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Jamal Lacks it: Game Show Politics and Rise of Individual in Slumdog Millionaire

November 10, 2009 | By

Slumdog Millionaire as a film not only centers on the sets of a game show, but totally follows the ideology of it.

Slumdog Millionaire arouses instant interest, hype, controversy and debates on various issues – whether it is right to sell the “Indian poverty” as an unfair picture of India abroad, or whether it is really an overrated film that does not deserve much of the applause which it has gained allover the world.

My concern is neither to get engage that kind of value judgment with a moralistic stance nor to judge the quality of the film. Rather I am interested in how Slumdog brings an idea of a hero grown up in Indian soil but goes against the norms of formulized Hindi film hero. My objective is to critically analyze the political construction of Jamal as a hero in contemporary India and to examine whether Indian audience is prepared for this new age hero on Indian screen.

Slumdog Millionaire

How Slumdog brings an idea of a hero grown up in Indian soil but goes against the norms of formulized Hindi film hero.

Cinema was born in the midst of capitalist epoch in a society based on individualism and the restricted family. Cinema thus in its origin reflected dispersal of the community which is characteristic of capitalist society. And in the context of western societies the rise of film industry goes hand in hand with the expansion of consumer culture in the capitalist society. Consumer culture is a distinctly capitalist phenomenon related to individualistic desires and cinema as Christian Metz has argued, itself as an institution activates that desire. But in the construction of film narrative this model of dispersal of community is rarely reduplicated in non western post-colonial countries.

In Indian popular cinema rather a tendency has always been observed to resist the extra communal tendencies. Madhav Prasad discusses in Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, how in prohibition of kissing scene or the blocking of the representation of private is a symptomatic cultural protocol whose origin lies in the need to prevent the dissolution of pre-capitalist society. By representing the folk hero in the image of angry young man Hindi cinema presented disavowal of capitalism and the illusion that capitalism still not appeared. Thus the space of community and the importance of modern nation state, both played significant role in the formation of Hindi film hero. Films like Deewar (1975) romanticize the idea of community hero in Vijay, and simultaneously depict the statist hero in Ravi. Deewar is important in our discussion because Slumdog to a great extent brings the memory of childhood of Ravi and Vijay in that of Jamal and Salim but changes its path drastically in a complete new direction. Slumdog too brings community space (in Jamal’s childhood) and exploitative statist space (police station) but along with these it brings a third space of the game show which poses itself supreme amongst the three. Here the quiz show format presented within the film replicating the real show Kaun Banega Crorepati is important to note.

Slumdog Millionaire

The space of community and the importance of modern nation state, both played significant role in the formation of Hindi film hero.

Levi-strauss distinguishes between games and rituals by defining games as cultural forms in which participants start out equal and finish differentiated into winners and losers, whereas rituals take differentiated groups and provide them equalizing communal meanings. John Fiske in his book Television Culture extends this argument in quiz shows. Quiz shows are primarily games, though rituals are played on quiz show. Fiske observes that the structure that quiz shows follow is ritual-game-ritual. At the beginning of it, the contestants through ritualistic recitations in their introduction part move from differentiated individuals to equal competitors. When this equality is tested it produces the winner, who is then accorded a ritual of equality with the bearer of social power- the quiz master. And he is taken to the reserved part of the studio where the prizes are displayed and given to him.

In Slumdog Millionaire Jamal’s childhood spent in slum area is like a “ritualistic” part of the narrative which is needed to introduce Jamal as the hero. Then the film concentrates on formation of Jamal as the capable individual through his sufferings. And when this “rags to riches story” reaches its climax, Jamal becomes the winner and is taken to the reserved part of the narrative where Latika is waiting for him. In this whole construction of Jamal the ethos of “American Dream” resonates strongly which refers freedom that allows all citizen to pursue their goals through hard work and free choice.

The notion of free choice is significant in game shows too, where it allows individual to choose from multiple options. But actually what they present is an illusion of freedom and control every steps of the contestant. Amongst the three/ four options of an answer if all are wrongs, the participant have to choose one (ironically news paper reports claimed that one of the answers given and presented as the right one in Slumdog Millionaire is actually wrong). Here my point is that, Slumdog Millionaire as a film not only centers on the sets of a game show, but totally follows the ideology of it.

Slumdog Millionaire

In Slumdog Millionaire Jamal’s childhood spent in slum area is like a “ritualistic” part of the narrative which is needed to introduce Jamal as the hero.

Now I will explain how it incorporated the global position of a quiz show winner in an Indian lower class boy called Jamal in its film narrative. This ritual-game-ritual is unquestionably an enactment of capitalist ideology. Here individuals are constructed as different but equal in opportunity. Quiz shows use knowledge to separate out winners from losers and to ground the classification in individual or natural differences. But the knowledge that they use is the “factual” which is closely connected with the notion of power and cultural capital.

Title card of Slumdog presents a question – Jamal Mallik is one question away from winning twenty million rupees, how did he do it? A} He cheated, B} He is lucky C} He is a genius D} It is written. Significantly each of the options reflects capitalistic ideas of success in alternative methods. And very cleverly in answer to an analytical “how” it presents the possibilities of answer suited to “what” (in late capitalism information has gradually equated with knowledge, and Information Technology as an iconic signifier of new techno-culture and globalization is premised upon a kind of fetish for information). Then the film presents Jamal before us as a contestant in that game show, as an accused person in a police station and as a child in a slum area. Very interestingly the first positioning slowly erases the other two identities of Jamal and successfully narrates the story of an individual. The film ends with a celebration of this individual posing the game show as an ultimate and only way to sure success of an individual.

In this whole process the question of community vanishes slowly through the narrative. Jamal gets separated from his family, his group, his slum area and at last from Salim. But the film makes one thing very clear, through this process Jamal becomes “capable”, he learns the lesson which in turn helps him to make his dream comes true. Capitalism as a system is always secured in this logic of “survival of the fittest”. To explain the inequality in the society it never goes into any societal logic and always looks at individual capability. It appears to be very democratic in giving equal opportunity to all, and explains that some people have more capability than others. This serves the hegemonic purpose of diverting attention away from the structural features of society which give rise to social and economic disadvantages. As for example a typical Hollywood film like The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) portrays the story of Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith), who is compelled to live in extreme bad condition of poverty and homelessness but ultimately survive by acquiring a position fighting with other competetors and strangly never become angry to this exploitative system. This is the ideal hero which capitalism craved for. In Slumdog we notice with utter surprise that midst of all the crisis , exploitation Jamal somehow manages to remain cool. He never gets angry, never throws question, just prepares himself and waits for his turn. His fluent English, sharp and confident look, suave personality hardly recognize his communitarian origin and present the game show reality as his ultimate surrounding.

Slumdog Millionaire

Although in the individual hero’s fight against the evil and his exploitation, these films never reveal the oppressed class’s struggle against the privileged class, the sense of belonging to a community is expressed in the hero’s action.

1970s, 1980s Hindi cinema projected exploited young men in Indian society as the angry protagonists. In spite of belonging to the oppressed classes, they do not take things lying down. Films like Deewar, Zanjeer, Lawaris, Sharabi, Mard, Trishul etc project an aggressive, activist image of the individual. It is true that in these films the revolt is rarely directed against the nature and structure of institution and it fails to address questions regarding larger social system. But the image of the angry young man often sticks out from the resolve ending framework. Exceeding the conventional happy ending film narrative, the image of the rebellious young man attacks the existing socio-political set up beyond the film narrative. Although in the individual hero’s fight against the evil and his exploitation, these films never reveal the oppressed class’s struggle against the privileged class, the sense of belonging to a community is expressed in the hero’s action.

True that, these films are very much subservient to the dominant ideologies, and instead of challenging the ideological assumption of their times, tend to reinforce them. But due to ideological inconsistency in their narrativising technique often cracks are appeared in the film text. And in many cases this ideological fissure has left traces of subversive ness, especially in the formation of the hero and his expressed anger. Here lies the limitation of heroes like Jamal. Slumdog erases this anger and has made Jamal, the competitor to his fellow community member. The equation is quite different here, Jamal is not presented against the structural framework of society which produces millions of Jamal, not even against one or two “villains” of this framework, but he is presented against those millions of Jamal to become a millionaire. Thus rendering the existing status quo in a capitalist society as natural the film successfully centers itself on the notion of will force. This is typically the inclusivist politics present in all contemporary Reality TV shows. For instance a Bengali stand-up comedy show, like Mirakkel, often presented a rickshaw puller as a participant of the show. In the moments of celebrating difference these shows transform the reality of class exploitation into “stories” of people’s struggle and their will force. The category of luck is another important aspect in Slumdog Millionaire. This clichéd expression – “You are not lucky this time” is repeated all of the television reality shows when the anchor announces the result or the talent hunt judge consoles the defeated participant. This category became important in Slumdog as in some question’s answer Jamal passes through the next round simply by luck.

So what is the problem in the appropriation of Jamal on Indian screen? We are already accustomed to this global game show network. Even we, as individual spectators not only enjoy the rhetoric of reality show, but through sms polling and direct participation form this network. And contemporary Bollywood is quite different from 1970s Hindi cinema. The image of Shahrukh Khan emerged in 1990s is perfectly transnational and represents urban, diasporic India. The world’s rapid transition to globalization, spurred by the international integration of the production of goods and services, free flow of people, information and capital, giant leaps in communication and the diffusion of power to non-state actors surely have its impact in Indian popular film culture. A film like Guru (2007) significantly presents the ambiguous hero, who instead off being the part of the nationalist legacy accepts the value of individual enterprise even at the cost of the legal and lawful. But at the same time the rise of Shakti Pariver is equally crucial in this film. So we can not say Guru only emphasized on the rise of individual.

So the question of community still might possess some importance in contemporary scenario of Indian Cinema. A recent film like Luck By Chance brutally criticizes the hero, who becomes too individualistic and interestingly in the climax the film rejecting to tell about further stories of his progression, shifts it focus on the female protagonist who is in spite of being successful does not forget her roots and origin. Another film Delhi 6 presents the hero who is brought up in America. He rediscovers his root in a community space of Delhi and devotes himself to form a part of strong and secular India. So being global is not an obstacle in the representation of local flavor in popular culture. The SRK image is a very good example, though it has a global appeal it is very much rooted in India.

Popular culture can not erase the local dimension so easily. In shows like Indian Idol or Dance India Dance each of the participants have to bring some local flavors, along with being part of the larger global space. This is where Slumdog fails badly. As the film erases any sense of belonging to any community it can not generate the local version in the formation of Jamal along with his global motivation. The exceptional points are few song and dance sequences which remain as nothing else but some marks of imposed bollywoodisation. Thus it’s not an accident that Slumdog Millionaire has a poor box office collection all over the India. And Indian audience ignoring the global appreciation of this film is more interested in the recognition of Gulzar and A. R. Rahman. The issue is not that it reveals objectionable Indian reality allover the world or that it’s not up to the expectation. With Jamal’s failure to be a “global Indian” the film’s final answer might not please the audience here.


M. Madhav Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film : A Historical Construction, Oxford University Press, 1998.
John Fiske, Television Culture, Routledge, I988.
Rajinder Kumar Dudrah, Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies, SAGE, 2006.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Spandan Bhattacharya is a M.Phil final year student in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He Completed his M.A in film Studies from Jadavpur University in 2009. Spandan is at present working on Post Liberalization Bengali Cinema for his M.Phil dissertation.
All Posts of Spandan Bhattacharya

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