By Shiwani Srivastava
Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy endures great hardship to get girl back – and if he finally does, everyone (and I mean everyone) sings and dances. And why shouldn’t they? It’s the classic Bollywood story line, perfected over the course of many decades and thousands upon thousands of movies, making India’s Hindi film industry the most prolific in the world.
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ – released this November to critical acclaim – while capturing a distinctly Indian flavor, is also a unique Western film experience that breaks away from the Bollywood framework of a melodrama with catchy tunes. Director Danny Boyle (of ‘Trainspotting’ fame) presents a raw and edgy portrayal of poverty in India that often leaves the viewer uncomfortable and angry. But at the same time, the film is a bit of an escapist (and unrealistic) fairy tale with an epic love story, very much in the spirit of Bollywood.
Don’t get me wrong – you won’t find any lip-synched musical numbers or sequin-clad backup dancers in this movie. In fact, the musical score by Indian composer A.R. Rahman with tracks by political pop star M.I.A., is hip, current, and unlike any other film soundtrack I’ve heard. But the film, when you scrape everything else away, is essentially a boy meets girl, boy loses girl story (I won’t tell you how it ends).
That being said, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat for a sometimes funny, violent, and bittersweet ride. It opens with a scene you can’t forget – Jamal Malik, about to win millions of rupees on India’s ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,’ is being tortured by the police after he is accused of rigging the show. The reason? A young man from the slums with no formal education couldn’t possibly know all the right answers without cheating. We want to route for him, although several big questions go unanswered (how does he learn how to speak English so well?)
We get to know Jamal – a likeable character with a tragically unlucky lot in life – in flashback, starting with an early memory of him as a boy jumping into a pile of excrement just to get an autograph from Amitabh Bachchan, India’s most famous film star. The game show format actually serves as a clever narrative device. As Jamal explains to the police how he knew the right answers, each question triggers a glimpse into the seminal moments that shape his life.
Like passive voyeurs, we see his mother killed in the midst of Hindu-Muslim riots. We see orphans exploited and abused on the streets, where justice is clouded by organized crime and police corruption. And we see how poverty leaves him with little control over his life and love. It’s clear, then, that the film’s only purpose isn’t just to tell a love story – it’s also an indictment of the deeply rooted corruption and social systems that perpetuate the horrors of poverty in India, as seen through outsiders’ eyes.
In many ways, ‘Slumdog’ is an intimate portrait of India – one that goes beyond the façade we see on the news, painting the nation as a success story of globalization. Certainly, outsourcing has brought a growing middle class to India and the country can boast a more diversified, global economy. But there’s more to the story.
Figures like economic growth and the number of American firms outsourcing to India don’t tell us that the gap between the rich and the poor is actually growing; that slums still permeate the major cities like Delhi and Mumbai, India’s financial capital; and that despite being the world’s largest democracy, the country is still plagued by police corruption, poor infrastructure, tension between Hindus and Muslims, and a social divide that allows some Indians to prosper from the new economy while the rest are left out.
There’s also a growing class of literature and films that attempts to paint a portrait of this other side of India. For example, Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel ‘White Tiger’ places Indians squarely into two camps – servants and masters. It’s a disturbing tale of what it really takes for a man born into poverty to pull himself up by his bootstraps. With the recent attacks in Mumbai putting a spotlight on the country’s wealth and economic success, we’re likely to see more books like it.
Certainly, this seems to be an emerging theme in the Indian popular imagination – the young, winsome boy from the slums breaks through the glass ceiling to make his fortune in the new India. We see it in the Broadway play Bombay Dreams, in Bollywood, in literature, and now in ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ It’s India’s version of the American Dream.
But as we see in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ the dream can very quickly turn into a nightmare for those who dare to think too big and challenge existing norms. We witness the tense and precarious tightrope on which Jamal Malik is always walking – any misstep, and he could wind up dead. But unlike in real life, as we witness the tragic events of Jamal’s childhood, we know that he grows into a man – we can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
This film also takes audiences into a side of India they wouldn’t see as tourists – an India that’s often hidden away and invisible to the wealthy and privileged. And the characters – like Jamal Malik and his love interest Latika – are shown as savvy, cunning, and even witty. But they are also clearly the lucky ones compared to the millions who succumb to the streets. Jamal gets a job serving tea at an outsourcing call center, and Latika ends up living in the lavish home of a mob boss. But it doesn’t end there.
It might seem strange, then, to call the movie a fairy tale. But that’s what makes it such a gripping film. Combined with the action, the violence, and the tender moments, is a whimsical story that leaves audiences guessing until the last second, and rooting wholeheartedly for Jamal Malik – the boy from the slums – to become a millionaire and be reunited with Latika. It may not be entirely realistic, but that’s the stuff Bollywood Dreams are made of.