Hollywood Puts on the Dog
We’re All Slumdog Millionaires, at Heart By Sonia ShahSonia Shah is the author of The Body Hunters and Crude. Her third book, a political history of malaria, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
If the stylish brush strokes of mid-20th century crime fiction found a ready home in Tinseltown, the criminal injustices of the developing world were never Hollywood’s strong suit. Yet it seems as if First World moviegoers have been spending a lot of time lately in impoverished Third World locales, with contemporary fiction like The Kite Runner and The Constant Gardener used to flesh out the details. The moment that exhausted my patience for the latest cinematic tour occurred about 20 minutes into Slumdog Millionaire, the film adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s debut novel Q&A. The protagonist, a young orphan from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal Malik, had just found out that the smooth-talking adult whom he’d considered a saint and his personal benefactor intended to permanently mutilate him in order to turn him into a more lucrative street beggar. “He wants to take your eyes out with a spoon,” Jamal’s brother whispers to him.
It’s a terrifying betrayal, and although Jamal has already witnessed the murder of his mother—assaulted by an enraged Hindu mob, she drowns in the communal pool he’d been happily splashing in, just moments before—he is an innocent. He wants to dance, and sing, and thinks that one day he will live in a mansion. “The good life, here we come!” he’d squealed, just moments before his brother’s revelation. Nevertheless, after being told the horrible truth, the child does not blink. He does not rage, he does not cry. He simply nods, brown eyes pitifully wide. He accepts the betrayal silently, without a tear.
Slumdog Millionaire has so far grossed over $140 million in North America alone, and won eight Academy Awards, making it one of the most critically acclaimed book-to-film adaptations in recent years. Its stylish exterior has something to do with the film’s success, but style alone isn’t really sufficient to overcome the story’s unconvincing characters and tedious plotline. The story has resonated so deeply in part because of the way it taps into powerful and comforting fantasies about the developing world.
Hollywood films that delve into the horrors of the developing world usually feature white characters fleeing from the heart of darkness—think Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond or James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland. In those films, poor countries are portrayed as sites of unrelieved depravity. Slumdog, by contrast, shows us humor and beauty amidst the cruelty: farting men, giggling children, scolding mothers. There’s ordinary humanity amidst the depravity here. The poor are not just begging machines and terrorists, after all.
There’s a mild kind of bravery in that, but neither Slumdog nor Swarup’s Q&A goes so far as to portray their impoverished protagonists as makers of their own destiny. Interestingly, according to the Guardian newspaper, the novel underwent an “extreme makeover” on the way to becoming the blockbuster film, and in several of the noted changes the desire to minimize the protagonist’s agency and maximize his victimization can be plainly seen. For example, in the novel, the protagonist is named Ram Mohammad Thomas. With his three names from the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian traditions respectively, the character is uniquely immune to the religious violence that plagues his country. He’s an Indian Everyman. In the film, the protagonist is renamed Jamal Malik, nominally distinct as a member of the embattled Muslim minority and subsequent unwitting victim of murderous Hindu violence. In both the film and the novel, the protagonist’s story unfolds via a series of flashbacks that occur during an interrogation by the authorities. In the novel, the interrogation is conducted by a friendly neighborhood lawyer. In the film, the friendly barrister becomes a brutal police officer, and the interrogation includes waterboarding, hanging, and electrocution. Yes, there is ordinary humanity depicted amidst the cruelty here, but that does not make the characters here self-determining, with all the messiness such autonomy entails. Jamal is, rather, a sympathetic victim, a worthy vessel of our charitable impulses, should we feel any.
The novel underwent an ‘extreme makeover’ on the way to becoming a film.
For, just as our Hollywood celebrities swoop out of their private jets to save the poor one adorable baby at a time, so too, in the world of Slumdog Millionaire, windfalls appear out of nowhere and save the poor through no agency of their own. By answering the dumbest questions in the world, salvation rains upon Jamal from the heavens (followed by a strangely wooden Bollywood-style dance number). How else can winning a game show—a trivia game show, no less, not even one that requires even a modicum of skill or knowledge or even clever deduction, but rather only passing knowledge of the most useless bits of information—become a “triumph of the human spirit” as author Swarup called it, or “exhilarating” and “uplifting” as film critic Roger Ebert raved? There’s no need, the dovish Slumdog coos, to reckon with, say, the West’s complicity in unfair trade practices or military interventions that impoverish distant lands, or the fact of systemic corruption in poor countries, or the poor’s exploitation by local elites and by corporate entities whose businesses would collapse without their cheap labor. Nor is there any need to cope with the demands of the poor as they may articulate them, no need to consider whether they’d prefer a new madrasa, perhaps, or a television set instead of a mosquito net, a real job instead of a handout. No, the key to the disempowered poor’s salvation is easily turned, and lies squarely in the palm of the affluent West.
Swarup, an Indian diplomat, grew up in the wealthy suburbs of London. Viewers who think that his novel, or Boyle’s film adaptation, show the “real” India should be wary. “I don't have firsthand experience of betting on cricket or rape or murder,” Swarup told reporters. “I don’t know if it’s true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.” Fair enough. But what that means is that Slumdog Millionaire, as with so many other Western depictions of the starving masses, tells us much less about the poor than about ourselves.