By William Anselmi and Sheena Wilson.
The triumph of visual culture in the era of neo-liberal subjugation elicits the following question by default: how are economic processes embedded in political discourses sustained, or resisted, according to visual narratives for global publics/consumers? Slumdog Millionaire(2008) offers a way into this, from local-but-global settings, socio-political transition, recuperation of the American dream, and embedded corruption as rubrics that can be subsumed under the “identity as manufactured, consumable object” trope. The twenty-first century was framed as a century of strife and cultural wars and it was to be America’s century, as orchestrated by such organizations as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Project of the New American Century (PNAC), Brookings Institution, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, the likes of which have strategized to implement their visions and policies through their many minions, sometimes contradictorily and, which for eight years, included the Bush administration (2001-2009). As America manifests itself, its capitalist side-effect is that it evacuates outside its geopolitical body, subservience, poverty, the refused wretchedness that feeds-back to Americans their divine rights to the American Dream. In so doing it erases any visibility of poverty within, it naturalizes and makes visible poverty outside American borders, and it renders that surplus commodifiable as spectacle. It slumdogs the world for America’s reaffirmation as a consumer society. The rise of the rags-to riches individual is tied to a sub-textual development whereby the exotic identity is reclaimed by the exportable American dream technology, as the progenitor of a narrative of renewed faith in the self-made dream.
Everybody Dance, Now!
If The Partyin 1968, with Peter Sellers, can be considered a revindication of the colonized speaking back to the Empire, using the forked tongue of the white Brit as the comedic channel, then Slumdog Millionaire, 30 years later, is a sad buffoonery of history that through the subterfuge of sentimentality, renders the viewer blind to manipulation. In other words, Peter Sellers, in his ability to mock British/American (mis)conceptions and prejudices about “Indians” (1) and to hilariously represent the awkward relationship between the colony and the empire, is able to use humour to evoke some self-criticism on the part of Indian viewers and British-American spectators alike, given their respective and intertwined imperial histories. By contrast, the film Slumdog Millionaire appeals to our facile emotional manipulation, which obscures how patricolonial (2) it is and does not call for reflection by either Indian or Western viewers.
With the term patricolonial, we are referencing a development that uses the resonances of the heroic male to reassert the colonial script. In this sense, whether it is Bush or Obama, the domestication of the exotic Other is achieved through international politics of cultures that promote the American Dream (neo-liberalism). Without even the nuances of an Orientalist self-reflection on the characterisation of the nation of India, viewers can easily identify the classic patriarchal tropes of the female who needs to be rescued: whether it is Latika being beckoned in from the rain to share shelter with the young protagonist Jamal and his brother Salim, or protected by her boss-lover, Javed, and then rescued again by the “white”-knight who reigns from the ultimate throne of celebrity status (Jamal as young-adult), the film clearly reinforces classic prince-princess fairytale/romance narratives that provide no agency or development for the female characters, and in this case, for the subjugated colonial India. The film again reinforces western notions of monogamy and in an age when western fairytale classics are being rewritten with stronger female protagonists and new heroines are being reinvented, Slumdog manages to bypass the legacy of historically strong female figures such as Indira Gandhi, by connecting us back to the feral child-woman who needs male companionship, protection, surveillance, discipline and knowledge to be reintegrated into society. Throughout the film, neither Jamal or Salim acknowledge female autonomy. For example, in one of the early flashblacks in the movie, Jamal says to Salim that they should invite Latika into their world, out of the rain, trying to convince him that she can become the third musketeer. Salim is resistant and says he does not even know the name of the third musketeer, since they never attended school long enough to discover that character. In other words, the motto “all for one, one for all” remains incomplete, which sustains the sentimentality of the movie itself. By the end of the film, during the final question, Jamal and Latika admit to one another and the world that they do not actually know the third musketeer’s name, which indicates that Latika was not, in fact, one of the gang of three, but only a love interest; not a protagonist in their life story. Latika’s social subjectivity is purely linked to the commodification of her beauty, and sexuality. The movie, in its stereotypical representations, depicts Indian men as incapable of treating a woman as equals. The men in the film are staged according to a patriarchal duality that places the two brothers as either protectors or abusers, but never partners to their female conterparts. Romantic notions of idealizing the female heroine are legitimated as valiant. The macho western construct of woman as either Madonna or harlot is supported: Latika is, in fact, the promoted as the virgin whore with no prophetic qualities. India’s political subjectivity is metonymically imbricated so as to recycle colonial tropes of identity imposed on the Other, such as unruly, uncivilized, uneducated (except street smarts), marginal, economically dependent, inferior, corrupt, wanna-be western, exotic with an alluring aura. The thread that weaves all the above categories together is the western perspective of India as something lacking the culture/science of hygienics and who therefore need to have their resources (fertility) controlled.
Hardly any of the above criticism has made it into the general discourse surrounding and engaging the movie and, instead, the film has become a cultural phenomenon to various audiences. It has become a form of cultural imbibement, working on several levels that is able to transform itself as a tool for various purposes much like Swiss-army knife. For Indians, the film has been absorbed as a new narration of their identity and aspiration, ironically enough given the protagonist’s heritage as a Muslim from the slums, which is not the necessary sign-equipment for success in the West, nor in 21st century India; the film exacerbates false dichotomy between Muslims and Hindus, when the realities are much more complex. In the diffusion processes surrounding the film, Slumdog allowed for a recasting of India’s international image, which has been transforming over the last two decades, moving from the periphery towards to the centre as public discourses spin around the spectacle. Exposure, as Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel have taught us, is always positive and the accolades for an Indian-style Bollywood-esque film gave Indian’s a sense of affirmation and empowerment as the Indian public felt they were given centre stage at the Oscar’s 2009. In reality, however, this is not an Indian film and it serves the West’s specific purposes to domesticate, once again, the Other who this time represented a potential economic threat.
In order for the film to have attained such heights of success, the leading character, Jamal, had to be malleable enough to correspond to the expectations, desires, and identities of the viewing public spectrum: he had to be invested with an everyman status, which makes him successful as he is deprived of his own authenticity. The film opens with Jamal’s torture. Not only invested with multiple significations from the movie’s narrative, at the very outset his voyage through the questions make him culpable for knowing the answers. Because of this, he is brought into the police station for another type of questioning because he is originally seen as a threat to the established order and therefore subject to torture that resonates with one of the most pernicious pictures to come out of Abu Ghraib. In jail for a day, the process of his rise to fame is put on pause until the police boss had gotten the “right” answer and discovered that in fact Jamal was not cheating but answering the questions himself. At the end of their electrifying interview session, the police boss pronounces Jamal “too truthful”: imbued with a colonial perspective, he sees Jamal as the naïve, overtly malleable, Indian. In this temporary investiture as a resolved threat, the technology used against him to extrapolate the right answer, “did he cheat, or not,” is a barbaric simplified model of coercion. In this sense, the dispersal of negative information about American responsibilities in Iraq is transposed onto an entirely different geopolitical situation, investing the international public with a new memory that displaces the original context. The film, in other words, is also sustained by recent world-wide problematics as represented through the media and is able to enact the ultimate Pontius Pilate praxis. First, America outsources torture from its prisons via Iraq and it is then re-narrated as originating elsewhere through a process of displaced ethics. A Long “tortuous” Goodbye-Mumbai. In Slumdog, one Muslim protagonist, Jamal, is the subject of torture. The other Muslim protagonist, Salim, is cast in another Muslim role: potential terrorist. When Jamal and Salim reunite as young adults, Salim has become one of Javed’s goons, and when Jamal stays at his house he stealthily observes his brother loading a revolver and then following ritual with his daily prayers. Salim is wearing a white bandana on his head and wearing rather fashionable (urban hip) clothing. When he kneels to pray, having just armed himself, the image resonates with notions of Muslim terrorists and with ghetto gangsters, thereby again displacing America’s fear as constructed through the Other, for fear of destabilizing the gloss of American suburbia: poverty is elsewhere and so is violence, gated by territorial and ideological wars.
For western viewers, the film entrenches and confirms notions of India’s poverty, economic lack of viability, barbarism, unruliness, corruption, uncivilized status, and affirms that it poses no real threat to the economic stability of the West at a moment of economic crisis. Instead, as its release coincided with Obama’s election but predates Obama’s inauguration, it entered into a liminal historical moment where the film transcends the future by overwriting history. Obama’s election campaign was grounded on the motto of “Yes We Can”, offering hope to a new generation of Americans – predominantly the youth and minority cultures – and the world, given America’s current status as the only superpower. That being the context, a film like Slumdog Millionaire provides all the necessary messages of hope and redemption, through a classic, even traditional, narrative paradigm. Films such as Revolutionary Road(2008), which question the possibility for the American Dream to fulfill individual potentialities, were not invited into the international cultural discourses of 2008, as framed by the spectacle of Oscar night 2009. Slumdog Millionaire serves the purpose of reselling the American Dream to the world at large, illustrating its potential to result in individual success in the third world, thereby reselling it to the American public itself. Obama is, of course, elected to power, since project-Obama replaces the project of a new century driven by the Bush government. When the neo-liberal manipulations of world markets threaten the idea of capitalism as the model of a continuous future and expose the potentially bankrupt Dream, this destabilizes the spell of the trope that has sanctified the existence of the U.S.A, for its citizens and its spectators abroad, so as to dust off, once again, or perhaps to simply outsource American tired, poor, masses, their wretched refuse. Indeed, we always were American. (3) The threat to economics at the end of 2008 and the promise of new American leadership reinforced the need for the American Dream to flatline any anomalous fluctuations of the market. In other words, once again, culture intervenes to sustain economic projects in a world that, ironically, places no value on this other aspect of human capital. In the end, whether the viewer is in India or outside looking in, the film overwhelms the viewers’ senses, codifying and stultifying reaction to an emotional level.
In January 2009, newspaper titles such as the following, proliferate: “Slumdog Millionaire ready to be unleashed on India”, “’Slumdog Millionaire’ Opens in India to Praise and Celebration”, “India revels in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s’ Oscar triumph”. Rhys Blakely reports from Mumbai in Times Online that “After its triumph at the Golden Globes, the film, set in Mumbai, has unleashed a torrent of national pride across the sub-continent. Pavitra Ramaswarmy from The Times New Delhi and Mark Magnier from The L.A. Times (reporting from New Dehli) collaborated to write that “Many woke up before dawn to watch the [Oscar] results live given the time difference. And for most, it was more than worth it. This was India’s day, a time to beam with pride as the world’s largest democracy gathered up Oscar gold… “The winners have done India proud,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh… “Jai ho,” or “Praise be,” the chorus of the film’s hit song, could be heard on many Indian channels throughout the day… Shiv Vishwanathan, an anthropologist based in the western city of Ahmedabad, said… “Whether it’s a spelling bee or the Oscars, we’re desperate for recognition. This is good news, everyone wants it, and today we got it.” However, any criticism pertaining to the film itself has not entered into the Slumdog semiosphere in the coordinated transnational exultation of the movie that culminated in its nomination for 10 Oscars, taking “home” eight. The synergies behind its international acceptance have many different ramifications that need to be illustrated so as to be able to frame the functionality that this movie serves.
Neo-fantasies for a Reality-21st Century: TV (Trainspotting Veracity)
India is not the easiest country to phagocitize into western anti-historical narratives, but Slumdog attempts this through several narrative devices, such as the presentation of the railway as a network that connects and innervates the country. As Jim Jarmusch has shown us through Dead Man(1995), one way to symbolize the process of progress is the conquest of territory via the railroad. In Dead Man, the last city is aptly called Machine City. The tandem Boyle-Tandan direction (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan) borrows Jarmusch’s practical symbolism of the train and the tracks that bring the country to life. In so far as Slumdog Millionaire is concerned, the two kids practice their art of survival by living atop the trains and stealing from and selling to the passengers within. This moving stage is a reflection of India’s modernity while at the same time it reinforces a neo-realist paradigm. The train, beyond being a space where the two brothers can survive, becomes a technology for escaping the blindness of slavery and the grasp of the Coca-Cola Pied Piper (Maman). Furthermore, it is only the boys who escape via train and Latika is left behind when Salim jerks his hand away from hers as a refusal to help her get onto the moving train. This breaks the tenuous bond of “one for all.” Finally, this little indulgence in social Darwinism cannot but frame genders into their respective roles: men are dynamic (criminals) and the woman is sedentary (captive to the brothel). Just in the same way as the mother is killed while doing laundry because she is immobilized by her social role and domestication while her little boys manage to run away. In this flashback sequence, she is knocked unconscious and we assume dies from either the blow to her neck or from drowning while unconscious. Either way, a film built on sentimentality wastes no time (time is money) on the boys’ mourning her, which promotes the idea that “they” are feral and concerns for survive precede any luxuries such as love and respect. Furthermore, the loss of one mother allows them the freedom to explore mother-India. Instead of turning to an orphanage, they turn to a fluid institution, the train. We, as spectators, are bound to trainspotting without realizing that, ironically the term, in its relationship to the drug culture, means dependency. Unbeknownst to the director(s), the latent American dream content shows the railways network as that which must be up-dated by the information highway. As the call-centre replaces the railways station, dependency on technology in order to sustain a nation-state’s importance in the world, subjugates it not to two-way free-flow (of information, capital) but to one-way re-structurations so as to render borders meaningless to the global Dream. The tracks to virtual networks as neo-colonial practices might sound paradoxical, and yet the movie makes it all, as it should, probable. For India, like other countries that once composed the rubric of the third world, for their recognition to take place, they must mirror back the West’s technologies of modernity, since this was the social bonding agent that tied different groups to the nation-state project. In other words, whatever was/is classified as third world must show a visible degree of modernity, albeit a version that is off-set from the west – a past that the West has transcended.
In cinematic history, Gianni Amelio depicts the early plight of Albanians in his 1992 movie Lamericaleaving behind a disrupted Albania that resonates with Italy circa 1945, undergoing its reconstruction. The notion of progress is ambiguously tied to the notion of modernity and thanks to the postmodern grammar the voice that claims these differences cannot be situated. Once the railway network is established, the protagonist from the Mumbai-slum can traverse and claim the variegated Indian history as a fluid entity, which enables him to answer the questions in the TV quiz-show, even under duress. In so far as the representation of India is accessed by the viewer through Jamal and Salim’s voyage via the railway, the railway becomes not only an agent of social-cohesion but a repository of knowledges and technologies that codify India into a unitary state. There is a temporal aphasia that the movie invests in, which allows it to intentionally obfuscate economic global realities historically grounded in colonialism and maintained through economic infrastructures such as outsourcing and exploitation of natural resource. Of course, there is nothing new in this process, since it was the basis of the first case of wild-liberalism at the turn of the 20th Century, summed up by the slogan laissez-faire, laissez-passer. This is in tune with relegating poverty to a specific geographical space, which negates to the English-speaking public, any connection with the contradictions of their own social economic dynamics and serves yet another purpose: to outsource poverty as a means of reassurance in a moment of economic global crisis. To playfully paraphrase Milan Kundera, poverty is elsewhere. In keeping with the West’s guilt-resolution mechanisms, which are part of the mediatic circle (Foster Parent Plan or World Vision, for example), this film plays to that same audience using similar tropes of hope, potential for escape from the cycle of poverty through western concepts and dollars. These foreign territories are transmographied into virtual spaces: dumping grounds for sentimentality and repressed emotions such as guilt, much like the third world has been used to dump expired pharmaceutical drugs as an act of charity. In the West, this process of expiation has a well-grounded historical foundation that goes back to Dante’s reinvention of purgatory. This resulted in the church being able to materially benefit, by selling indulgences guaranteeing a fast-track to paradise. Believers could benefit because their venial sins could be “indulged” in and then cleansed away for a small sum; nothing is more gratifying than exploiting your sins for a good cause. Whether we are exporting our guilt, our expired pharmaceutical products or quite literally our toxic waste, this cannot undo historical material realities, such as manifestation as class-hierarchies.
Through the film’s narrative construction and processes of diffusion, class becomes not a local social structure but a matter of national hierarchies within an international world complex. India is represented only through the trope of poverty which undoes the complex class system (based on historical social traditions and developments). The India of the movie is composed only of the poor aspiring to transcend the constraints on their lived reality, which can only come about through the artifice of mock-knowledge instigated by television’s filter of reality. The production of the lowest common denominator of social integration is a false sense of knowledge that is finally only viable in the constructed artificiality imposed on reality by a technological medium. The end result of the interface between the common subject and the technological wonder of unity is sustained by a capitalist binary system of corruption (police officers, gangsters, the television host himself) or fame, which is a falsification and displacement of human authenticity. (4) The running paradox provided by this movie sustains the main protagonist’s escape from his poverty, by legitimizing popular superficial knowledge, naturalizing poverty and eliminating any notions of civic responsibility. Poverty is not, however, a natural condition. It is a result of previous colonizing practices and intercine conflicts and exploitations of weaker constituencies. The cinematic narrative bypasses so as to confirm anti-historical constructions of reality linked to such recent phenomenon as corporate responsibility or the parlance of equitable capitalism. Governments privatize certain industries and when the happen enough, the result is that indirectly civic responsibility is also contracted out. This grandiose disconnect between the responsibility of governments to citizens, replacing that paradigm with the corporation-client model, so that finally citizens are merely righteous stakeholders of Pontius Pilate’s hygienic practices.
At the level of survival, economic deficiency is equated with street-smarts and corruption and the narrative resonates with the gangster film-genre, while the actuality of poverty and the children’s need for street-smarts, which is ultimately food for sustenance, is written out of their motivations. They become mere hobos or rascals with a certain Buster Keaton-esqueness to their brotherly escapades. Yet, their success is impregnated with neo-realist references and tensions: the movie itself is a flashback to Italian neo-realism of the mid-1940s, to films like Sciuscià (1946), without any acknowledgment, unless we take the whole movie to be a parody. Neo-realist films included child protagonists that were not professional actors but central to the film’s plot and its representation as the non-acted authentic. The settings of Italian neo-realist films were often on-location in poor neighbourhoods, focusing on themes of survival. Much like Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica identifies Italy as the closest frontier through which to access the American Dream for a transforming post-communist Albania in the early 1990s, Slumdog clearly situates the American frontier in India, as the American Dream latitudinally circumnavigates the globe in order to come back to itself, America. As well, Slumdog Millionaire ends up restaging key-scenes from various Italian movies that pay homage to neo-realist films. For example, the scene when Jamal is locked in the outhouse upon the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan and he chooses to jump into the toilet/cesspool, echoes with a key-scene in Lina Wertmüller’s Italian film Seven Beauties(1975), where a concentration camp anarchist internee jumps into a cesspool declaring his autonomy. In Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle(1981) – a movie based on Curzio Malaparte’s novel (1949) of the same name as the film, set in Naples circa 1945 (temporally synonymous with the neo-realist film period) – there is a scene, in which a tank is dismantled by a crew of street-kids. This reverberates with the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the taxi is dismantled and in Boyle-Tandan’s hands, it is the singular moment in the film that acknowledges an India behind the scenes, one where the real America, the cash handed over by the wealthy tourist, which symbolizes the dream, is just payment for a black eye. That these neo-realist practices were not identified by the circuit that surrounded the film’s success is a testimony to the postmodern mechanism of dehistoricization of the world.
Finally, Salim’s death scene, in the bathtub filled with money, is a compound-scene that brings together two iconic images from important American movies dealing with the American Dream: Scarface(1983) dealt with crime, drugs and corruption, while the other film, American Beauty(1999), dealt with alienation and the failure of the American Dream. Both are a reflection on the American construction of modernity and its failures. Likewise, in Slumdog, Salim represents both the ruthless criminal aspiring to become boss and the terribly beautiful seduction of neo-liberalism. The scenes resonate visually with iconic moments in these two films: when Scarface is killed by the men who burst into his office and there is a shoot out, and the young virgin Angela as fantasized on the bed of roses in American Beauty. In Slumdog, the bathtub resonates with Scarface’s throne, the bed in of roses in American Beauty and finally the return to a cold dry womb. Finally, as we unmask the American Dream via the resonances that Slumdog assumes and produces for itself and its consuming public, what we are left with is a discourse of and about Power. Neoliberalism then is, primarily, the process of subjugation of the Other. As such, the discourse of power brings about the reversal individuation that is ultimately the expression of thanatos. The American Dream removes from our lives is eros, since the vitality of life cannot, ultimately, be consumed.
Conclusion: The Bhangra-Salsa Global Bonus Complete Sentimentality
In the end, the film offers the viewer a number of entry points into the cinematic fabrication of the neo-colonial subject. As such, it is the recipient for capitalist identity tropes through image makeovers. The movie is itself not only a list of questions that are answered but also a set of inadequacies of India’s modernity, which the movie makers invest in to create suspense in order to finally bestow the national and international public a new face for India. This image replaces any trace of authenticity making it consumable and profitable; in a general process of hybridization, Bollywood style, hip-hop interpreted Salsa dancing that in freeze frame (in the publicity ads) makes allusion to the classic romantic Disney-like ballroom-dip, sustains the film’s final project of sentimental completion. The empty train-station as the backdrop for the couple’s last dance, resolves paradoxically the unity of India, since everything is reduced down to a stasis of the network. At this point, the couple is essentially outside of time and therefore so is India: temporally frozen forever consumable. So, when the trains reappear for the final incongruous group dance, there are stationary trains framing the shot, signifying a reconfigured, domesticated, re-colonized Indian future. Unlike in The Party, where the anti-hero is able to destabilize western power-structures through his comedic-naïveté, in Slumdog the self-assured street-smart Jamal is reconfigured through a neo-colonial lens, becoming merely a happy prince, albeit a millionaire. Money solves all his problems, and he gets the girl.
Sheena Wilson is Assistant Professor at Faculté Saint-Jean, the French campus at the University of Alberta.
William Anselmi teaches at the University of Alberta in the department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.
1. At the beginning of The Party, Sellers participates in a cinematic mise en abîme, where the main character that he plays, from India, appears in a movie as a secondary character; in this scene, he plays a trumpet to signal that the military corpus that he belongs to resists death even in the face of the opposing army’s triumph, which is a parody of the Indian scout in Westerns, who is allied with the white-man cowboy. At the same time, he refuses to die off quickly, hence the comic effect, and he continuously resurrects in order to have a longer cinematic appearance and as a nod to the fact that as an Indian from India he refuses to be expulsed.
2. This term is the development of a previous critical analysis on the film Inch’Allah Dimanche (2001) by Yamina Benguigui (forthcoming with Rodopi).
3. The reference here is to the 2001 refrain, after the attack on the World Trade Centre, that hegemonized the world under once simple motto: We are all Americans.
4. This is the same false sense of reality exploited by such programs as Paris Hilton’s My New BFF where people compete through a process of elimination to become her best friend. The idea that this process will result in true friendship, does to friendship what Slumdog does to notions of success.
American Beauty (1999). Dir. Sam Mendes. USA: Dreamworks. Blakely, Rhys. “Slumdog Millionaire ready to be unleashed on India.” Times Online. January 14th, 2009. Dead Man (1995). Dir. Jim Jarmusch. USA/Germany: Miramax. La Pelle (1981). Dir. Liliana Cavani. Italy/France: Opera Film Produzione. Lamerica (1992). Dir. Gianni Amelio. Italy/France/Germany: Arena Films. The Long Goodbye (1973). Dir. Robert Altman. USA: United Artists. Magnier, Mark. “India revels in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s’ Oscar triumph After Danny Boyle’s movie wins eight Academy Awards, detractors are few and residents dance in the streets.” LA Times. February 24, 2009. Martineau, Jarett. “’Slumdog Millionaire’ Opens in India to Praise and Celebration.” Now Public Crowd Powered Media. January 23, 2009. The Party (1968). Dir. Blake Edwards. USA: United Artists. Scarface (1983). Dir. Brian De Palma. USA: Universal Pictures. Sciucià (1946). Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Italy: Società Cooperativa Alfa Cinematografica. Seven Beauties/Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975). Dir. Lina Wertmüller. Italy: Medusa Produzione. Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Dir. Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan. Britain: Celador.