The thing about ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is that it is not specifically about life in the slums or about millionaires, nor is it about India or gameshows or making Bollywood into a new western movie genre. It’s about something much deeper, more universal, something that transcends class, caste or culture, and has everything to do with what weight one’s basic humanity has in this massified, globalized world of glitz and information.
The key question the film asks is: what do we know and how do we know it? Is culture organized to reinforce deeply unjust divisions and exclusions, to strip certain individuals of the opportunity to access the knowledge that makes a successful, secure life truly possible? Do such exclusions mask their own deficiencies, by depending as much on the upkeep of personal bias and deliberate exclusion as they do on discounting the value of certain unfortunate fellow human beings?
‘Slumdog Millionaire’ explores, in ways at times subtle and complex, at others very much apparent and brutal, this problem of keeping the unfortunate other from being a fellow human being at all. But the movie does not limit itself to issues of class or ethnicity, bias or brutality; instead, it takes us through the intricacies of how a person’s life is also the living of a mode of forming, acquiring and organizing knowledge.
To some degree, maybe it is possible to say, we are the knowledge that we find, create or pull together from sometimes dangerous or problematic experiential sources. The fire of knowledge, the incendiary power of information, and of the competition to get near it, is the substance of the plot-line. The emotional attraction is of course the persecution and the none-grittier lifelong romance, but these are more setting for the telling of a different story than they are the central point.
What is the value of a given map of perception, of an experience, of a particular human being’s approach to knowing about the world? What is the value, for long-term memory and knowledge formation, for resilience of the self deep into the confusion of future circumstance, of this glance or that gaze, of this betrayal or that slip from the center? How to know when to run for the horizon? To betray the betrayers? How to interpret the claims and vestiges of strength to see clearly where it has failed and where it is possible at all?
Is there any truth at all aside from the fact of knowing someone can be trusted? Feeling it? Believing it? It may be about how we disguise ourselves in uses, roles, obligations, the seeming fact of having no choice but what there is. It is written. Maybe it is written in the character, the capacity of vision, the way one finds to bridge the gaps.
The story teaches us a great deal, if we are willing to look, and to learn a little of the backstory, the political and ethnic tension, the demographics of Mumbai, about India’s evolving into a postmodern hornet’s nest of conflicting interests, values, classes and needs. It reminds us that sometimes luxury and entitlement stand in the way of the vital needs of many more people than we can imagine. There are flashes where one asks: how many people live in those absolutely massive slums they show us?
But the story is really about how love and misfortune can be intertwined, how they can feed from each other, how they make up the fabric of a life lived either fatefully or with creative determination. We find the saturation of experience, how ultimate knowledge is beyond us, how in places of transit, we find firm footing and the reversal of slippages from the center we seek to hold, but the finding is always precarious and requires faith and determination.
Jamal’s most character-shaping moments involve either a poised determination, or faith in the outcome being what it should be. This allows him to take the gamble that may seem far-fetched, or unlikely to work out, but makes sense only if we understand the hardened approach to faith and trust, making what you believe, make the best outcome out of your best chances.
Another sub-story we trace through Jamal’s character, which contrasts dramatically with his surroundings, is the power that comes from not swearing allegiance to money or status, the strength that comes from having other, more human concerns that take priority. This is how Jamal is able to keep at his quest, to represent the best part of humanity in a world fraught with chaos and violence.
- Originally published 22 February 2009, at CafeSentido.com