
Because of this ambiguity, it's pretty difficult to write off Salim simply as "bad" or "evil." Though he commits some pretty horrible acts throughout the film (especially to his loved ones), and works on the behalf of some seriously despicable people, we can tell that his heart is in the right place… sometimes.
As the elder brother, he feels a certain responsibility to protect Jamal following the death of their mother. This commitment is clear in certain moments, like when he saves Jamal from being blinded by Maman.
If we dig into the relationship between the brothers, we learn a lot. Salim clearly sees Jamal as naïve and reckless—a romantic through and through—while as the elder, he has to be the responsible one. Salim probably sells the Amitabh Bachchan autograph to get back at Jamal, after Jamal's folly (or, um, constipation) costs them a customer at the latrines.
But even from this young age, his philosophy is clear: you have to take what you can whenever you can. There is no room in this dog-eat-dog world for foolish idealists like Jamal.
But it's very possible that he's jealous of his goody-two shoes little brother, because compassion and humility come easy for little ol' Jamal. When young Jamal first spots Latika outside their shelter, Salim explains that given his authority as "the elder in this family now," he doesn't want another person to join their group:
JAMAL: She could be the third musketeer!
SALIM: I'm the elder in this family now, and I say she's not coming in, okay? In any case, we don't even know the name of the third bloody musketeer.
His stance is pragmatic; it's likely hard enough for two orphans to survive on their own, let alone three.
But he doesn't protest when eventually Jamal invites Latika in from the rain. This exchange illustrates Jamal's natural generosity, but it also shows that under Salim's tough exterior, he has a heart.
As the story progresses, though, it is probable that Salim becomes jealous of Jamal's relationship with Latika. He does some pretty petty and hurtful stuff to both of them— mainly demanding to be alone with Latika, and drunkenly threatening to kill Jamal when he fights back.
"Go now, or gun master-ji will shoot you right between the eyes," he scoffs, his Colt .45 aimed squarely at his brother's head. The fight stops only when Latika accepts her fate, lowers Salim's gun, and tells Jamal to go. Knowing full well that Jamal is head over heels in love with Latika, Salim breaks the pair up perhaps for the sole reason of spiting his younger brother.
Later, when the two brothers finally reunite, Jamal explains that he can never forgive Salim for what he did that day. Salim can hardly blame him. "I know," he whispers, his feelings of remorse clear. Afterwards, Salim offers to let Jamal crash at his pad for a while.
But their relationship sours once again when Jamal attempts to run away with Latika. Salim returns Latika to Javed, and at this point it seems that the relationship between the two brothers is completely beyond repair. Which leads us, of course, to the ending—and one of the most hotly debated issues in the entire film.
Soon after recapturing Latika, Salim changes direction so fast it would impress Allen Iverson. He decides to give Latika his car keys and cell phone, telling her to go after Jamal, simply explaining that he will "take care" of Javed. Salim brushes back Latika's hair to reveal the scar from the henchmen, saying:
"And for what I have done, please forgive me."
Latika and Salim both know full well that in this decision, he's going to his death.
Salim offers no clear explanation for this super-dramatic change of heart. It's possible that he finally just realizes the error of his ways, and wants to finally do the right thing for Latika and Jamal. Maybe he realizes that because of his many immoral choices, his own life is a lost cause, and the only thing left to do is to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
It's even possible that he found religion during his time working for Javed, and is seeking atonement for his many sins. His memorable last words—"God is great"—definitely suggest this.
It's Salim's final sacrifice that allows for the resolution of conflict in the story, and for Jamal and Latika to finally be together in peace. But does this final act redeem Salim in our eyes? Or is it too little, too late?
By the end of the film, the deeply conflicted character of Salim certainly leaves us with more questions than answers. But in a movie defined by duality—full of stark contrasts between good and evil, poverty and wealth, destiny and free will, righteousness and injustice —Salim reminds us that there is a lot of morally grey area in the world.
The universe can only be divided into such extremes in fairy tales. For better or for worse, Salim grounds us in reality.
We love to hate on Prem Kumar, the slimy host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Prem appears suave and charismatic enough: he's the ideal game show host. Yet there's something strangely unsettling about him—there's something plastic in his grin and something artificial in his charm.
Just check out this awkward exchange:
PREM: It's getting hot in here!
JAMAL: Are you nervous?
PREM: What? Am I nervous? It's you who's in the hot seat, my friend.
JAMAL: Oh, yes, sorry!
Prem's clearly trying to make Jamal nervous… but Jamal is one cool customer.
Prem's true colors, however, aren't revealed until the final act of the film. In a commercial break, during the second to last question, the host drops in on Jamal in the bathroom. After Jamal reveals that he doesn't know the answer to this challenging question, Prem assures him that he will win; "maybe it's written, my friend," he smiles. Of course, as we know, Prem writes the wrong answer in steam on the bathroom mirror. Thankfully Jamal sees right through the two-faced host.
At this point we understand Prem to be an enemy to Jamal, conspiring to stop our hero in his quest. Prem's identity as a truly scummy dude, though, is sealed when he gets Jamal arrested on suspicion of cheating, a last ditch effort to bring down Jamal. And when Jamal returns to the show after proving his innocence to the police, Prem has to pretend like nothing happened—he's been beaten at his own game by this young upstart from Mumbai.
Of course, adding to Prem's complexity is the fact that he actually has a similar life story to Jamal. He reveals that like our hero, he too comes from poverty, like Jamal going from "slumdog" to millionaire over night. Prem has pulled himself up from nothing, achieving tremendous wealth, power, and influence. And in his attempts to take down Jamal, he makes it clear that he'll cling to this newfound status however he can.
In this sense, Prem can be seen as a foil to Jamal—the embodiment of the road Jamal chooses not to go down. As the game show host, Prem is the literal gatekeeper to the tremendous wealth Jamal could win.
But where Prem has been corrupted, Jamal, given his more noble intentions, won't succumb to the same temptations. The irony of course is that Jamal went on the show not to win 20 million rupees, but merely to find Latika. Though in the Indian public's complete and total support of Jamal, the message is clear; it's time for Prem to move aside, because there's a new sheriff in town.
Assigned to the task of investigating how Jamal cheated on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the unnamed Police Inspector accompanies us on our journey through Jamal's unbelievable life story.
He's businesslike, pragmatic, and, at first, extremely skeptical of Jamal. He's also pretty condescending, immediately judging Jamal as nothing more than a stupid, untrustworthy poor kid:
INSPECTOR: What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?
But as Jamal reveals more and more of his story, explaining how he came to know the answer to each question he was asked on the show, the Inspector begins to come around.
It doesn't take long for the Inspector to be humbled by Jamal; he soon discovers there are holes in his knowledge as a part of the middle class establishment, and his respect for Jamal as a slum resident grows. Eventually he's convinced that Jamal did not, in fact cheat, releasing his captive and returning him to the show for the final question.
The role of the Police Inspector is minor, but it has a key function; he is our objective eyes and ears for Jamal's rather far-fetched story. We watch as he comes to believe Jamal, developing empathy for our hero, and the millions of people in his position.
As we quickly learn, the tentacles of organized crime run deep in the world of Slumdog Millionaire. Our first glimpse into the true power structure of the slum comes at the beginning of the film, when young Jamal and Salim nearly run into an expensive black sedan when fleeing from the police. Soon the policemen chasing them do the same thing. They all apologize profusely to the man in aviator shades riding in the back, who angrily waves them along.
We learn later that this is none other than the villainous Javed Khan, a.k.a. top dog, big kahuna, ruthless gangster, slumlord, and all-around bad dude. As a resident of Juhu, the first thing you learn is to never cross Javed Khan.
In fact, it doesn't take him long to emerge as one of the story's main antagonists. We're officially introduced to the man himself later on, after Salim kills his rival mob boss Maman. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Javed explains to Salim, and a promising business relationship is formed.
Years later, Jamal's shocked to learn that Salim now works for Javed:
SALIM: That used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh? We used to live right there, man. Now, it's all business. India is at the center of the world, bhai. And I am at the center of the center. This is all Javed-bhai's.
JAMAL: Javed Kahn. The gangster from our slum. You work for him?
Things are further complicated when he discovers that Latika is being held by Javed, as a sort of trophy. Jamal's able to infiltrate Javed's compound to find Latika, and it becomes immediately clear that Latika is not in a safe situation. If Javed is the kind of guy who has a temper tantrum over a subpar sandwich, he's probably not going to be the most forgiving when it comes to folks crossing him.
When Latika initially tries to escape, attempting to meet Jamal at the train station, she's captured by Salim—a mission, as an agent of Javed, he carries out dutifully. However, in the film's climax, Salim sacrifices himself to kill Javed… thanks to a pretty dramatic change of heart.
Javed's death signals the end of the conflict in Slumdog Millionaire, as Jamal and Latika are presumably now able to live their lives in peace. But even though the bad guy of this story is dead, we have a feeling that nothing in Juhu will really change; given the rampant corruption and inequity in the slum, we can only imagine that there will be five more Javed Khans springing up next to take his place.
When we first meet Maman, there's a chance he might not be such a bad dude. He smiles a lot, has cool sunglasses, and offers Jamal, Salim, and Latika cold sodas, warm meals, and a place to sleep that isn't a literal dump.
But appearances can be deceiving. As it happens, Maman runs a ring of child beggars, in which he enlists our protagonists. If that doesn't make him unlikeable enough, he even gruesomely blinds certain children in order to maximize profits.
Maman sees potential in Salim, recruiting him as a sort of trustee to help keep the other children in line. But Salim turns on him when he realizes that Maman has plans to blind his little bro. Salim is able to escape with Jamal, but Latika is left behind.
We revisit Maman some years later, when Jamal enlists Salim to help find Latika. It turns out that Latika is now Maman's "prized possession," being groomed to become a high-class prostitute. Jamal and Salim are able to locate and rescue Latika, after Salim gets the drop on Maman, killing his old mentor with a cold-blooded shot to the head:
SALIM: Maman never forgets, isn't that right?
MAMAN: Maman can make an exception.
SALIM: I can't take that risk.
There's no doubt that Maman is cruel, barbaric, and otherwise completely despicable. Yet it is his death that marks Salim's point of no return. Maman was training Salim to be a killer—and unfortunately for the gangster, he was successful.
The first image we see in the entire film is a close-up on Jamal, who looks rather dazed, and probably not the least bit thrilled that some dude keeps blowing cigarette smoke in his face. That intrepid smoke blower is none other than Constable Srinivas, the police officer initially put in charge of making Jamal talk. Before long, he gives Jamal a solid slap, launching us into the story head on.
Constable Srinivas is a man of few words and a lot of aggression. Maybe he's a bit incompetent as well, for despite his large stature, intimidating persona, and apparent fondness for beating up his prisoners, he fails to crack Jamal.
He doesn't do much in terms of the plot, aside from illustrating Jamal's toughness, and providing the occasional moment of comic relief. Indeed, Jamal's "you don't have to be a genius" crack makes for one of the funniest moments of the film. But we'll always remember Srinivas as the one who gives us that initial slap, waking us up and launching us into the crazy world of Slumdog Millionaire.
From the events of Slumdog Millionaire, we learn very little about Jamal's mother. But from what we do know, she was an incredibly resilient individual, and a caring mother who wanted to give her children the very best lives she could.
When we meet her, she is keeping her two boys in line, fearlessly snatching them away from the policemen chasing them, and sending them off to school. From this interaction, we can infer that she has her hands full, but wants them to get the most of their education.
Of course the brothers' idyllic childhood soon takes a turn for the worse after her death in the Bombay riots. Jamal and Salim are forced to go it alone, struggling to survive as orphans. However it's clear that before she died, she was able to raise two seriously tough boys, who, in their incredible strength and resolve, almost certainly take after their mama.