Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, Lovleen Tandan, 2009)
reviewed by Prairie Fire (llco.org)
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, Lovleen Tandan, 2009) is the critical talk of the town. It is interesting in itself that Hollywood has made such a film and that it has been received as it has by American audiences. Much in Slumdog is familiar to Americans: Slumdog is a rags-to-riches story. Slumdog is a love story. But, Slumdog is also something new for most Americans. Cast against the background of the slums of Mumbai, India, Slumdog is told as a series of flashbacks as the protagonist, Jamal (Dev Patel, also played by Tanay Chheda and Ayush Mahesh Khedeka), is tortured after he is accused of cheating by Prem Kumar (played by Blooywood acotor Anil Kapoor), host of Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? “How can a slumdog possibly know the answers?” demands the police interrogator (Irrfan Khan). “I know the answers,” Jamal recounts to his interrogators how he, “an uneducated slumdog,” has come to know the answers through a series of what seem to be accidents throughout his life. Jamal, along with his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala), and his soul mate, Latika (Freida Pinto, Rubina Ali, and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar), are “Three Musketeers” who grow up on the edge of survival in one of the poorest slums in the world. Slumdog is the story of their destiny.
In Slumdog, India is not portrayed as a land of spirituality, harmony, wisdom and mystery. Such an orientalist portrayal is the most common Western stereotype of India. Today, it is rare that India is portrayed in a different light. This particular orientalist depiction is consciously challenged by the film. When recounting riots during his childhood between Hindus and Muslims, Jamal says, “if it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother.” Such is a swipe at the gentle India so romanticized in Western cafes and yoga classes. Also, the portrayal of India as a country with a large Muslim population is absent from much of Western pop culture. The dire poverty of Slumdog is a side of India often missing from Western consciousness.
Episode after episode of tragic poverty is paraded in front of the Slumdog viewer. In one Dickenesque episode, the Three Musketeers end up in the clutches of Maman (Ankur Vikal), a gangster, himself once a slumdog, who now exploits children. The Three Musketeers later learn that he blinds the male children in order to elicit more sympathy, thereby they earn more as beggars. Females, by contrast, end up as sex slaves. Risking their lives, Jamal and Salim narrowly escape, while Latika is captured, leading her to a life in prostitution, her “virgin pussy” fetching a “high price.” Slumdog forces the viewer to see through a child’s eyes the cycle of violence that exists as the poor cannibalize each other fighting for society’s crumbs. This is shown again and again: In another scene, Salim, after killing Moman, then betrays Jamal by selling Latika, who, by now, is Jamal’s soul mate, to a rival gangster. Similarly, the gameshow host Prem Kumar, who admits that he too was once a slumdog like Jamal, tries to sabotage Jamal’s chances at winning on the game show by feeding Jamal an incorrect answer. And, it is no secret that the police, like those who torture Jamal, often come from the same sectors of society as those that they brutalize. The disdain that those with a bit of power direct toward the powerless in contemporary India comes through loud and clear. Running throughout Slumdog is a critique of a society that sends rockets into space, yet does not provide water and sanitation for its own people.
Slumdog’s effects on its audiences will be mixed. For the more educated and progressive, Slumdog’s portrayals of life in the slums of Mumbai will be an indictment of the world economy. The story of the Three Musketeers of the slums will underscore the need for radical social change. The harsh reality of the slums of a Third World megacity as seen through the eyes of street children is a powerful moral indictment of capitalism-imperialism. It is a heartfelt indictment of a system that places so little value on the weakest members of global society. However, for others, especially Americans, Slumdog will be received as yet another indictment of brown, Third World peoples for their supposed barbarism. The extreme gooberism (provincialism) and class blinders of Americans will prevent them from seeing the terrible conditions in Mumbai’s slums as anything other than a sign of India’s supposed lack of civilization. The American heartland will lament: why can’t those Indians (or Arabs for that matter) stop killing each other and become more like us? Americans see India through the lenses of the white man’s burden, similar to the historical experience of the British in India. Americans will ask if it is their burden to save India, the Third World, from itself. Hence, Slumdog will, unfortunately, reinforce the imperial prejudices of many Westerners. Because Slumdog fails to connect the poverty of Mumbai to its causes in the global economy, orientalism of the white man’s burden sort prevails.
Through his life, Jamal has found and lost Latika, again and again. Jamal states more than once that it is destiny that they end up together. It is revealed in his interrogation that Jamal has gone on the gameshow only to find Latika, who he knows watches the show. As it happens, Jamal’s life experience has miraculously given him the answers for just the particular set of questions that has allowed him to win the twenty million rupees. His victory on the game show, like his reunion with Latika “is written,” according to the narration. Here the individualism of the film is apparent: Along with the idea that Jamal is destined to find wealth and happiness is the corollary that others, in this case, the vast majority who remain in the Mumbai slums, are destined to remain poor and unhappy. Such a metaphysical worldview is disempowering. It tells the oppressed that there is little that they can do to change their situation. In such a view, fate picks who is to be poor and who is not. Such views not only justify global class, but also the Indian caste-system. It shifts blame for injustice away from the human realm into the spiritual realm. In addition, such an outlook tells the oppressed that the only solutions to their problems are magical ones. For example, Slumdog’s solution to poverty is the hand of fate magically intervening in order to deliver millions of rupees in a game show. Real people starve to death every few seconds in India, yet this film wants to tell them that they have a shot at immense unearned wealth. One of the main tropes of Hollywood films is the mysterious, magical power of love. By linking love and wealth, Slumdog makes escaping poverty as mysterious as love. Love and money might as well fall from the sky.
Contrary to the unscientific view in Slumdog, Leading Light Communists understand that history does not unfold according to the stars or the will of the gods. Revolutionaries understand that tremendous power to change the world resides in the hands of the oppressed. Karl Marx wrote that all of history is the history of class struggle. Mao taught that the masses make history; the masses are the true heroes. If the oppressed act collectively, they can change the course of history and remake the world. The revolutionary outlook is diametrically opposed to the fatalistic, magical one of Slumdog.