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Slumdog Millionaire

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Chan, Sabrina                     COM 115.4 – A           Reflection Paper # 2             Nov. 25, 2015

Undoubtedly one of the most popular Indian films today, “Slumdog Millionaire” tells the story of chaiwallah Jamal Malik from the slums of Jaha and how he was able to win 20 million rupees on the popular game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Although the movie is a good portrayal of everyday life in the Indian slums, it should be noted that “Slumdog Millionaire” is not a Bollywood film; rather, it is a Hollywood production that is set in Mumbai, India.

I think that “Slumdog Millionaire” is not to be considered a Bollywood film because apart from it being a Hollywood production, it also does not present India in a particularly good light. Bollywood films are about “reaffirming pride in Indian heritage, evoking romance and longing, and reinforcing family values and a sense of kinship” (Takhar et al, 2012) and I did not really see this in “Slumdog Millionaire”; rather, I saw a lot of negative stereotypes of India as thought of by the West.

The film opens with this question: “Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A: He cheated B: He’s lucky C: He’s a genius D: It is written”. Nobody believes that Jamal, an uneducated 18-year old boy from the slums, could possibly know all the answers to the questions. The show’s host looks down on Jamal as well. He makes fun of Jamal’s profession as a chaiwallah at a call center, saying “Not bad money to sit on a chair and answer a question. Better than making tea, no?” The audience roars with laughter each time the host delivers an insult to Jamal’s profession or his being uneducated.

As such, Jamal is suspected of fraud and is being interrogated and tortured by the police. The police chief who investigates his case asks, “Professors, doctors, lawyers, general knowledge-wallas never get beyond 60,000 rupees. He’s on 10 million rupees. What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?” They do not entertain the possibility that Jamal knew the answers legitimately and immediately assume that he is cheating because he is just a chaiwallah from the slums. Jamal tries convince them otherwise, telling them his life story to show how “learning can happen anywhere and most often happens simply through the process of living” (Turbin and Hardikar, 2009). Jamal’s claim is that he knew the answers not because he studied them, but because they were a part of his life.

        The first set of flashbacks is of Jamal’s early childhood, set in the slums of Jaha, Mumbai. Right from the start, Jamal has had a difficult life; he wears ratty clothes, is dirty and barefoot, and lives in an impoverished area that is covered in heaps of trash. The scenes in Jaha actually reminds me of life in the slums in the Philippines, like in the Payatas dumpsite, for example. One of the more memorable scenes during his early childhood is when Jamal jumps into a pile of feces just so that he could get Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph. This reminds me of how the Filipino masses go crazy over local celebrities, such as today’s love teams AlDub and JaDine. Another scene to remember would be the riot between Muslims and Hindus; people were burned alive and clubbed to death over religious conflict.

I think that these scenes from Jamal’s childhood are portrayed in such a way that they become “exotic”—they are things that would never happen in the civilized West. Another example that showcases how exotic life is in India can be seen when Salim witnesses Maman’s crony blinding one of their friends with acid because blind children would make better beggars on the streets. These exotic and hard-to-believe experiences of Jamal are a “commodification (…) of (the) Third World’s poor people’s experiences as artistic fodder for the Western gaze” (Turbin and Hardikar, 2009), fulfilling Western stereotypes of an impoverished and exotic India.

         The scenes set in the Taj Mahal also say a lot about the Western gaze, or how the West views India, as seen in the film. Jamal and Salim resort to being fraudulent tour guides, earning money by feeding the Western tourists false information about the Taj Mahal and even stealing their shoes when they are left outside. In contrast, the Western tourists are portrayed as generous and wealthy, which is highlighted when an American couple “give(s) Jamal a $100 bill in the name of American justice” (Diluca, 2012). The Americans are horrified at the Indian driver’s harsh treatment of Jamal as they are exposed to the “real India”, so they give him the money as a means of help. This scene serves to further exoticize the impoverished Indian as compared to its superior and affluent Western counterpart.

However, some Bollywood elements still exist in the film “Slumdog Millionaire” despite it being a Hollywood production. Bollywood films are known to uphold “the beliefs of love mythology, where love conquers all” (Takhar et al, 2012) and often speak of “pyar, love, the struggle against zulm, oppression, injustice, satyagraha, non-violence, shanti, peace and dharma, duty” (Ahmed, 1992), which I think can be seen through the character of Jamal; his love for Latika and his struggle of a life in the slums all echo these Bollywood concepts.

Jamal and Latika’s relationship is a true romance; no matter how many times they lose each other, their paths eventually cross and they are led back to each other somehow. Towards the end of the film, Jamal discovers that Latika is married to local gangster Javed, so he poses as a cook at his household in order to get closer to Latika. He asks her to come away with him, saying that he will be waiting for her at the train station everyday at 5 pm. Jamal is a romantic; he will never forget Latika and is tied to his past with her. He believes that they are brought together again and again because they are destined to be with each other, which points to the concept of destiny that is often seen in Bollywood films. Furthermore, Jamal reveals that he is not in it for the money; he only joined “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” because he thought that Latika might be watching, which proves his “undying devotion to the love of his life” (Turbin and Hardikar, 2009), giving us a glimpse of Bollywood romance in this Hollywood production.



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