Monday, May 18, 2009

Who Wants to Be a Slumdog Millionaire?

“Life in the slum is an eternal race for survival. It is not for the gentle and the humble but for the hard-hearted and the arrogantly impatient”

The scene opens in an interrogation room of the Mumbai police station. Sergeant Srinivas and his superior, the police inspector, are hell-bent on extracting information from Jamal, the 18-year-old contestant in the Indian version of the popular "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" TV game show. Jamal has been coasting to victory and the 20 million rupees (one million dollars), winning jackpot, when he is arrested on suspicion of cheating. He is beaten almost to a pulp. "Tell me how you cheat!", barked the inspector. The boy stuck to his denial. "Get him up, tie him up!", he motioned to the bulky torture specialist. "If he doesn't confess, give him the electric treatment. Who the hell is he? How can he, an ordinary slum boy, get that far? Professors, doctors do not even get past the 16,000 rupees mark..."

Scene changes to the TV show, revealing Jamal in the hot seat as he battles with the anchor of the programme. A seemingly hard question is answered correctly and what follows? A dirty slap on Jamal's face as the scene changes to the torture chamber in the police station. The inspector cannot believe that somebody who grew up in the slum among "extortionists, rapists and bandits" can be displaying that kind of brilliance. "You don't have to be a genius," says Jamal, "to know all these things". So, how does Jamal Malik, "the man who knows all the answers," come about his "brilliance" on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?". This is the track on which the film, Slumdog Millionaire, the toast of the last Academy Award, runs from scene to scene.

It is natural to write off Jamal as a cheat or supernatural being on the game show. This is somebody who grew up in the slums, has no distinct formal education other than a very brief period of learning in the lower grades of the primary school before he dropped out into a life of vagrancy. How can such a “ne'er-do-well” become a "touchstone" of brilliance on national television? It looks impropable, virtually impossible, that such a person of low education and pedigree could make it so far but, if character is fate in the The Mayor of Casterbridge, a novel, in Jamal’s case in Slumdog Millionaire, experience is fate. Each question thrown at him is fortuitously connected with distinct memories of his life. Desperate to prove his innocence to the police interrogators, he takes the viewer down memory lane in the slums where he and his brother, Salim, grew up. He narrates his early growing-up years with his struggling mother who eventually got killed, thus making him an orphan.

It had to come to that. In the slum, the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest holds sway. He talks about his encounters with various gangs, the constant police raids, the seeming inhumanity of man to man in the cut-throat race for survival. Each episode of his life becomes an instant key to unlocking an answer on the programme. For instance, when asked to name the most popular man in the country, he knew it to be Sanjay because he once had the photograph of the man picked from the slum. When asked to name the American President whose portrait is on the 100 dollar bill, he did not hesitate to mention Benjamin Franklin, the portrait he had once seen on the bill given by a foreign tourist (at the Taj Mahal) to his street-begging mate. And when the big question came on who the third of the Three Musketeers is, he just recalled one of those few days he spent in primary school which happened to be the time the teacher taught the class about the musketeers and went for broke after having exhausted all his lifelines. It was a bull's eye! A new, but unusual, millionaire is made!!!

As coincidental as these may be, the biggest question is, how did he get on the show in the first place? As fate would have it, Jamal was working in a call centre as a tea boy. He had just served tea to some customers when he chanced on an unmanned switchboard and elected to try his luck by placing a request to take part in the TV show. His aim was not to win because he knew he was not academically equipped enough to operate on that level but to appear on national television to impress Latika, the girl he had loved all his life and whom he described to his interrogators as "the most beautiful woman in the world" but whom the police inspector mockingly referred to as "the beauty in the slum."

Jamal's memories at recalling events in his life to prove his "brilliance" do not only go to prove his innocence but also offer a picturesque insight into poverty in India and how orphans and neglected children are left to suffer the vicissitudes of life without direction or guidance. They are taught by the Fagins and Madoffs of this world how to steal, swindle tourists and kill in order to survive. Such children fall easy prey to criminals and the criminally minded. A child who has been sleeping on an empty stomach in the open for days in rain and sunshine is a ready-made instrument in the devil's workshop. The vulnerability of such a child is depicted in the luring of Jamal, Salim, his brother, Latika and others into the den of kidnappers and human traffickers with a mere offer of food and drink and a promise of a better life outside the slum.

Jamal's is, no doubt, a life journey through the rough edges and through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. Life in the slum is an eternal race for survival. It is not for the gentle and the humble but for the hard-hearted and the arrogantly impatient. There is a reason for this. A slum dweller is constantly on the move. When he is not pursuing something, something must be pursuing him. When the airport security guards are not pursuing the hapless inhabitants for encroaching on the airport territory in search of the elusive gem in the heap of rubbish, it is the police wielding batons in pursuit of petty thieves and vagabonds. Occasionally the barons and the godfathers send in their agents to capture or entice new recruits into the ever-expanding rings of illicit trades in drugs, sex and alcohol. Bootlegging is the order of the day.

Such is the vivid expose in the film. Mumbai, the setting, is like Lagos. It is a bundle of contradictions. Poverty and opulence live as next-door neighbours, to the chagrin of the humanist. But speaking metaphorically, Slumdog Millionaire is a beautiful bridge linking the reality of life in India with that of Western civilisation. The tragic effects of poverty in the developing world are vividly portrayed through the prism of Jamal's life. Viewers see real slums and slum dogs with nagging flies and irritating fleas, children eating literally on dumpsites and men and women answering the call of nature in open make-shift toilets. The train, a constant motif in Indian films, imposes its larger-than-life presence as a means of mass transit for the teeming poor and equally intimidating middle class. Though Indian films are noted for their magical realism, Slumdog Millionaire is a mixture of authentic Indian culture with a distinctly Western style of film-making, a marriage of two diametrically opposing cultures with just a little touch of fairy tale.

The film's director deliberately breaks away from the 'cliche' of science fiction and zombie thrillers to breathe fresh air to 'moviedom' and make such an unusual project as Slumdog Millionaire come as close to reality as possible. The TV show is very natural with the usual expectant crowd, the cool, yet nervous comportment of the contestant, his dilemma over the use of lifelines and the painstaking manner he explains how he got to know the answers even under the threat of death in the police torture chamber. Then the coincidences, the half-chances and the unusual streak of luck. An 18-year-old boy from the slum winning a whopping sum of 20 million rupees?!

The message is not lost on the viewer. DESTINY CAN NEVER BE CHANGED. Whatever station an individual is destined to reach in life, no amount of obstacles, trials and tribulations can stop him. Jamal, like Barack Obama, new President of the United States of America, was destined to be great and he grabbed the chance literally with both his hands and feet. And the lesson? Simple. Do not underrate any individual because of the circumstance of his birth or environment. A gem can be found anywhere, even in a heap of rubbish!

Kudos to Danny Boyle, the director of the two-hour film which recently won eight Oscars, for his cinematic exposition of life in the slums of India. Unfortunately, many Indians seem not happy with the hardcore exposition of poverty in the fastly developing country which is in the league of most technologically advanced countries of the world. What irritates them most is the title Slumdog Millionaire. Indians do not cherish the reference to "dog" in that context. To the average Indian, the dog, like a pig, is a dirty animal that lives and thrives on filth, especially in the slum. But they have reverence for the cow. It is a sacred animal that must be worshiped. Would they have preferred “Cowdung or Slumcow Millionaire”? Well, that will be much ado about title. Slumdog Millionaire simply means an (under) dog (contestant) from the slum who became a millionaire. Now, who wants to be a slumdog millionaire?

Slumdog Millionaire is a film adaptation of ‘Q & A’, a 2005 novel by Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat. Screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy, the Academy Award-winning British screenwriter. The two-hour film is currently showing in popular theatres in major cities of the world. The DVD was premiered on March 31 in the US, while the UK and France will take turns on June 1 and July 1, 2009, respectively.

*First published in TELL, April 6, 2009

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