50 Shades of Morally Grey
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.
Forgive And… Well, It's Okay Not To Forget
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.