Based on the novel Q&A by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, it has an innovative plot based on the Indian clones of the American television show, Who wants to be a millionaire? Jamaal, who has honed his ‘knowledge skills’ in the slums of Mumbai is the contestant who makes it to the end and wins the jackpot. The amazing thing is that he is an illiterate 18- year old who serves tea in a BPO.
Each question that he is subjected to in the show is followed by a flashback where an incident comes to Jamaal’s mind and he answers the question accurately, surprising everyone in the audience. For example, to the question about who wrote the bhajan darshan do ghansham, his answer is instantaneous- Surdas. The story behind that answer is longer, and macabre. One of Jamaal’s friends in the slums, Arvind, had been blinded by a local gangster who lived off the earnings of child beggars. The reason for his being blinded is that Arvind sang this bhajan very well and being blind makes him more “marketable”. The movie is very gripping in the first half as question after question in the show is followed by searing flashbacks like this. Subsequently, the film follows the well- trodden path- Jamaal wins the contest, finds his lady love and all ends happily.
There are other problems with the film.
For one, it provides a very middle class alternative to Jamaal- that of individual escape from poverty. There is not even a hint at collective action. Some of the other implications are also worth noting. Jamaal is able to recognize Benjamin Franklin’s picture on the 100- dollar bill but not that of Mahatma Gandhi on the 1000- rupee note. An American tourist, rescuing Jamaal from a local policeman outside the Taj Mahal, mutters: Let me show you how real Americans are (words to that effect). These subtle scenes push under the carpet the long nightmare that Western colonialism has subjected the rest of the world to. It indicates an attitude that is at best condescending and at worst misleading. The opening up of the major economies of the world in the last two decades has more to do with the mainly American multi- nationals’ quest for cheap labour and the mega- profits from their surplus. The “trickle- down” theory has been its accompanying ideological armour. This has also coincided with the export of American television and cinema.
As this film shows, it has found an echo in the minds of the noveau riche in the third world as well. Indeed, in an interview Vikas Swarup has commented that his novel is a symbol of the new, emerging India.
“But it’s all part of the India success story and a growing recognition of India’s strengths in diverse fields, including literature. It’s part of our soft power,” he said.
Unfortunately, a very creative idea of using a contemporary theme is entrapped in a false utopia. The reality is that even the IT and BPO boom- forget about the slim chance of becoming rich via television shows- has been limited to a small section. Let me quote some anecdotal evidence from my own experience.
Working in Gurgaon in the nineties in an IT company, I did an informal survey of about 100 professionals in the company I used to work for. An astounding 65% of the workforce turned out to be brahmins, about 20% were banias and the rest were mainly upper caste Punjabi Hindus. An average entry level graduate used to earn something like Rs 15,000. On the other hand, the cleaners and the helpers (like Jamaal, who serves tea in the movie) were mainly “low”- caste migrants from Uttar Pradesh, some of them Muslims. These people earned about Rs 1,500 – one tenth of the entry level programmers. The head helper used to earn Rs 2,500 and he had a family of five to support. Most of them lived in the slums that have come up as New Delhi has expanded to engulf villages around the city- places like Mahipalpur for example. The reality is that much of the gains go to the descendants of the elite that was spawned in post- independent India.
The good thing about Slumdog Millionaire is that despite its deep dive into fantasy in the latter half, it paints a very gripping account of life in Mumbai slums in the first half. It is an utter travesty that it later succumbs to myths perpetuated by Hindi cinema of the 1970s and more recently by American television shows like Who wants to be a Millionaire?. In the manner of its own title, a final summary about the movie is a combination of binary words- a good- bad movie.
Watch the film for the first half. It is well- crafted and has a lot to say there.