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Last Updated: 02/05/2009Slumdog Millionaire: a means to an end
Elliot Waring reviews the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, drawing attention to the questions of development, poverty, human rights, globalization, and violence that it raises.
The opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire cuts back and forth between an Indian version of the popular Western game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, presenting the glossy façade of a modern day Mumbai, and a backroom police torture which is quickly cleaned up before “the human rights people show up”. This juxtaposition sets the tone for a film that constantly balances the hopeful aspirations of one man with the hard reality of a struggle for existence in a poor country. This one man’s struggle stands as a microcosm for a country that is struggling to break free of its third world roots and push itself into Western society, complete with flashing lights and dramatic theme music.
The torturee (and somewhat disbelieving game show contestant) is 18 year old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a self-proclaimed “uneducated slumdog” who grew up in the ghettos of Mumbai (then Bombay). After the opening scene we learn that Jamal is one question away from the grand prize on the show, 20 million rupees, but has been brought in by the police under suspicion of cheating. After being tortured and revealing nothing, he is brought before a sergeant who is positive of his guilt, as the game show is designed for “doctors, lawyers and teachers”, and there is no way a “slumdog” could know anything. As the police sergeant pushes for answers Jamal begins to recount his life story and how the questions on the show repeatedly (and improbably) relate to his tumultuous journey out of the ghetto.
While the movie cruises along at a brisk pace, never settling or slowing for any reason, there is plenty of opportunity to mull over the implications of the actions and context in which these characters exist. When Jamal is confronted with one of the simpler questions early in the quiz show we are shown the events that started Jamal down the path that has lead to the “hot seat”. We are shown a boy and his brother, raucously playing in an irrigation ditch surrounded by women doing laundry, who couldn’t be more content with their station in life. When their mother is struck down by a religious zealot bent on eliminating those of their faith, their entire world is flipped upside down. As the boys run from their attackers an unconscious choice is made (although it is hardly presented as a choice, but more as an inevitability) and their lives are sent down a path neither could have ever anticipated.
What follows is a series of events, a vignette filled montage of different hustling schemes, which takes the boys from Mumbai to the Taj Mahal and back. Through this montage (and the entire movie really) the audience finds themselves shelving any ideas of right and wrong they may have brought into the movie and rooting fully and whole heartedly for the boys (and at times even envying their creativity and gall). Although they are committing crimes, their history of poverty and suffering from which they are trying to escape, creates a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie. The audience allows these boys a pass because it is obvious that they didn’t seem to have any other choice. They could have become the blind beggar on the street, powerless and alone, or they could have taken control of their lives, taken the only route available to them, a path of crime and violence, to eek out some form of existence.
As Jamal’s life story continues, cutting between the past and present day sergeant’s office, the actions of he and his brother begin to take on a Robin Hood quality; stealing from those who have money to keep themselves and the other ‘slumdogs’ they associate with alive. The idea of a “good” “bad guy”, this Robin Hood style character, has been seen in countless films but, unlike most uses of this device that show evil corrupt leaders or kings who need to be undermined to be defeated, this movie rarely (if ever) looks at the ‘victims’ of these hustling schemes. The boys, by nature or choice, are completely oblivious to those they are stealing from (and possibly hurting), and are bent solely on maintaining their own survival. By denying the viewer a connection with these ‘victims’ the film puts the audience in the same camp as the brother’s, helping to cement the morality pass which has been granted them. You are left saying, “Come on, they may be doing bad things but look, hey, it’s their only option… right?”.
In the long list of experiences and encounters which shape Jamal’s life we meet a fair amount of less than favorable characters. As you watch the path that Jamal and his brother are heading down it becomes clear, and cannot be ignored, that these “bad guys” who populate their journey are merely grown up versions of the children. They are the end product of a life path that the boys are just beginning on, yet we view them as monsters and crooks. For children who have no choice in the matter, who are left abandoned and alone with only violence and crime as a means of survival, actions are understood and justified. For an adult, who has had a life of crime and violence that probably started in the exact same place and way as the children, and is the only way they can continue to survive, actions are despicable and unforgiveable.
The actions of the torturous police officers paint another bleak picture. Jamal, the supposed cheater and thief, has been brought in to answer to officials, who seem to believe the only way to elicit an honest answer from a person is through water and electricity torture. This presents the viewer with two, seemingly contradictory ideas. Those living a life outside the law seem to have no qualms with cheating, stealing, lying, killing, etc., and those living within the law seem to have no issue with torturing, abusing, lying, etc. No matter what you may try to do or what path you try to take, all available roads for survival within the system that has been setup lead to violence.
The dichotomy of existences presented in Slumdog Millionaire is split between those who have and those who take from the haves, those who are allowed to know the answers on a game show and those who must be cheating, those who sell their souls for a life of luxury and those who maintain their dignity but exist in a constant struggle. This 'two pieces make a whole' perspective is clean and simple and there is no middle ground explored, no third option that might circumvent pain and lead to happiness presented.
As the movie progresses and you are repeatedly shown the world inhabited by these characters, as you watch this jovial display of violence for survival, the question as to why there was no choice is ever present. Is there no honest way to survive that shrugs off all humans apparent predisposition to violence? Are there any other paths for orphaned children to take? If not, once on that path are they doomed to follow it for the rest of their lives? Did Jamal and his brother ever have any other option or was their destiny predetermined the second they lost their mother?
As the characters run and scramble, doing whatever they can to survive, you have to wonder what it is they are trying to attain. What light do they see at the end of the tunnel that motivates them to battle through such dark, dangerous times? What glowing potential have they seen? What glorious ends must they reach no matter the means?
As sixty million people sit glued to their TV sets, gripping the edge of their seats to see if “one of them” can do the unthinkable by answering just one more question correctly and pulling themselves out of the slums, gaining instant riches by their mastery of the Western game show that represents the potential of the future for their country, Slumdog Millionaire asks (and answers), one sad, violent scene after another, if this illusion for a possible future is really worth reaching for.
Elliot Waring worked as a media production professional before becoming an editor at the University for Peace.