(This article appeared in the Sunday Nation on 19th April 2009)
The movie Slumdog Millionaire showing now in cinemas starts off with the question, “Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? (A) He cheated, (B) He’s lucky, (C) He’s a genius, (D) It is written.” The answer is (D). In other words, it was meant to be. Despite winning eight Academy Awards, five Critics’ Choice Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards, some film reviewers have criticised the film for not being “truly” Indian.
Yet, its central theme is not only entrenched in Indian folklore, but is one that has fascinated mankind throughout history: Destiny or fate or kismet- the unseen character in folklore, literature and drama.
Our Swahili culture derives the stories of Abunwasi from the collection of stories One Thousand And One Nights (or Arabian Nights) that dates as far back as pre-Islamic Persia and contains elements of Indian folklore. Destiny is a key theme in these stories, one of which, The Three Apples seems to be retold in Othello, one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Aristotle, whose theory of tragedy has been the most influential, argues that “the first essential, the life and the soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the plot and the characters come second,” suggesting that a character is bound to his destiny- he cannot escape it.
We see this chilling, unpreventable fate in Oedipus Rex a tragedy by Sophocles, which was first performed in 429 B.C. The oracle prophesies that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid such a terrible catastrophe, his mother abandons him as an infant, in the mountains. As an adult, when Oedipus hears a similar prophesy, he flees his home in Corinth, killing a man on the way, (who actually is his father) and then ascends to the throne of Thebes and marries the queen (his mother.) By trying to run away from his destiny, he actually fulfils it. When the truth finally emerges, his mother hangs herself and he gorges out his own eyes.
In tragedy the hero is often destined to die and the choice he makes to seal his fate presents to us a moral debate. Antigone will defy the King’s orders and give her brother a respectful burial and for this, she will die. Macbeth will believe the cunning prophesy of the witches and let greed overcome him and this will lead to his death.
Unlike classic tragedy, many plays of Sanskrit drama of ancient India end well, just like the film Slumdog Millionaire. But the underlying debate of Destiny and Free Will still persists.
In theatre, be it through Shakespearean tragedy or modern contemplations of life and death by playwrights like Beckett, tragedy still remains the preferred forum through which to explore what André Malraux called “the human condition”.
Does our free will determine the cause of our lives or is our path already set out for us? As we celebrate Easter, we remember Judas Iscariot and may ask ourselves, did he betray Jesus of his own volition or was he already doomed to do so?
These are the questions that inspire tragedy. No wonder Malraux went on to say “art is a revolt against destiny.”
© Anne W. Manyara 2009