Vol. VIII No. 22 - Tuesday
June 2 - June 8, 2009

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by Saichon Paewsoongnern

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?


Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

William Parham
We already know that answer, let’s move on to a second, more compelling question: What would you be willing to do to get those millions?
If you were a character in a recent film, you’d be willing to do quite a lot. That film? The Oscar-winning best picture/director/cinematography, Slumdog Millionaire, explores the sordid underbelly of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ by following the lives of three young orphans growing up in the brutal slums of Mumbai. Salim, his younger brother Jamal, and their female friend Latika have the grit, determination and quick-wit to grab what they want.
They just need that one chance… It appears for Jamal in the form of a Hindi quiz show, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ In the biggest day of his life, while a whole nation watches mesmerized, Jamal is one question away from winning an astounding 20 million rupees. But when the show breaks for the night, he’s arrested and charged with cheating, because how could an uneducated man – a slumdog – possibly have the correct answers to arcane and obscure questions?
How he does know is the heart of this film. Desperate to prove his innocence, after a little warm-up torture in the police station, Jamal begins to narrate exactly ‘how’ he knows. The answers are the violent events in the three children’s lives that just so happen to correspond to the questions asked.
Improbable? For sure. But like the Indian Bollywood movies that this film parodies, there’s always hope that the ending to their own lives can be just like those mindless Bollywoods: song, dance, lost love found – all because of that one fortuitous, well-seized opportunity. In other words, hope and chance writ exceedingly large.
The verve and panache with which this film weaves itself is astounding. First the narrative construction: the present-time quiz show complexly layered with flashbacks to the three children’s lives that explain the answers to those difficult questions. Second, brilliant cinematography (I promise, like nothing you’ve seen before) creates the chaotic tapestry of modern-day India, with a slightly surreal quality that tells us that maybe this story is not really a slice of life, but is just yet another extravagant Bollywood production after all. Third, a spellbinding soundtrack that, like the visuals, captures an India either running amok or developing itself into a world superpower – or both.
In a bizarre twist of life imitating art, last week the shanty-home of the child who played the young Salim was bulldozed, along with those of others, in a roundelay of official ‘pre-monsoon demolition’ of illegal housing in the Mumbai slum he and his family call home.
Nearby, a wrinkled movie poster of Slumdog flapped in the breeze, scrawled with a message to the child star ‘with love and thanks’ from the film’s director Danny Boyle. Thanks so much, kid, for significantly contributing to an eight Oscar-winner, US$326 million box office film – couldn’t have been done without you. Indeed.
‘I was looking for the keys for years, but the door was always open.’
That door would be the one that leads from hope, through opportunity, to success. The quote is from The White Tiger, the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2008. Similar in theme to Slumdog Millionaire, this book, written by first-time Indian novelist, Aravind Adiga, explores what a person will do to obtain what they want/need. In our consumerist culture – pertaining also to India, when old Bombay segued into Mumbai – wants and needs are conflated, not thoughtfully distinct.
The book is constructed around a series of letters from the narrator, Balram, to China’s premier Wen Jiabao. Written from a perspective of a future time, when Balram has become a successful entrepreneur, he has heard that Wen Jiabao is coming to Bangalore, India’s version of Silicon Valley, and “wants to meet some Indian entrepreneurs and hear the story of their success from their own lips.”
And Balram most definitely wants to tell his story – how India, even though it has “no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.” Irony, humor, and deadly determination define this novel of how Balram rises from one of India’s lowest castes to a successful business owner.
Now, that compelling question again: What does it take to rise from proverbial rags to riches? What is that door that’s always open? For Balram, that would be a little murder one night, as he’s driving his wealthy employer with 700,000 rupees in a bag on the seat. The road is uncannily empty, a perfect reason to stop and ask his employer to get out of the car… Balram comments upon this fortuitous emptiness – “you’d swear it’s been arranged just for you.”
I find it interesting that in both this film and novel, opportunity is presented as chance event. From our Western perspective, opportunity is generally perceived as something we have a hand in creating by foresightful preparation. But in societies where people are culturally and educationally unempowered, and religion so ubiquitous, opportunity is rarely seen as something you’d effect solely by your own planning. It has to be fate, destiny, grace of the gods, whatever other charming thing. Anything but acknowledgement of your own power.
But the disturbing question: If the door to opportunity is open but one has to wade through murder and betrayal to walk through it, should you? Can we judge another without walking in their shoes as the old adage has always warned us? I truly don’t know, but here’s how Balram puts it, “It was all worthwhile to know…what it means not to be a servant.”
In his recent book, The World is Flat, journalist Thomas Friedman remarks about “the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China, and so many other countries to become part of the global supply chain for services and manufacturing, creating an explosion of wealth in the middle classes of the world’s two biggest nations, [and] giving them a huge new stake in the success of globalization.”
Globalization has most certainly done that. But Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger remind us that there’s more to India and China than the middle class. In an interview, Adiga explains that “a lot of poorer Indians are left confused and perplexed by the new India that is being formed around them.” Perhaps they see some doors as stuck, yet others easily swinging open.
And now a pop quiz: how does one answer questions anyway? How does anyone know anything about life except from one’s own experience? If not this, perhaps the only other answer is one presented to Jamal during his quiz show – ‘it is written.’ He doesn’t pick it.


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