- HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
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 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
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
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
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.
Chiangmai Mail Publishing Co. Ltd.
189/22 Moo 5, T. Sansai Noi, A. Sansai, Chiang Mai 50210
Tel. 053 852 557, Fax. 053 014 195
Editor: 087 184 8508
E-mail: [email protected]
Administration: [email protected]
Website & Newsletter Advertising: [email protected]
Copyright © 2004 Chiangmai Mail. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.