North Park University Professor Grew Up a ‘Slumdog’

Post a Comment » Written on March 9th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (March 9, 2009) – Boaz Johnson is a professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He shares his reflections on the movie Slumdog Millionaire, his own life, and the meaning of Lent.

By Boaz Johnson

I watched the recent Oscars with a lot of interest. A movie that depicted life in one of the slums of Mumbai, India, was supposed to be the clear favorite this year.

Slumdog Millionaire already had won four Golden Globes – the precursor to the Oscars. It went on to win eight Oscars. I also watched the Oscars because the movie reminded me of my childhood days – I was raised in one of the slums of New Delhi. I remember being called a “slumdog.”

JohnsonThe movie is based on a book written by Vikas Swarup, entitled Q & A. The story of the movie, directed by Danny Boyle, depicts the life of three kids raised in one of the sprawling slums of Mumbai – Jamal, Salim, and Latika. It centers on the life of 18-year-old Jamal, who seeks to win one million rupees in the Indian version of the game show “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” It weaves the story of Jamal’s life from his childhood days to the present.

It is a horribly sad story. Many have told me that they were not able to watch the whole movie. Some had to walk out. It depicts the horrors of child abuse, the blinding and maiming of children by greedy high caste slumlords, and the prostitution of girls as soon as they get their first period. It is a very hard movie to watch.

But, I can attest to the fact that it is reality. I have seen much of that happen in the slum where I was raised.

Many Indian film critics have given the movie poor reviews. One critic, Arindam Chaudhuri, wrote in the Times of India on February 2 that Slumdog Millionaire “is a phony poseur that has been made only to mock India for the viewing pleasure of the First World.”

I ask of people like Mr. Chaudhuri: “Is it really viewing pleasure? Or is it viewing horror and displeasure?”

The movie itself – to sooth the viewership – ends on a happy note. Jamal finds the love of his life, Latika, and they dance with all their friends – presumably, all the people who have made it out of the slums of Mumbai.

Well, reality is not all that smooth and happy. The movie shows a very broken and complex world.

High caste Hindus have enslaved and mistreated low caste Hindus for hundreds of years. This is not a new problem. High caste Hindus form 12 percent of the population. Outcastes make up 22 percent of the population. Low castes constitute 52 percent of the population.

Also, there has been animosity between Hindus and Muslims for decades. Muslims form 12 percent of the population. The movie depicts various facets of this broken world. Three kids are caught in the middle of this horrible world. Brothers Jamal and Salim are Muslims. They have seen their mother burnt alive.

They are smart kids, so both of them are wooed by the dirty underworld to keep the horror of slavery going. Salim, the older brother, gets sucked into the dirty underworld of enslavers. Jamal escapes, but only barely. Latika, a low caste Hindu orphan, is forced into sexual servitude. It is a horrible world.

Yet Hollywood, as it always does so well, sweeps the complexity of the causes of the brokenness of the world under the rug. I have often thought about the complexity of the issues faced by the slums of India. Are there any answers?

I searched in various religions. Finally, I found the answer in the incarnate one – Jesus the Messiah. It seems appropriate for me to reflect on this a little, in the light of this season of Lent. Jesus the Messiah is God incarnate, that is, he became human to live with the outcaste, low caste and the downtrodden of the world. He died on the cross and rose from the dead to redeem the downtrodden, the enslaved of the world.

I am witness to this act of redemption. I have seen this transformation take place in my life, and have also seen this transformation take place in several slums of India. The answer is not in the final love song of Slumdog Millionaire. It is in the love song of the suffering one – Jesus, the slumdog Messiah.

And, I am a slumdog professor.

Click here to read an article in The Covenant Companion on Boaz Johnson and human trafficking.

Editor’s note: The accompanying photo shows Johnson (second adult from right) visiting one of the slum areas where children – often referred to as ragpickers – scour dumps in search of scrap material to convert into rags.

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