Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fate and Destiny in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire

Questions on fate and love
The movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by British director Danny Boyle has achieved that rare feat of satisfying film critics and audiences alike. It is one of the best works of this very talented director. However, upon my first viewing, I was not as enthusiastic about the film. I had been somewhat impressed with it in terms of editing and its magnificent energy boosted by a great soundtrack, but I had erroneously dismissed it as another successful crowd-pleaser. I had brushed it off as light entertainment and did not fully understand the critical hype around this film, which included winning an outstanding eight Oscars (incidentally more than one of my all-time favorite films, the brilliant classic Lawrence of Arabia made by David Lean in 1962).

So what made me change my mind about Slumdog Millionaire? I think although the movie does well on a number of levels and layers, I had not fully appreciated the intricacy of its script, that is, its philosophical premise and weight. It had struck me as a fairy tale albeit interspersed with moments of unflinching but restrained brutality involving torture and other traumatic experiences. To my defense, this movie is such a genre bender -- drama, action, romance, you name it -- and has a lot of glitz and dazzle so that one can miss out on how intricate the philosophical message is.

First off, this movie is rare in the sense that it is spoiler-proof. I cannot really give away anything here. While the ending may be predictable, it is still poignant; in fact, I was even more moved the second time around than when I first saw this gem.

Basically the main premise is this: A young man Jamal who has suffered a great deal in life enters the Indian version of the “Who wants to be a millionaire” contest and somehow despite his lack of education knows all the correct answers. This arouses suspicion among the authorities, and the young man is accused of cheating.

But the key to his success lies in his past. It seems that all his life has oddly enough only served this main purpose, namely to prepare him for the show that would turn him into a millionaire. Boyle has made other movies that involved suddenly and surprisingly attaining loads of cash in both Shallow Grave (1994) and the surprisingly heartwarming, moving and funny Millions (2004), but in the case of Slumdog Millionaire the money is used as an excuse or mere pretext; it serves as the young man's desperate but determined plan and means of getting the girl of his dreams Latika.

Jamal's life story is told in flashbacks and in direct relation to the posed questions on the popular game show (the novel this movie is based on is entitled Q & A and makes this link somewhat clearer). For example, Jamal knows the name of an Indian movie star because he fought hard to get his autograph. Jamal's mean-spirited brother locked him inside an outhouse, but the resourceful boy manages to escape underneath and shows up all covered in feces (I read on IMDb it was actually peanut butter mixed with chocolate). So he eventually asks for the long-awaited and much desired autograph. From the beginning of his life, we can see he is determined and obstinate in getting what he wants.

More interestingly, he knows which US president is portrayed on the 100 dollar bill because of his own heartfelt and sincere generosity. Jamal gives money to a blind boy who tells him that it is Ben Franklin's face that can be found on the bill. Had Jamal not decided to give him the money, he would never have known the answer to that question. So in a way, it is pure karma that is preserved then and passed on. Our ethical and generous actions may not be immediately rewarded, but they will be in due time and course.

Although a lot of the answers to the questions bring up painful memories, including his mother's senseless and brutal slaughter during a religious riot, it seems that everything was predetermined, in other words, fate. I love the idea that everything that happens to us, no matter how good or bad serves a distinct and distinctive purpose. We may not see and understand it in the heat or burning suffering of the moment, but it seems part of a larger plan of the cosmos, the eventual fulfillment of the Logos.

It is this realization that made me embrace this film with my whole heart. It so happens that when two people find each other, in this case our star-crossed lovers Jamal and Latika, it was all meant to happen and every detail in the movie and in life in general may be nothing but a footnote towards this one moment of bliss. So it happens in romance when people meet their soul-mates sometimes seemingly against all odds.

But the overall outlook is not a mere waiting for good things to fall into your lap, but to always make it happen. There were many times where Jamal could have merely given up or taken the easy way out. But he did not. Even at the very last where he is unfairly tortured, he keeps holding onto his dreams, his driving force of hope.

And it seems that all this time, even if it seemed otherwise at certain desolate moments, fortune, or call it luck or destiny had always been smiling and winking at him. Hence the final embrace and yes even the dance number give us a warm tingling feeling that deep down regardless of its rough and tough surface everything is all right and immensely beautiful and simply divine.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Capitalism needs a Heart

Child with Guy Fawkes Mask

Normally, we do not link virtues like compassion and empathy with the notion of capitalism. It seems that within capitalism, there is not much room for benevolence, but capitalism has rather an ingrained and deeply embedded love and adoration for money, which is, in its extent and degree not unlike the awe and fascination with God when it comes to religion. The sheer existence and raison d'ĂȘtre of capitalism are the profits that are connected with it. Put differently, a capitalist who fails to make money is considered a loser, or worse, an utter failure.

That appears to be the root of most of the problems, and therein lies the root of evil essentially. It is not money itself, which is merely a tool and can be used for beneficial and compassionate purposes, but it is the undying love and reverence attached to it, which lurks its ugly head as corporate greed. Money becomes tainted and sullied with one's crass and grandiose ambitions, which often occur at the expense of one's own humanity.

To say that I do not appreciate, respect or even love money would be erroneous. To ask me -- or most of us -- to give it all away or to share it freely with others would be ranging from heroic deed to downright folly. Money especially if earned and accumulated by the sweat of the brow or by the works of wit and creativity is entirely a matter of entitlement.

However, my savings account pales in comparison with those who have more than million-fold their basic demands and necessities for various lifetimes down the road. My dream of one day owning four walls may merely remain that, namely a dream, but I would never dream of owning a yacht or my private jet. Now that to me seems outright folly.

Why you may ask. In the past, we have had millionaires or at the very top multi-millionaires. That seemed in itself quite a big deal, but now, even with inflation counted in, we have billionaires. This is an amount of money I cannot even imagine, let alone count or run through my hands. In fact, it is, by all means and standards, a ludicrous amount.

The question that I often ask myself is the following: How did these people become so filthy (to use a more benign f-word here) rich? In many cases, I am aware that it comes through hard work and perhaps with the right amount of luck, but still this must be someone's hard-earned money from somewhere. It is money tainted with sweat and worse, even blood.

It might be a factory worker working away all day for a fraction of a fraction, for a salary which may (or may not) help her to get by barely. These profits that show up on the rich person’s bank account may be a large chunk of someone's salary who is not starving but who has fallen into the consumerist trap of buying useless (and perhaps worthless) things to make him feel happy. That happiness literally comes at a cost and may only last for a little while, and it may give him something to brag about for a moment or two.

This is the situation and scenario in the most harmless or most ethical of cases. I will not go into cases where illegal or quasi-legal transactions or investments lead to (undeserved and unmerited) capitalist gain. Those are evidently seen as wrong, but our focus here is those legitimate businesses that squeeze profits by squeezing the general public's pockets.

This is how it is in the capitalist world; you may hear its proponents say. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The games and opportunities are open for anyone who takes a risk or who works hard enough. Even you can partake of the beautiful staple American dream if you only try hard (and long) enough.

But the game is rigged. The American dream is exactly that, namely a dream, if not a downright lie. In a capitalist system, there cannot be winners only. In a sport event it may be all about participating, but in capitalism the line is drawn quite clearly between the haves and the have-nots. You cannot have your cake and eat it too because the cake has already been eaten, including crumbs.

Here I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma. We could eradicate poverty in our city, country or even the world if those with more than nine figures to their name actually showed some heart. If they realized that money is not everything and that what they have gained through work or exploitation can be used for the benefit and happiness of others.

It angers me to see people not have enough, while others delve and swim in money substantially and significantly beyond their possible needs. Sure we could ask that everybody ought to give a hand to stop poverty or this type of injustice, but much more can be achieved by those who have more than necessary resources. If one day (and God bless the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who are showing at least some initiative in this direction) the wealthy said we have more than enough and let us give away a large sum of our money to help others from starving and from suffering in their daily life because those states and situations are simply wrong and unacceptable.

In fact, let us change policies that benefit us only (I am speaking for the rich or rather in the name of the wealthy hypothetically speaking) and let us allow or better let us put pressure on politicians to pass laws that do not merely benefit the rich but laws that are truly fair and equitable. Let us give instead of taking because we have already taken more than we can handle in a single lifetime.

Recently, I attended an interesting and moving (or downright depressing) talk that dealt with issues of poverty. In that case, the solution was seen as treating poverty as a disease and to show the government that prevention was the best method. The speaker Gary Bloch, being a doctor and an activist knew what he was talking about both because of his profession and experience with working with the poor in Canada. He and others that evening suggested and demonstrated that by investing into poverty reduction, everyone would benefit; it even made sense economically as the government (and hence taxpayers) would eventually save money down the road. 
Although it would be a noble aim to act as conscious and compassionate citizens, all in all, that would be the proverbial drop on a hot stone. Each of us has responsibilities to change things for the better, of course. We want to become more ethical, more aware, more socially and politically active.

But instead of a bottom-up approach, saving pennies and making small adjustments, if we could only reach the very top and touch the hearts of those who have enough resources to make or break whole nations, then we could make even bigger strides. Let us add compassion and heart into the equation of capitalism and let us peel away from it all that is bad and harmful. We do not want to be left with a gaping and open wound and abyss between the top 1% and all the rest of us significantly down below. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on After Purgatory: Death in the Reformation Talk Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by the erudite historian Peter Marshall with the intriguing full title After Purgatory: Death and Remembrance in the Reformation World at the SFU Harbour Centre. I was quite impressed with the material as I find history of religion, particularly the divide between Catholics and Prostestants, most intriguing. In addition, the speaker not only showed knowledge and expertise alongside humour and humility, but most importantly, he was able to answer my questions in a clear and elaborate manner.

Since there were -- rather unfortunately -- not too many people attending and I had chosen the third row of seats being solitary in my own aisle, I must have been quite visible. Normally this would not pose a problem, but I have recently started taking notes on my iPhone. I looked around and noticed that others, perhaps more professional-looking people, had chosen the old-fashioned form of the scribbling pen on blank notebooks.

However that kind of note-taking is more cumbersome, less legible, and it does not have the auto-correct option. Although the latter can at times be annoying with its farfetched and illogical suggestions, I find it helps me save time, so I end up typing faster. The downside is the negative stigma attached to iPhones: it might seem that I was texting and not paying attention.

In this case, it was quite the opposite, and, incidentally, my phone was out of service for some odd reason, which made texting or surfing the Internet literally impossible. At one point during the talk, I felt compelled to make that matter clear to all the attendees present, but that would have made me look even weirder in their eyes.

But enough preamble about me and let us get to the meat of this brilliant and informative talk. The starting point and focus was how the Protestant movement got rid of the notion of Purgatory, which brought about a number of religious, social, and political changes regarding the outlook on death, its significance for people's lives as well as funeral practices.

With the abolition of Purgatory, it meant that there could be no change in the afterlife. So if you were damned or saved, it had already been decided by your life previously in this world; there was no in-between in the afterlife. As a result, it would become useless to pray for the departed since it was too late for any kind of changes anyway.

In such a situation, death becomes a more crucial and singular event that terminates life once and for all and for better or for worse. That also puts one's life more into focus; it becomes more important regarding salvation. In existential terms, it means that you have one shot at it, and if you miss the mark, i.e. spiritual salvation, there is absolutely no going back and no reconsideration. No pressure, but it is merely the slight difference between eternal bliss or never-ending pain and suffering.

This sudden disconnect between life and death, and ipso facto, with the living and the dead affected and changed the funeral practices as well. While previous to the Reformation, tombs would be prospective, namely looking forward toward the life that was ahead after death, the Protestant tombs were retrospective and mostly individual, looking back at the life and accomplishments of the deceased in question.

In this way, the tombstones acquire and gain a more biographical and existential tone. You are responsible for your own success or failures and this world is the playing field in which you need to show and prove yourself. No more reliance on goodwill and wishes of others or of saints carrying you towards heaven. You got to do this on your own merits.

All of this also meant that funeral practices changed. Funeral sermons now were less about the dead and the afterlife, but more about teaching a lesson to those who were still living. Funerals were indeed a good way to teach about the doctrine of death, that each of us may be called before the Almighty and that we ought to be ready at all times with a calm mind and a peaceful heart.

One of the interesting differences between the Catholic and the Protestant viewpoints was the representation of Christ; his suffering was highlighted by Catholics, but with Protestants his redeeming aspects tended to be promoted instead.

Another difference was also the simplicity and minimalism – to use an anachronistic word for the sake of it - of the funeral practices when it came to the Protestants. No music should be played and sung, and in fact, prayers for the dead were generally discouraged. Also, even Protestant leaders like Calvin were buried with no pomp or circumstance; according to his own wishes, he found himself in an unmarked grave (more on this a bit later).

Another interesting tidbit was regarding the type and manner of death. Generally speaking, people considered a “good death” as something to be aimed for but also as a way to validate one's life and salvation. For example, if you died painlessly and unawares in your sleep, it may seem that you were blessed. But if you underwent a painful, excruciating death, that meant, according to popular beliefs at the time, that you were probably not going to make it very far even in the afterlife.

Striving to have a peaceful and dignified end was also seen as a confirmation that God was with you. One's own serenity towards death was equally an important factor. So even in matters of death, it became important to control oneself and to pray that it would be quick and painless. And those famous last words may ring through eternity for and by other generations to come in this world, so you'd better make them significant and meaningful.

Marshall also mentioned the Protestant belief that death may appear like a sleep in transition towards resurrection when both soul and body would reunite. In this case, the dead were ideally given a proper burial with their feet facing the East, where Jesus would return in Jerusalem, and the face of the deceased looking upward so that the dead would simply arise without any difficulties.

This also made the punishment for suicide, heresies or any other misdeeds that led to ex-communication a more grave matter beyond this life of ours. A person who had committed suicide, for example, would be left on the crossroads, which is supposed to be confusing for the soul and where the devil usually resides. This view of death also led to horrible acts of mutilation of the deceased in a number of wars and conflicts, which were gruesome both in actual and symbolic fashion.

All of this raised interesting questions regarding the manifestation of spirits, which Protestants believed to be not incarnations of the person but rather a plaything of demons to confuse humans. Their reasoning was simple: the dead were either in heaven or hell and either way would not be able to travel back to Earth. 

This was also the main reason why Hamlet was not sure whether he was confronted with the ghost of his own father or whether it was a trick put on by a maleficent demon or goblin. However, in most cases, popular opinion sided on the fact that they were indeed real ghosts of the departed.

Then there was the question period, and I could not resist. My question was two-fold. One was about the fact that Protestant belief with the negation of Purgatory seems to be more pessimistic and fatalistic than the Catholic view. It took away hope for those who might fall in the middle ground and sent them straight either to heaven or hell.

Marshall answered the question by assuring me that Purgatory with all its perks was not necessarily cheery or hopeful as it involved burning and torture for thousands of years. Secondly, Protestants often had the (false?) assurance –- commonly referred to as predestination or divine grace -- that they were already saved and that gave them hope and confidence for the life to come.

My second question was how the soul could find the body in the particular case of Calvin who was buried in an unmarked grave. How would his soul recognize his own body if there was no name attached to it? Here Marshall claimed that Protestants also believed that the soul would already know and recognize the body wherever it might be, even if it were devoured by a cannibal who in turn had been eaten by a lion. Good to know.

So, all in all, I was fascinated by this talk and for the span of an hour and a half had become completely oblivious to my own problem of not having any service or signal during the whole afternoon. This is one of the main downsides of living in a developed world where if you do not have an Internet connection you are as good as dead. And even Purgatory won't save you then!