Theory Teacher's Blog

Reading Slumdog Millionaire

The movie Slumdog Millionaire has already won numerous awards including Golden Globe’s best picture and best director, and it has been nominated for ten Academy awards. The movie is essentially a fairy-tale rags-to-riches story about Jamal and Latika, a poor boy and girl in Mumbai, India who are finally able to be together after he beats all odds to win the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” show. The narrative trick of the movie is that he tells the story of his life to a police officer, who suspects him of cheating, in order to demonstrate how he knew the answers to the triva questions. Each question corresponds to a significant moment in his life. Hence, in the process of telling a story of an alternative to poverty, the movie also suggests an alternative epistemology — or way of knowing the world — that romantically evokes the fundamental equality of all humankind. Even a poor, ignorant “slumdog” can know things. What I think is stylistically interesting is how the movie in many ways resembles the kind of fairy-tale plot typical of the “Bollywood” Indian films (alluded to in the final scene), but it is shot in the hyperrealistic style now popular in London and Hollwyood cinema.

Though the movie has been almost unanimously praised by American and European reviewers, it has provoked angry protests in the country it purports to be about. NPR radio recently asked how people in India would receive a movie set in India, starring Indians, but made by an Irishman from England, Danny Boyle. Some of the Indians interviewed are glad that Indian cinema is finally receiving the attention it deserves, others are angry that western media always repeats stereotypes of Indian poverty, and still others assert that poverty is an issue that ought to be addressed in India as well as in the West. (No comparison is made to Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited, which came out the year before and is also set in India, but perhaps this is because Anderson’s movie has nothing “Indian” in it, and is so self-consciously absurd that it might as well have been set in any exotically foreign space — Brazil, Congo, Mars, whatever.)

The question NPR raises in turn raises some important questions about the relation between readers and a text — a relation that I have blogged about earlier here in a post about a Japanese comedy skit that was more popular outside of Japan than inside it, and also here in a post about the politics of rock and roll. Explicit in NPR’s question is the issue of representation, and how a single representation may mean different things to different people depending on the context, as the theorist Stanley Fish argues. Implicit in its question is the historical relation of power and how power can be exercized through media representations, as Michel Foucault suggests. India was once a colony of England and is now still greatly affected and perhaps even partially controlled (in a neocolonial way) by British and U.S. corporate agendas. In other words, to put it oversimply, it’s clearly not the same thing when an Indian movie represents poverty in India and when India’s former colonizer represents poverty in India, and the reason it’s not the same is precisely because of the disparity in power between the Anglo-American film industry and the various audiences. This disparity in power is not necessarily a problem for all movies made by a Brit about its former colony, but Slumdog Millionaire practically ignores this centuries-old relation. In it, we see how Mumbai has changed over the course of Jamal’s life presumably because of globalization — and we see that this change creates both wealth and poverty — but the movie in no way tries to understand why or how . . . or even what is going on.

However, none of this really explains why Americans and Europeans love this movie so much, why some in India hate it, and why some reviewers can so blatantly contradict themselves by claiming simultaneously that the movie is a fairy-tale and that it truly represents life in India without even noticing that they are contradicting themselves. How can it be both a fairy-tale fantasy and a realistic portrait of India at the same time? And for me, this contradiction is a far more interesting question than the question NPR raises about the different reactions in India. Instead of focusing on how they-over-there appreciate the movie, why doesn’t NPR follow’s example here and analyze how we-over-here do?

To answer this question about the obvious contradictions manifest in how it has been appreciated, I suggest that the reason why the movie is so successful and so troubling at the same time is its style — its synthesis of gritty, hyperrealism with romantic fantasy. The result is an uncanny eroticization of poverty (as an article in The Guardian points out here) that is likely to be offensive to some precisely because they suspect that it is romantic and titilating to others.

So, returning to the question of the relation between readers and text — a relation we call interpretation — I want to emphasize that it would be wrong to claim that Indians see the movie one way and Americans another because of differences in Indian and American culture. This is clearly false, since people everywhere have read the movie in so many different ways, and this is not what Stanley Fish meant by “interpretive communities.” Rather, what is meant is the reading of the film is partially determined by the context of the act of reading, not the life or background of the reader.  What is involved in this particular act of reading is, of course, an intuition about what the movie means not only to oneself but also to others — an intuition informed not by singular cultural identities but by a history of political relations.


January 31, 2009 - Posted by | global, movies, race


  1. It’s a good example of storytelling. Really a standard Hollywood movie set in Mumbai.

    On a lighter note, here’s a Amul Butter on Slumdog. As they have so many times before, Amul Butter is mixed with the current events.

    Comment by mumbaikar | January 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. I have not seen the film, so I’m not venturing into any assumption about it. On a purely theoretical ground, I do agree with your explanation of why reading communities react so differently.

    Comment by Barbara | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  3. Walking out of the movie theater, I recall having mixed thoughts about enjoying Slumdog Millionaire precisely because of what you define as “intuition”: the discomfort in my enjoyment of this film is due to my reading the film not only for myself but for others. I fear how the film may be perceived by those who did consider India’s neo-colonial relationship to the West, as well as its former colonial relationship with England. Since the film does not situate the poverty of its main characters in anything but the fact that there is abject poverty in India (and not in what may have caused it), we are not explicitly invited to imagine a better future for some of Jamal’s former cohorts that we meet in his flashbacks.

    So, in that case, my uneasiness in the joy that I derived in this film does not only come from why others enjoyed it when it lacked the points I mention above, but also because I myself found it so exhilirating.

    Comment by M---- | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hmmm… I’m going to have to disagree with Mumbaikar. I don’t think it’s a standard Hollywood movie (not least since the director and producers are British), and I don’t even really know what features are “standard” in a Hollywood movie. Many of those features would exist not just in Hollywood films but also in Bollywood films. Rather, the movie is a contradictory synthesis of genres.

    But I agree with M— that the odd exhiliration one feels watching the film is precisely what ought to give us pause and spur us to question our “subject position” as readers, as Nathaniel Hawthorne so brilliantly insists that we do in Scarlet Letter. This is a great novel precisely because it constantly turns back on itself, asking us what things mean and focusing on how different characters interpret events… and even change their interpretations. Consider the sentence in the central chapter of the novel (Ch.8 “Another View of Hester Prynne”), “The effect of the symbol–or, rather, of the position in respect to society that was indicated by it–on the mind of Hester Prynne herself, was powerful and peculiar.” (page 106-7 in the new Norton edition.) This is exactly what theorists such as Althusser and Foucault (summarized in Jeff and Susan’s chapter on subjects in Theory Toolbox) are talking about. And again, later in the novel, at the conclusion, when Hawthorne actually gives us several ways of interpreting the story, none of which completely work. If Slumdog Millionaire had engaged in the kind of questioning that Hawthorne engages in, it would be receiving praise from the people in India, not protest. And if that lack of circumspection is what Mumbaiker means by “hollywood movie,” then I agree.

    Comment by steventhomas | February 3, 2009 | Reply

  5. I watched Slumdog Millionaire having just returned from a trip to India, and although I never did visit Mumbai, I certainly experienced my share of Indian slums outside of train stations, in Delhi and Jaipur, and sadly, pushing against the walls of a top-ranked private boarding school I visited. Right after finishing the movie, I admit I felt exhilarated because I had just experienced much of the India portrayed in the film–I was even completely ripped off by a ‘tour guide’ somewhere outside of Agra. After some thought, however, I realized that in my memories I was never exhilarated when walking through these impoverished areas; I was sickened, torn apart on the inside by the conditions in which the people had to live.

    Stylistically, the movie would have one believe that poverty is fun and even allows for a certain amount of freedom from the constraints of ‘civilized’ life (i.e. the introductory chase scene), and it would be easy to believe so sitting in an air-conditioned theater and inhaling buttered popcorn and a 32 oz. soda, but if anyone has actually BEEN to India, they would know that the reality of India’s poor is quite the opposite.

    I mean, my God, how does one even fathom the scene where Jamal has to jump into a pool of excrement? I can just imagine the American audience having a belly laugh at the boy’s expense then cooing out a chorus of ‘awww’s when he runs up to the front of the crowd covered in an eternity’s worth of crap. The film’s portrayal of the horrors of poverty is offensive.

    But why stop at poverty? Why not a love story using some other controversial subject (without alluding at all to its controversy) as its guide? I can imagine Danny Boyle’s next project now: the male protagonist, a senior member of the KKK, chases the woman of his dreams over a series of lighthearted lynchings across the American south, culminating in a heartfelt reunion at the end complete with a square dance number on the graves of the countless victims of racism; the public would eat it right up.

    Comment by Reese | February 8, 2009 | Reply

  6. I just read a really nice essay on Slumdog winning the Oscar’s which I thought was good — balanced in that it does recognize what’s good about it as well as the creepy ideological implications.

    Comment by steventhomas | February 26, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] And I guess I like how the movie Om Shanti Om also comments (very indirectly) on India’s relationship to America this video and through the plot. In a sense, the movie is reversing the scopophilic gaze we got in Slumdog Millionaire, that I blogged on a few months ago [here]. […]

    Pingback by The Suits and Trappings of Shanti; or, The Pain of Disco « Theory Teacher’s Blog | April 28, 2009 | Reply

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