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Revisiting Slumdog Millionaire

The output of the Mumbai film industry largely consists of superficial plots with light-hearted music…

The output of the Mumbai film industry largely consists of superficial plots with light-hearted music and little contact with pressing social and political realities. By contrast, Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire, set in Mumbai, is not that innocent.

When people from the so-called Third World complain about lingering colonial attitudes, I am inclined to yawn, knowing the self-hate and the guilt-trip of Europeans and Euro-Americans that have replaced their colonial-age pride. All these anti-colonial rants sound so anachronistic. But then I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about a young man who can answer the questions of a TV quiz thanks to his experiences as a slum kid.

About this Oscar-winning movie, the following points have been made on Hindu forums, and by Rajiv Malhotra at the Montréal DANAM conference in 2009, and partly also by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the very author of the book on which the movie was based:

1) The poverty and neglect in Mumbai are overdone in the movie. In the book, protagonist Jamal meets his heroine Latika not as a child thrown out into the rain then to live on the streets, but as a teenager living in an apartment, after having spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. Likewise, the cruelty is overdone, as with the gory scene of a child blinded in order to make it more lucrative as a beggar.

A scene from Slumdog Millionaire.

Flemish-born sister Jeanne Devos, founder of a trade-union for house personnel in Mumbai, commented that in her decades of work among the underclass there, she has heard stories of children thus mutilated, but has so far never come across an actual instance. Now that India is projecting a less miserable, more modern and confident image of itself, this movie revives the Mother-Teresa image of India as the ultimate in material and human misery and in heartless exploitation of fellow human beings. If you have seen the movie, you will have noticed that, as French India-watcher François Gautier puts it, “Slumdog literally defecates on India from the first frame”.

2) The book’s protagonist is a transreligious pan-Indian kid, Rama Mohammed Thomas (the commonest names for Hindus, Muslims c.q. Indian Christians), abandoned as an infant in a church by his mother, whose religion remains unknown. The movie turns him into a Muslim kid, Jamal, orphaned by a Hindu mob killing his mother in a pogrom in the name of Rama. The insertion of a quiz question about “the weapon with which the Hindu god Rama is depicted” (a total non-starter as quiz question in India, because everybody knows the answer: a bow) and Jamal’s memory of seeing a boy with hate-filled eyes enacting Rama-with-bow at the start of the anti-Muslim pogrom, serve to give body to the mediatic fiction of India as a land where an overbearing Hindu majority terrorizes hapless fearful minorities.

The effect is to drive the nail deeper into the coffin of Hinduism’s former reputation for tolerance and confirm its newly crafted image as hateful and a threat to non-Hindus. As François Gautier has observed: “Can there be a more blatant lie? Hinduism has given refuge throughout the ages to those who were persecuted at home: the Christians of Syria, the Parsis, Armenians, the Jews of Jerusalem, and today the Tibetans, allowing them all to practise their religion freely.”

We may add that Hindus in Kerala also permitted Muslims to settle and to marry native girls, hence their name Mapilla-s or Moplahs, “sons-in-law”. This hospitality was repaid with military conquest by other Muslims and with large-scale anti-Hindu pogroms in the 1920s by the Moplahs themselves. It made even Mahatma Gandhi say that Muslims are “bullies” while Hindus are “cowards.”But in the movie, the Muslims are poor hapless victims of Hindu bullying.

Danny Boyle

That is how Western interests like to imagine India, among other reasons because it justifies their anti-India position in the Cold War (as during the Bangladesh war of 1971) and its support to Pakistan even now. It also allows them to take a pro-Muslim stand and to depict Muslims as victims rather than terrorists, which looks progressive in the West’s internal multiculturalism debate. For the US, pro-Muslim positions in South Asia (like in the Balkans or in the question of Turkey’s EU accession) serve to appease Muslim anger at the American support to Israel in the Palestinian question.

The anti-Hindu twists in the movie form the typical second phase of a propaganda/disinformation campaign. After the actual message is hammered in by specialists, i.e., India-watchers misreporting on India’s religious conflict invariably shifting the blame to the Hindu side, it is fixated in popular consciousness by repeating it not as a news item but as a piece of received wisdom, common knowledge.

This is done not through thematic channels (i.e. papers and reports on India’s religious conflict) but through general channels moulding opinion indirectly, such as TV shows, women’s magazines, tourist guidebooks and others related only tangentially to the theme. In the first phase there is still a risk of getting countered by better-informed and less partisan specialists; but in the second, propagandists can work on the masses ignorant of the specifics, i.e.,the Western cinema audience whose knowledge of India’s religio-politics is hazy at best.

3) Jamal is handed to the police for torture on the pretext that he must have cheated, for how else could a “slumdog” know all the answers? In the book, this is done by an American visiting India in connection with the legal rights to the quiz format. In the movie, it is done by the Indian quiz master, who comes across as a lurid incarnation of the well-to-do Indians’ smug and callous mistreatment of their poorer fellow-countrymen. Likewise, the movie’s American tourists in Agra are an incarnation of sanity and benevolence contrasting with the barbarity of the ambient Indian society. This is a throwback to colonial-age stereotypes about India as a backward society in dire need of benevolent Western intervention.

4) No surprise then that according to a mastermind of the Christian mission, Joseph D’Souza, the movie has caused a windfall in donations for the mission’s work in India. Director Danny Boyle has declared that as a boy he had wanted to become a missionary, and that the same spirit still animates him.

5) Finally, a detail that may have escaped the notice of Western critics: successful as the English movie was in the West and among the anglicized Indian elite, its Hindi version has flopped miserably. As Rajiv Malhotra has testified: when he and some friends wanted to see the movie in Delhi, the queue for the English version was very long, so they moved to the hall where the Hindi version was showing and there they could go in without waiting.

This follows a pattern: Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and other Indian writers produce English novels for the Western and westernized-Indian audience, get the Man Booker prize and other Western awards, but leave the Indian public cold. This is not because Indians are xenophobic and averse to novelties. Thus, the Western TV quiz format Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire? has indeed caught on mightily among the Indian TV viewers in vernacular versions like Kaun Banega Crorepati? They use the foreign-borrowed format and turn it into a game of their own, filling it in with the native Indian genius.

But novels like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or now the movie Slumdog Millionnaire are rightly mistrusted as products designed to curry favour with non- and anti-Indian audiences by disparaging India.

(First published on the author’s blog)