A few days ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a low-budget Bollywood-meets-Hollywood fable, won eight Oscars this year and turned a clutch of unknown actors into international celebrities. The film follows the trials and triumphs of a young Mumbai Muslim named Jamal, as he moves through a larger-than-life labyrinth of childhood and adolescence in the slum-underworld of one of India’s most prosperous cities. Desperate to hold on to his dreams of becoming somebody and marrying Latika, his childhood sweetheart, Jamal runs straight into the Dickensian side of modern India, he loses Latika, and his brother, to adult realities – money, violence, organized crime. He also learns through bitter experience that there are many people in the city who will kill him for his religion, or trick him into becoming a professional beggar for them. His childhood is one long lesson in the predatory nature of modern Mumbai; by the time he is a teenager he understands too well that man is wolf to man. And yet, undeterred, he chases his dream all the way from life as an anonymous chai-wallah to an improbable win on a television quiz show. In the end, he finds out in true Bollywood style, that with perseverance you can become the person you never became, providing fate is on your side – or, as the screenplay repeatedly emphasises: “It is written.”
Much of the film’s charm comes from its strange hybridity: it is equal parts Naipaul and Rushdie. Beautifully filmed, despite a budget of US$15 million, it confronts the wholesale squalor of whole sections of India, even as it enters a convincing plea for the little people who refuse to stop dreaming. Dozens of modern Indian novels have counterparts to the Quixotic Jamal, stubbornly self-confident characters who kick against the pricks of caste, religion and education. In the film, the game show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ becomes an extended metaphor for an overnight deliverance from these dreary realities, but the plot repeatedly shows that what really allows Jamal to triumph is that he has learned the answers to the quiz questions in the streets of Mumbai. Unlike the bookish contestants who usually appear on these shows, he is a symbol of the coming India – not “shining” as the tourist board spin would have it, but unwashed and downtrodden.
It is easy to dismiss the movie as nothing more than an intriguing fantasy, but that would be a mistake. VS Naipual has written very persuasively about Mahatma Gandhi’s search for the persona that would allow him to represent India; how, over time, Gandhi surrendered his identity as an educated man – well travelled, a scholar of British law – and reinvented himself as an Indian Everyman. Gandhi understood that his uncountably vast and various country needed something more than a workaday politician, like the patrician Nehru, and so he remade himself as a sage whose life was continuous with the poorest people. Eventually he had fine-tuned his public character into the enigmatic holy man who could demand India’s independence even though he lived in near poverty and cleaned latrines. Aravind Adiga’s Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger makes a similar point more straightforwardly: India today cannot be properly understood, or improved, until its public relations hyperbole about economic growth and prosperity is tempered with an awareness of those tens of millions of little people, like Jamal, who have been written out of the dream.
Writing about the Mumbai terrorist attacks earlier in December, Arundhati Roy pointed out that “If you were watching television you might not have heard that ordinary people, too, died in Mumbai. They were mowed down in a busy railway station and a public hospital. The terrorists did not distinguish between poor and rich. They killed both with equal cold-bloodedness. [But the] Indian media, however, was transfixed by the rising tide of horror that breached the glittering barricades of ‘India shining’ and spread its stench in the marbled lobbies and crystal ballrooms of two incredibly luxurious hotels and a small Jewish center.” Roy mentioned that India TV broadcast a phone conversation with one of the attackers, who gave his name as “Imran Babar”: “I cannot vouch for the veracity of the conversation, but the things he talked about were the things contained in the ‘terror emails’ that were sent out before several other bomb attacks in India. Things we don’t want to talk about any more: the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the genocidal slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the brutal repression in Kashmir.” When the anchorman warned Babar that he was surrounded and almost certain to die, he replied with unnerving calm: “We die every day. It’s better to live one day as a lion and then die this way.” That terrifying subtext is also part of what gives Slumdog Millionaire its power, for underneath the wish-fulfillment of its Bollywood ending, lie much darker possibilities for the expression of the political discontents of India’s forgotten poor.