This article was first published on February 16, 2017 on my blog about my time in New Delhi.
The opening scene shows Jamal Malik. He is hanging from the ceiling, drool dripping from his mouth, and he is chained.
The so-called police officer is electroshocking him to unconsciousness – apparently Jamal cheated in the famous show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”
Again, the police officer shocks him, then spits at him and demands to know again how he did it.
And finally, Jamal, the 19-year old boy from Asia’s biggest slum, who has never been to school, replies in perfect English: “I didn’t cheat.”
If there’s something that bothers me about the film and the book it’s based on then it’s this.
The story is divided into three parts.
First, there are Jamal and his brother Salim. They talk only Hindi to each other, and they are subtitled by the director. This is already an exception – the regional language in Mumbai is Marathi, but the child actors came from the Hindi linguistic region, so it was easier just to let it be. Of course people at some point learn some Hindi in Mumbai, and you get along well without Marathi. But that’s not until around puberty, and the boys are way younger than that.
Then there’s the second part. Jamal and Salim roam India, go by train wherever the wind blows them and do minor jobs. They barely talk Hindi anymore, even though they have only aged a bit, but all of a sudden they know English.
I have come across one or two people in India who claim to have taught themselves English without knowing how to read or write. But how probably is it that either Jamal or Salim have picked up such a good English when the majority of the Indian population doesn’t even know how to form a grammatically correct sentence?
Then, years later, Jamal works as chaiwala in a callcenter. This might sound like a miserable job, but it seems to be like more than Jamal could have ever hoped for. Most mothers, fathers or children I have heard of or talked to don’t manage to get out of this endless spiral of doing what their parents did in precisely the same slum that they were born in.
Maybe it’s a morbid type of luck that Jamal’s and Salim’s mother died in a religious clash in their slum, otherwise Jamal might have never left the place he grew up.
So let’s accept that Jamal and Salim and Latika and all the other children that appear might be absolute language prodigies and learnt perfect English in no time. Because otherwise there will be another problem arising.
Latika explains, at some point, why “Who wants to be a millionaire?” is so famous and popular. It’s a way out, she says, out of poverty and the same dull life and India.
But the show is entirely in English, and only those with a TV even know it exists and can participate. Even the middle class prefers Hindi over English, especially back when the story is set.
So who profits from the show? The poorest of the poor? Even the poor? The middle class?
No, it’s just the rich that get richer – or Jamal Malik, who for some reason manages to make his life a miracle.
2 thoughts on “What bothers me about Slumdog Millionaire”
Notwithstanding the plot of the movie, usually a cross boarder film projects are catered for the larger number of people and the language is chosen on the basis of the target audiences. We have seen the character of Jesus from Nazareth speaking in English. There are 780 languages in India wherein 22 languages are official according to Indian Constitution. Given the diversity, the socio-economic or political structure of India cannot be sum up in a movie or even in a blogs especially on the basis of linguistics. We have a term ‘Sanskritization’ which has seen a paradigm shift in 21st centuries. Kids are learning english as their first language and narrowing down to two language for communication i.e. English and Hindi. The number of people speaking regional languages are decreasing day by day. Having said that, every time I saw Slumdog, I was moved as there is so much diversity in the plot. Much more can be gathered from the movie except for the articulates which are used for pitching it to the audience. More than 1000s of technicians and artists contribute to a movie and there is always 1000s of ways a movie can be interpreted. We must not be bothered about the finger which is pointing towards the moon.
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That was put lovely! I do agree that it is neither essential to the plot, nor is it even thaaat inaccurate.
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