A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak to Danny Boyle, the film-maker behind Slumdog Millionaire (neck and neck my favorite movie of the year with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler –see them both right now!). What started as a conversation around Danny’s triumphant film set in the heart of Mumbai’s sprawling slums evolved into a meditation on the art of story-telling. I’m not going to jump the shark by saying too much. You can hear Danny in his own words here. Trust me, it’s worth it.
I have long been a believer that a single story can change the world. The story of poor carpenter from Bethlehem certainly is proof of that. In more modern times, we’ve watched (for better) the story of how a “half naked fakir” brought down the British Empire (Gandhi) and (for worse) the story of how a failed army corporal perpetrated the worst genocide in human history, each changing the course of our civilization. In our conversation, Danny says it well: “Storytelling is how we talk to each other. It shapes and gives architecture to conversations and circumstances.”
And yet, if you ask me, it’s also why we find ourselves where we are today, with economies and ecologies crumbling. We’ve replaced our mythical heroes – the great prophets of spiritual traditions or the larger than life protagonists of legends like Homer’s Odyssey or Valmiki’s Ramayan – with false prophets, Jihadis and Jezebels, petty tyrants and power-hungry sycophants.
If as a civilization we want to see ourselves progress to our next stage of collective evolution, then we need to create new stories and mine new story-tellers (as well as rely on the wisdom of our elders). Today, we are watching the same old story in the Middle East, the definition of insanity wherein both sides react the same way they have for generations as if expecting a different result. Rationalize it all you want, logically articulate why one side is more righteous than the other (and trust me, I know where I fall…) it still doesn’t change the reality of the murder, mayhem, rancor, and generational rage on the ground fueling an endless cycle of war. Likewise, we need a new story in India and Pakistan today, where the same feud that has raged for decades (even centuries before Pakistan was Pakistan) now threatens the rest of the world. With our ancient habits and modern technologies, we now have the potency to destroy our planet several times over (as if we wouldn’t be satisfied doing it just once).
Alas, Danny Boyle’s fabulous film Slumdog Millionaire is not the panacea that will solve all of the world’s problems (or even just the ones above!). But if there is one thing we might learn from great film-making, or even more elemental, great story-telling and those that practice the craft, it is that through our stories, we have tremendous power. We have the ability to inspire, lead, and transform. The greatest superheroes are ones that embody great archetypes and whose journeys are ones of mythic transformation. From Icarus to Indra, Solomon to Superman, our greatest heroes are those that teach us about ourselves, bring out the best in us, and allow us to create the world we aspire for children.
Now if that doesn’t convince you to see this film, I don’t know what will.