Opera Meets Film: The Mythical Convergence of ‘Orphée et Eurydice’ & ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

A man loses his wife, seeing her taken to a vast underworld where he must venture to save her.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” that 2008 Oscar-winning film, about a young boy doing everything he can to reach out to the love of his life, who is herself in the possession of the criminal underworld, is pretty much the story of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” only that it is showcased in India and Jamal, the stand-in for Orpheus, must win back his Eurydice, Latika, via a game show.

The connections with the opera/myth are prominent throughout the film with the underworld of legend showcased as the seedy criminal world that inhabits India. Lakita and Jamal experience innocent love as children but are slowly separated by darker and darker forces, the hero increasingly powerless to reach his beloved.

One and the Same

The two works of art come into direct contact about a third of the way through the film when an adolescent Jamal watches a performance of Gluck’s iteration of the story one night. We hear and see Orpheus lament the death of his beloved, while holding her in his arms.

The placement of the aria is quite brilliant as it comes moments after the viewer has seen Jamal and his brother Salim living a rather fun life as tour guides at the Taj Mahal. This prior sequence highlights their means for survival and the opera sequence itself begins with the group of children pickpocketing from unsuspecting audience members. In the final film, Jamal takes in the scene from behind the bleachers. In an extended scene that was deleted from the film, the young child gets caught stealing, with the stranger who caught him telling him the story of the opera. Jamal even asks if it is possible to go to the underworld to rescue his beloved, to which the stranger answers that it is possible in the opera.

After this scene, Jamal makes the decision to return to Bombay to go look after Latika.

Turning Point

The placement of the opera in the film proves to be a major turning point in the work. The extended scene is far more blatant about the sequence, but the version cut into the finished film gives us enough to see that Jamal is refocusing his objectives. Boyle frames a shot of the youngster from behind the bleachers looking out at the performance, Orpheus holding the dead Eurydice in his arms. The juxtaposition of the two images gives us sufficient information to see that Jamal identifies as Orpheus. His subsequent action crystallizes the idea.

Jamal has tasted darkness prior to this moment, but he has been little more than a passive character, constantly forced to adjust and react to the world around him. The attack on his village and the subsequent time with the gangster Maman, see the young child as little more than a pawn in a larger game.

But it is after this moment that Jamal starts to assert himself, ironically running head-first into the world he was constantly running away from in the early stages of the film.

As with Orpheus, Jamal gets his girl, their idealized love allowed to blossom.


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