Friday, March 19, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy

Mumbai Morality

Poor kids race through Mumbai streets as they steal from decent people. The act is deplorable, yet the torture of minor crimes by enforcement fits with correcting wrongs — right? Fiction’s philosophy makes us dare to ask how we define morality as seen through the eyes of characters in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

In Slumdog, morality seems to have a number of faces from Jamal who risks everything for love, to Salim, Jamal’s brother, who seeks materialism while saving Jamal’s lover. Meanwhile, the upper society symbols of justice and entertainment offer torture and jealousy.

Jamal’s moral code was in direct contrast to the way the upper classes viewed concepts of right and wrong. Jamal thought little of stealing for survival. Yet he ignored the chance for wealth as he pushed the quiz show to the limit just to keep the line open for his lover, Latika, to see him. Jamal looked at degrees of wrongness. It was all right to steal in the streets. Stealing knowledge to stay in the quiz show was part of the bigger picture for Jamal rather than the idea of committing a wrong. In Jamal’s eyes, an even greater wrong would have been to allow his Latika to remain with the mob leader that his brother Salim worked for, because that would have taken her life’s spirit from her. Jamal’s goal was to rescue Latika, so committing a wrong to accomplish that goal took on a sense of righteousness.

Salim’s sense of morality focused on getting ahead by gaining a reputation in crime, although he rejected torture of the innocent. He almost allowed Jamal to become blinded just to be a better beggar, yet stopped at the last second because the act went against his grain. Salim could even aim a gun at Jamal when he saw his brother threatened his path. But he turned on his mob boss so that Latika could escape.

A different moral mentality flowed through the police inspector who believed torture helped get answers from people. He had to use electronic pain to force Jamal into admitting that he cheated in the quiz show, even though Jamal was innocent. The crime that he thought Jamal committed was not terrorism or murder, but the punishment was not an issue from his perspective.

Prem Kapur, the quiz show host, displayed another version of morality. His disgust with the thought that a poor kid could not have wisdom led him to become jealous of Jamal. The further Jamal reached in the show, the more Prem wanted to derail the youth. Winning was not his place, and Prem’s moral code called for him to protect his caste. During the show, he tried to give Jamal a false clue. When that failed, Prem had Jamal arrested.

In Slumdog Millionaire, morality’s many faces make us ask how we define good and bad. Maybe the key component is whether the characters in the movie have a sense of selflessness and care about others. Yet even that leads us to ask how we define acts that help us while hurting others if the eventual goal considers the others fate. But that very concept means many variables drift and flow into play. Many degrees of selfishness or selflessness must be considered within the pressure of outside forces. Dare we ask how we would run through Mumbai streets?

Slumdog Millionaire image courtesy of

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