Slumdog Millionaire- A Good- Bad Film

Amitabh Bachchan does not make an actual appearance in Slumdog Millionaire, though he purportedly signs an autograph for Jamaal, the main protagonist. Nevertheless, both he and Hindi cinema cast a long shadow on the film. Even the title consisting of binary opposite words is reminiscent of Hindi films like Gora aur Kaala, Raja aur Rank and so on. In the epic tradition of Hindi cinema, it has two brothers, one goes on to become a gangster and the other, predictably enough, the millionaire.

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.

Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

11 thoughts on “Slumdog Millionaire- A Good- Bad Film”

  1. A very good review, but what are the main points again? Let me summarize
    I think these are the two main points you wanted
    1. That TV doesn’t make you rich? This TV culture is very western.
    2. This movie should have somehow taught the whole downtrodden population to rise to good life?

    If these are not then Pleas excuse my poor reading skills. If they are then read on:
    1. TV is medium of entertainemnt:
    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.
    No one akaik made the claim that TV is gonna make you rich. No western colonist power has come and told me that. It’s just how society behaves, people want easy money and people like watching other buggers getting burnt trying to make easy money, that’s just good TV. I don’t think there anything more to it.

    2. Do you seriously think that it’s the role of the fiction writers and fiction makers to teach the downtrodden people to achieve success? If you seriously think so, then we shdn’t have this mindless junk what the bollywood churns out. So you would rather dictate on what people should watch and make?

    Anyways, Thank you for the review.

  2. >So you would rather dictate on what people should watch and make?

    Not at all. Just a writer of fiction or a film director expresses a view of the world, so did I in a much more humbler form- that of a short view.

    As to the question on the role of fiction or art in general, it is a much broader one, and perhaps I will elaborate on that some time. I may mention that my perspective has been broadly honed within a Marxist understanding on the function of art.

    If you are interested, you may want to read up more on the same. I found this rather basic outline (.ppt format) on the internet. Wikipedia too has a short section on the impact of Marxism on critical art historians.

  3. You won the The Premier Dardos award. Check it out at my blog.

    I enjoyed Slumdog, and reviewed it at my blog. I think you are objectively correct in your review. It is a movie. As a movie it was well acted, tightly scripted etc. As art it gets an A, as politics B minus, for individualism.

  4. I just don’t get why Slumdog Millionaire is considered such a good movie. I found it painful to watch until the very end. But the happy ending is a game-show fluke – apparently, the character might just as easily have lost everything. I think people are seeing it as a kind of “up-from-poor” or “overcoming tragedy” But the story was not about education or skills – it was about a TV game show.

    So what else? Are we supposed to cry over the poverty – how does that help anyone? What am I supposed to do? If I turn my pockets inside out so I am poor, does that help anyone? I do give to charity, but the point is, why is this entertaining? I don’t find misery entertaining.

    1>a guy who has reached up to the final question of a reality game show on air, he can’t be tortured this way in police station like seasoned criminals just “suspecting” him to be cheating.
    2> even after he proved himself innocent the constable behaves in the same way without any respect, and empties a glass of water throwing on his face.
    3> the person who hosts a game show doesn’t own the game show, that suspecting a guy who is just one question away from the final one, has the rite to hand the guy over to the police without anyone’s prior permission. not even feeling it important to take permission from the channel or the director of the show. if the guy zamal comes out and flash this to media, that police station and the channel hosting the show may find themselves in trouble in no time.(well I guess)
    4>was there no human rites commission to protest that the host is continuously insulting the guy by calling him “chaewala” in a mockery that a way a contestant is treated in public?…
    5>two little boy who has not even crossed the elementary education level, they are talking hindi and english with ease;after falling down from the roof of train they are saying each other…are we dead? this heaven?…in clear english …without any indian accented pronounciation!! wow…(surprising)who says most of the people in india is uneducated? least they say english!!
    6> a tea server is made sit to recieve international calls, and from the database he even could find the contact number of his brother. dear director…we indians have no such national database system like usa.

  6. It is true! There is no entertainment in people’s misery or proverty state (slums). The first half of the film just caught movie goers attention and all of sudden its a hit! Little do they realize it is a cliche movie with no true character behind it to be considered a classic or oscar worthy. In fact, 2008 was a real dissappointing time for movies in general. So anything with 5 mins of some originality would surely win best picture award of 08!

  7. there r much better movies than slumdog,its selected because its english,our local films have more strong story than this,many of them,but i does’t mean slumdog is bad,there r more unknown better 1s thats local….

  8. Just a thought- I am wondering if the popularity of the film has something to do with the mood of the recession and the desperate urge of an average Joe to believe in ‘miracles’ like in the film.

  9. In the West, we find this movie really original and touching. It is like India to me (I’ve been there in 2004.)-extremely wonderful, wonderland, and cruel and painful at the same time. te most wonderful, and the most awful things can happen there.
    Among different “holes” in the ploy, you have already mentioned, it is not clear how Latika, who has been like a slave throughout her life, colud learn to drive a car?
    But anyway, I liked the movie very much. It makes me think, and it is important.
    Revati, Bosnia

  10. I loved the movie so much and what really got to me was how poverty stricken the place was. I can’t imagine coping with the grief of losing my mother and then going on to make close to nothing for a living.

    anybody else notice the policeman dude who said “No filming!” in the movie? If you have the dvd… watch out for it.. I watched it the second time round and thats when I noticed it
    For those who haven’t seen it, watch online, get the movie heck… DOWNLOAD IT!! It’s worth it!!!

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