Considering the masses of information which are available to us today, it’s almost shocking how little we truly know about the world around us. For our society, travel is relatively easy and information is always accessible. Yet we frequently view other cultures through an extremely distorted view. The film Slumdog Millionaire takes on a Western view of the Orient is its presentation of “the East” as a negative force, with the salvation of the characters only ever coming from “the West” in the form of America.
“Corporate discourses of globalization” like to fantasize that we are at an “advent of a new epoch free from the limitations of the past” and that “offers the promise of a unified humanity no longer divided by East and West, North and South, Europe and its Others, the rich and the poor” (Coronil 351). As this film clearly show, however, humanity is still divided. Sharp differences are seen between the East and the West as presented in Slumdog Millionaire. Coronil supports the idea that this is what is bound to occur with the intermingling of cultures, noting that “critics offer not the comforting image of a global village, but rather the disturbing view of a fractured world sharply divided by reconfigured relations of domination” (Coronil 352). It quickly becomes apparent that Slumdog Millionaire is a fractured world, with the dominant West coming out as the positive force and the East presented in an overwhelmingly negative light.
The East in this particular film is India, and the view presented in overwhelmingly negative. The first scene depicted is an Indian police officer brutalizing the protagonist, Jamal Malik, who we quickly realize is an innocent man. Even the more reasonable police office who arrives after the brunt of Jamal’s torture is still abusive, as it is he who instructs the other officer that Jamal be electrocuted and later threatens him with more of the same torture if he does not tell the truth. We only see two views of India – the dirty slums and the rich manors of the crime lords. India is presented as backwards, poor, and filthy.
We should also examine how the film views the differing ways which the East and the West treat children. The view presented in the film is overwhelmingly negative for the East. Jamal and his brother Salim are physically hit when they fail to pay attention to the school teacher in the only scene where they are shown receiving a formal education. An Indian man, Maman, at first seems like a positive force in his benevolent caretaking of the slum children, but it quickly becomes obvious that this kind-hearted image is a mere façade. In actuality, he uses the children to beg on the streets in order to get the money for himself, and he even goes so far as to blind children in order to get more sympathy money. In contrast, the Americans whom Jamal and Salim encounter are actually kind. While they are presented as somewhat gullible, they are still generous. After one family’s cab driver begins to abuse Jamal (blaming him for the stripping of his vehicle), the American tourists quickly stop him and then give Jamal money to make up for his treatment, saying “we’ll show you the real America”. Although they might not realize they were getting hustled, the fact still stands that Indians are presented as being abusive and willing to take advantage of children, while Americans were presented as kind and generous to children.
An interesting point to examine is also the clothes worn by the female main character, Latika. A subtle message regarding the East and the West can be found in the manner in which she dresses. The first time that Latika attempts to meet Jamal at the train station, her clothing is more Indian-inspired than Western. This time, the two lovers fail to be reunited and instead she is taken back to the abusive crime lord and punishing by having her cheek cut. The second time that the two characters meet at the train station, Latika is dressed in typical Western garb, a tank top and blue jeans. The only reference to her Indian heritage is a yellow scarf. This time, Jamal and Laitka are reunited and finally kiss. It is only once she has become “Westernized” that she is able to succeed.
The biggest salvation presented to the character is not given to them through India, but through the West. First, it is Jamal’s employment at a cell phone company that enables him to locate Latika after years of separation. Secondly, it is through the American game show Who Wants to be Millionaire that Latika is able to find Jamal, and gives them the money to start a new life together. The Indian influence on the show is the host, Prem Kumar, who is an active opposing force. He attempts to trick Jamal by supplying him with an answer which is incorrect, and he sics the police on Jamal in the hopes they will discover he has been cheating. He does not do any of this out of genuine desire to maintain the integrity of his show, but rather because he is petty and cannot bear the thought of Jamal overshadowing him on “his” show. The East is once again presented as a selfish and malevolent force, although it turns out to not be powerful enough to defeat the saving power the West.
So, why should such views worry us? What does it matter how a movie portrays India, isn’t is just entertainment and nothing more? Well, not really. It has been recognized for awhile that many scholars believe “the real signs of how globalization was being lived, experienced, and interpreted were to be found primarily in the literary and cultural field” (Gikandi 633). A film from within the “cultural field”, then, can be taken as a sign of the effects of globalization the increasingly slanted view which many Americans hold about other cultures, most especially Oriental cultures. It can also be an insidious message to both the West and the East, as both will have easy access to the film and will accept this distorted worldview as the truth.
Coronil, Fernando. "Towards a Critique of Globalcentrism: Speculations on Capitalism's Nature". Public Culture - Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp. 351-374. Project Muse. Web. 4 May 2010.
Gikandi, Simon. "Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality". The South Atlantic Quarterly - Volume 100, Number 3, Summer 2001, pp. 627-658. Project Muse. Web. 4 May 2010.
Slumdog Millionaire. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. Devl Patel, Friedo Pinto. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009. DVD.