Review: Slumdog Millionaire

December 26, 2008

Finally, after all my friends had seen it, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my family. At first I was blown away by the volume of the opening song (our theater was experiencing technical difficulties). But after that, I really enjoyed it and was happy to see a collaboration between an Indian and an American director that did not end up completely on the Westernized end of the scale. (like Guru, Bollywood Nights or any of the silly remakes of Love, Actually) I felt that this film had a real, organic feel to it.
The story of Jamal was presented as one of triumph and escape from life- threatening danger; from guns and drugs and disease, but also from the threat of having his eyes burnt out so that he could earn more money as a beggar.
The inconsistencies and triumphs of a modern India come through in the film, so that we see how the pursuit and eventual attainment of Westernized consumer goods (sequined kurtas, traffic jams full of SUVs, air-conditioned mansions) does not take away the pride in one’s country which Jamal shows when he sneers “how should I know whose face is on a one dollar bill?” The characters in the film are living in a fragmented world. It is a cliche by now to say that the benefits of globalization are applied unevenly, but the film sneakily allows us some complicity with children living in the trash heaps of Mumbai. The audience is supposed to smile when the kids completely disassemble a car belonging to some rich American tourists. The man’s ridiculous attempt to give them a hundred- dollar bill drives home the disconnect between First and Third world realities. Jamal, by impersonating a call-center attendant, is able to track down Latika, his long lost love, through a cell phone which belonged to his brother.
Globalization, technology and these huge webs of international crime (personified by the crime lord who slashes Latika’s face), media (Amitabh Bachan’s arrival in a helicopter) and entertainment (the quiz show itself) are defeated in the end by the coincidences and destiny that bring Jamal to his final victory in the game show. It was not a redeeming (or consoling) ending because we see that he does not care one bit about the money. He does not desire what, as a heroic popular icon, he is told to desire. (a movie contract, some new shoes, a talk show spot?) He even refuses the offer of the host, himself a former “slum-dog” to help him cheat to win the final answer. By placing his faith in luck, destiny, a completely random guess, he is creating a new space for the desires of the Indian people to be articulated. No longer a response to colonialism, or a frustrated assimilation of globalized culture, a new India can be whatever a new India wants itself to be. The collapse of capitalist Western economies as well as their over-extension in Afghanistan and Iraq is creating a political condition where Tayyip Erdogan can walk out of Davos, Spanish civil right lawyers can prosecute Israeli generals for war crimes and India can declare its intention to use protectionism to protect its economy. Or perhaps this is just my romantic hope.

Here are some of my own quiz-show questions:

1. How many times has Irfan Khan played a police inspector in a movie? A. Four B. Five C. Six D. Seven plus
2. The catchy track played in the train scene where the boys are hustling for money is by which hot South Asian female singer? A. Nadia Ali B. Maya Angulprasam C. Sophie Choudry D. Nazia Hassan
3. The dance that Jamal and Latika were doing at the end is? A. Tango B. Salsa C. Waltz D. Bump N. Grind
4. Who is on the thousand rupee note? A. J. Nehru B. AP Kalam C. Chandra Bhose D. M. Gandhi (trick question!)
If you win I’ll give you however many rupees I have left over (probably not many) Good luck!