Does Every Slumdog in India Experience a Happy Ending?
Does this Hollywood hit represent an accurate depiction of a child’s life living in the slums of India? For the average film viewer, a critical lens is not the one peering at the television screen. Having no prior knowledge of what the slums are one could take this movie as reality.
In Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the story of a young boy named Jamal Malik is explored. At the age of eighteen, he becomes a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and ends up winning the entire competition. He is interrogated by the police because it is believed that he cheated. How could he win twenty million rupees if he never really went to school and lived in the slums? The movie flashes between his time on the show, him being interrogated and his adventures as a young boy. For each question Jamal had to answer on the game show, it flashed back to when he was younger and showed how he gained the knowledge to answer each question. This is his proof that he did not cheat. The movie creatively portrayed a clear picture of Jamal’s experiences through each specifically executed transition in the movie.
The main focus of the story is to showcase the lives of children living in the slums, specifically of Jamal, Salim, and Laitka, who live in Mumbai, India. Jamal and Salim are brothers and grow up without many rules or parental figures. They are left to survive on their own, and most of the time get into trouble and experience adventures. Right after their mother dies, Jamal and Salim meet a girl named Latika. She and Jamal have an instant connection and Latika joins them even though Salim is more reluctant about the new member. The three of them get captured by Maman and get convinced to be street beggars along with other children. They find out that the children are being blinded in order to make more money, so the three of them escape. Latika gets recaptured by Maman and his gangsters and becomes a prostitute. Meanwhile, Salim and Jamal were trying to make money and survive in any way that they could.
They went to the Taj Mahal and pretended to be tour guides. They stole food from trains, stole tourists’ shoes, and pick pocketed. This carefree life was not one that Latika was living. Jamal convinced Salim that they should rescue Latika. Once rescued, Salim joined Javed’s crime world and took Latika with him. Jamal was forced to leave both of his childhood companions. His brother and his lover became a distant picture, but Jamal never stopped looking. Jamal finally located Salim and through that, he found that Latika was still working for Javed. Jamal knew that Latika watched Who Wants to a Millionaire, so he decided to become a contestant so that he could hopefully make contact with her. After many failed attempts of escaping, Latika escapes with the help of Salim as he tries to make amends for his previous behavior. To answer the final question about the name of the third musketeer, Jamal calls Salim’s phone, which Latika has and she explains that she is safe. Jamal gets the final question correct, Salim kills Javed, Salim gets killed and Latika and Jamal reunite.
How typical is it that a movie’s story has a happy ending? Does this represent reality or Hollywood’s depiction of reality?
At first view, the movie appears to resemble a documentary and it is as though the camera is simply following around Jamal and Salim. Do not forget that there was a script. The main purpose of this film was not to educate, but to make money. In critically looking at this movie, it is evident that it is from a Westernized viewpoint. This relates to the theory of Orientalism, and the representations of the child based on geography and adult perceptions.
If people do not have any other knowledge about the slums of India, they are going to believe this as the complete truth. The theory of Orientalism looks at how other places are ‘othered’ and that there is a “creation of idealized and fictional representations that dramatize distant cultures” (Anthony 19). Creating a divide relates to power and whoever is in power are the ones that create the perhaps false image of another reality. In this case, the directors of Slum Dog Millionaire have depicted the slums of India in a specific way. Aspects have been exaggerated and other parts have been dismissed.
Mary Grace Anthony states in her paper “Slum-Pups No More: Rescuing India’s Slum Children”, “However, the manner in which Rubina and Azharuddin were conveniently ‘adopted’, discarded, and later ‘re-adopted’ by film celebrities and the local government authorities exposes the seamy underbelly of marketing and promotional strategies that operate under the pretext of charity efforts to benefit the underprivileged” (18). If the producers had simply paid the actors for their work, instead of promising them free housing, would Western society appear to be ruthless and as though they were ‘ripping them off’ because they live in poverty?
In Mary Grace Anthony’s text it discusses how it is problematic that many of the child actors from that movie are still living in extreme poverty (25). This is very unfortunate that they are not living in better circumstances because of the success of the movie, but we have to remember that Hollywood is not a charity. The goal of this movie was not to come to India and eradicate poverty. Instead it was to create a movie and make money.
In looking at the socially constructed image of a child, power dynamics are always involved. In this context, the filmmakers had the power, because they come from the West and have money. In the production of the movie and the making of the script were children’s voices heard? In Nicola Ansell’s text, “Children, Youth and Development” she discusses that, “children are not passive recipients of adult culture,” they create their own culture (21). For this movie, how much of children’s culture was actually represented accurately? How much was fabricated and what was authentic? The image that is being portrayed in this movie is one that seems to represent all of the children living in the slums. Nicola Ansell reminds us that, “Even within societies there are considerable differences in what is expected of children between different social classes and ethnic groups, and between girls and boys” (9). Gender is an important binary to explore when looking at this movie.
In Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal and Salim are often shown as independent and care free children. They are shown stealing money, pretending to be tour guides, and living each say as its own. Oppositely, when Latika is represented in her younger years, she is generally accompanied with males. She later becomes to be portrayed as very sexualized, confined and has restricted freedom in what she is able to do.
Another construction that is depicted in this movie is issues of space and who has access to public space. Spatial constructions are often more closely related to adult space and how public and private spaces affect them. What experiences children have and what they are and are not allowed to do relate greatly to the space that is around them. When Salim and Jamal are children, there are many places that they are not allowed to be. This is the same with women and how spaces are also gendered. This shows that this public space is not completely public.
Overall, this movie did not provide a completely transparent and accurate depiction of the slums in India. Although its treatment of the children involved was not ideal, the movie was still a success in Hollywood’s eyes. In critical reflection it is important to realize that information about other countries and their culture should not be gained solely through the depiction created by Hollywood. The context that this movie created in and the power dynamics demonstrated must not be forgotten or ignored.