From Zero To Hero
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.
Pretty Fly for a Nondescript Guy
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.
The Hero We Deserve
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?
Happily Ever After
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.