All of a sudden, it would appear, the western and Indian elite have discovered the poor. First a novel, The White Tiger, and then a movie, Slumdog Millionaire, both dealing with the lives of the urban poor in India, have hit the jackpot in the west. What do the two have in common, and how do they differ?
Now that Rahman and others have walked the red carpet and posed with the golden statuettes, now that we have gushed and oohed and aahed about the child actors, now that India has arrived on the Hollywood stage, even if second hand and vicariously, it is time for a somewhat more sober assessment of Slumdog Millionaire.
To be more precise, the Slumdog phenomenon. Because the film itself, quite frankly, is second rate. It opens in a Mumbai police station, where a somewhat brutish-looking inspector (Irrfan Khan) and a bored, fat constable (Saurabh Shukla) are interrogating a young man (Dev Patel). This young man, we learn, is taking part in the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be Millionaire), and has reached the final stage – he is one question away from the highest prize when the show broke for the night. The reason he is being interrogated is, we learn, that the police cannot believe that an uneducated slum boy with a history of petty thieving like him can get so far. Surely, they reason, he must have cheated.
As they start interrogating him, we are taken through the questions that the boy has answered to get as far as he has. As the cops take him through the questions, we see how his life in the slum has in fact prepared him to answer each question. In other words, each of the questions (for example, What does the god Ram carry in his hand?) is related to some experience the boy has gone through (in this case, communal riots where his mother gets killed), which gives him the correct answer.
The film, then, is constructed as a series of flashbacks, in which we see the boy’s life being played out – the loss of the mother, the brother becoming a gangster’s hitman, the boy losing his childhood love (and finding her again as a gangster’s moll), his life of depravity as well as adventure, his escape from the clutches of a gang that maims children to turn them professional beggars, of hand to mouth existence, his ability to live by his wits, and along the way, we find him encountering situations that will, in the end, help him tackle the gameshow.
There are, then, two series of interconnected flashbacks – one series of flashbacks takes us through the show itself, and the other series of flashbacks takes us through his life previous to the show. Thus we discover why the boy is in the police station to begin with – the superstar host of the show (Anil Kapoor), himself risen from the slums, has deep hostility for the boy. He taunts the boy, makes disparaging remarks about him, and at one point even suggests the incorrect answer to him in the hope that the boy will be eliminated. The boy, however, guesses correctly, because he figures that a man so hostile to him cannot possibly want to genuinely help him. In the end, when all else fails and the boy progresses to the last question, the superstar sets the police upon him.
The boy is tortured, but he ends up winning the jackpot prize. In the process, he also wins back his childhood sweetheart (Frieda Pinto) from the clutches of the gangster (Mahesh Manjrekar), but his own gangster brother (Madhur Mittal) is killed.
The debate around the film in India has ranged from the pedantic (why do westerners only show poverty in India?) to the puerile (why has Rehman won an Oscar for this film, when he has composed much better music for so many other films?). The reaction has also been extreme – some have trashed the film as being anti-Indian, while others have celebrated the film (and especially its winning streak at the various global awards) as some kind of marker of India having finally “arrived” on the world stage.
The more interesting question lies elsewhere. Why has the western world reacted with such breathless unanimity, proclaiming the film a modern masterpiece? Consider, for instance, the following reactions. Wall Street Journal, western capitalism’s flagship paper, called it “the film world’s first globalized masterpiece.” The Washington Post says, “With its timely setting of a swiftly globalizing India and, more specifically, the country’s own version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV show, combined with timeless melodrama and a hardworking orphan who withstands all manner of setbacks, Slumdog Millionaire plays like Charles Dickens for the 21st century.” The Chicago Sun Times gave it four out of four stars, because of its “breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating.” To be fair, even in the west, there have been a few more complex reviews. London’s The Guardian, without doubt one of the finest daily newspapers in the world known for its careful and nuanced editorial and opinion pieces, pointed out how, “despite the extravagant drama and some demonstrations of the savagery meted out to India’s street children, this is a cheerfully undemanding and unreflective film with a vision of India that, if not touristy exactly, is certainly an outsider’s view; it depends for its full enjoyment on not being taken too seriously.” The review also points out that the film is co-produced by Celador Films, who own the rights to the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and therefore “it functions as a feature-length product placement for the programme.”
The controversy around the depiction of poverty is misplaced not because there isn’t poverty in India or because only Indians have the right to show that poverty, but because the controversy effectively sidelined the other, more interesting and important questions: what does the film say about ways of getting out of poverty? How does the film depict not the
poor, but the rich? And why has the film become an emblem of the new India in the west?
The official website of the film calls it “the feel-good film of the decade,” quoting The News of the World. The problem with the film is not that it shows poverty, but because it offers a completely unrealistic solution to it. The solution of course is the lottery of the game show – which is tied to the idea in the film that somehow the slum boy was fated to win, that his luck was simply fantastic – but it is not the only solution. The other solution is the path taken by the other brother, the one who becomes a gangster. Crime offers him a way out. Quite tellingly, he is finally killed in a bathtub filled with bank notes. He chooses this end for himself. He is a poor kid, and the end he meets seems to suggest, simultaneously, two things: it is poetic justice for choosing the path of crime, but it is also as if, for him, death is worth it if it comes with a pool of cash. This scene, of the brother’s death, is in that sense linked to the scene at the beginning of the film, where the boy jumps in a pit of shit in order to get Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph. (Is it any wonder that the film offended Amitabh so much?!)
Because the gangster brother’s death is both deserved (from the spectators’ point of view) and worth it (from his point of view), you actually forget it very soon. By the time the end credits roll to a Hindi movie-style dance number (“Jai Ho!”) on a local train platform, the lovers are reunited and the slum boy is richer by 2 crore rupees, and all memory of the dead brother is erased. We are no longer in a Dickensian landscape of industrial capitalism where the creation of fabulous wealth for the few leads to the creation of fabulous poverty for the most, we are in neoliberal fantasyland, in which anyone, anywhere, in Mumbai or Durban or Rio or New York, could suddenly, inexplicably, strike a fortune, so long as fate’s dice rolls correctly, and the only casualty along the way is a brother who had it coming anyway. The rich can go on living the way they’ve been living all along, in Mumbai or Durban or Rio or New York, because their affluence has nothing to do with the poverty of the many, and in any case, the poor are poor only up to the point that their luck turns.
No wonder the Wall Street Journal called it a “globalized masterpiece.”
But what is actually quite telling is the attitude of the only really rich character we see in the film (apart from the gangsters, of course): the superstar host of the game show. He has contempt for the slum boy. The film’s justification for this contempt is weak and unconvincing – because the superstar also rose from the slums, he jealously wants to protect his unique history. The truth, however, is simpler and harsher: the rich, at least in India, have a deep and unremitting disdain and hostility for the poor.
It is this disdain and hostility that Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger seeks to explore. This novel too, like Slumdog Millionaire, received accolades in the west (and, we might add, in India too) and is one of the few first novels to have won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It is the story of Balram Halwai, the “white tiger,” who migrates from a village in Jharkhand to Ranchi and then to Delhi. Here, he works as a driver in the employ of the son of one of the landlords in his village. This son, Mr Ashok, has returned to India from the US with his wife, Pinky Madam. As we learn early in the novel, Balram Halwai will kill his employer, and go to Bangalore and eventually start his own business, a taxi service.
The novel has some nice scenes. For instance, when Pinky Madam, in a drunken state, drives over a child of a family sleeping on the footpath (which, by the way, is called by its American name through the novel: pavement), it is simply taken for granted that Balram will take the blame if it comes to it; another time, Balram pays a lot of money to sleep with a “Russian” prostitute, only to discover that she is an Indian woman with her hair dyed blond.
The novel is written as a series of emails written by Balram Halwai to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. This enables the author to do many different things: it brings in a farcical, mocking tone; it allows the protagonist to speak more frankly than if he were writing to someone he knows; and, most importantly, it allows the author the space to explain things to the western reader. For instance, at the point when Balram is about to be employed by Mr Ashok’s father, he asks him his caste. At this point, instead of simply telling us what he said, Balram delivers his intended reader, Wen Jiabao, and through him, us, an exegesis on caste:
"See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well-kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. . . . And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947 – the day the British left – the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law. Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. It didn’t matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up. . . . These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies.”
In other words, from a hierarchical, but ordered world, we have moved to a more equal but chaotic world, a post-caste, free market world. This is critical to the novel, because it has to end with Balram becoming an entrepreneur. If caste is shown to be a barrier to upward mobility, the author would find it hard to justify this move. (In the real world, of course, things are more complex. Even if newer entrepreneurs in some parts of the country have come from non-business castes, or castes hitherto considered “low,” this has not meant a weakening of the caste structure – in many cases, it has meant the very opposite, in fact. But this is a complex question, and we do not have the space to go into that.)
The problem is not simply that Adiga is weak on sociology. The problem is that he writes about the poor with absolutely no sympathy for them. In fact, the very opposite. He writes with contempt and disdain. Consider this passage:
“A month before the rains, the men came back from Dhanbad and Delhi and Calcutta, leaner, darker, angrier, but with money in their pockets. The women were waiting for them. They hid behind the door, and as soon as the men walked in, they pounced, like wildcats on a slab of flesh. They were fighting and wailing and shrieking. My uncles would resist, and managed to keep some of their money, but my father got peeled and skinned every time. ‘I survived the city, but I couldn’t survive the women in my home,’ he would say, sunk into a corner of the room. The women would feed him after they fed the buffalo.”
This basic attitude, of seeing the poor as greedy, selfish, violent and self-centred permeates the entire novel. Thus, when Balram comes to Delhi, his relationship with other drivers is also marked by suspicion and hatred. He hates his own family, and stops sending money home. When, towards the end of the novel, a boy from his village joins him, his first thought is about how to get rid of him. And so on.
The novel is supposed to be a searing, critical look at the attitudes of the urban rich towards the class that works for them in a number of menial jobs – as household servants, as drivers, as attendants, and so on – and in the process an examination of the violence that the underclass directs at the rich, more and more apparent in cases of murder and theft by servants. What it ends up doing is the very opposite: by removing any element of structural inequality from society, and by portraying the poor as selfish and violent, it basically ends up reinforcing the very prejudices that the rich have towards the poor.
Perhaps the conclusion is too harsh and unfair, but on evidence of one movie and one novel, it has to be said that the British director suffuses his poor characters with more humanity and dignity than the Indian novelist, even if his conclusion is in fantasy.