Posted by Dr. Rodanthi Tzanelli on 2015/06/25
A common mistake when considering how film reflects social practice and process is to disconnect it from its contexts of inspiration, inception and production. I argue that it is wrong to consider Slumdog Millionaire (2008, dirs Danny Boyle and Loveen Tandan) a ‘love story’, along the lines of its global marketing. Based on an adaptation of diplomat Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, the film’s ‘text’ (screenwriter Simon Beaufoy), provides a narrative of Mumbai’s fast-track urbanisation-as-modernisation, which is built on the obliteration of its external (immigrants) and internal (slumdwellers) strangers on ethno-religious grounds. Mumbai’s-India’s negotiation of liminal figures, such as the film’s Muslim ‘slumdog’ hero, Jamal Malik from Juhu (slum), is achieved in two stages: first, by failed extermination and later through successful redirection of their (ethno-cultural) difference into consumption circuits.
Taking on board Boyle and his associates’ real engagement with the politics of slum poverty (context), I consider Slumdog Millionaire as a critique of urban modernity’s fundamentalist face in India. In India’s multicultural polity strangers used to be managed by physical obliteration and citizens validated through processing by systems of governmentality (Foucault 1997). This management of mentality by the state, eventually internalised by its citizens (Hindus who murder Muslims in the name of ethno-religious purity), is based on religion in the film’s clip, which incidentally incited real protests in India. In later scenes (already implied in the selected one), we learn that today’s global financial-cultural articulations, strangeness is managed through governmobility (Bærenholdt 2013): systems (such as those of tourism and media/technology) that enable the international mobility of things and humans-as-products.
My presentation draws on the first of three key moments from the film to explore this transition: the Hindu riots and massacres of Muslim slumdwellers (inspired by actual incidents) that young Jamal and his brother narrowly escape (The other two involve Jamal and Salim’s precarious insertion into India’s lucrative tourist industry as Taj Mahal’s cunning self-taught tour guides; and Jamal’s initiation into Mumbai’s telecommunication and media industries as chai wallah-come-telephonic operator and finally quiz millionaire). Jamal appears as Mumbai’s ‘living’ example of governmobile material, which bears witness to India’s success at joining the ‘civilised’ community of modernised nations. During this process, the very idea of ‘borders’ and its connection to strangerhood and vagabondage, are being replaced by the fast mobilities of technology and fleeting privileged tourisms.
Bærenholdt, J.O. (2013) ‘Governmobility: The powers of mobility’, Mobilities, 8 (1): 20–34.
Foucault, M. (1997) ‘The birth of biopolitics’, in P. Rabinow (ed.) Michel Foucault: Ethics. New York: New Press.
Suggested background reading
Kinetz, E. (22 January 2009) ‘Mumbai residents object to “Slumdog” title’, USA Today/Associated Press. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2009-01-22-slugdog-mumbai-protest_N.htm.
The Times of India (22 January 2009) ‘Hindu group demands ban on “Slumdog Millionaire”’. Available at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-01-22/goa/28046633_1_hjs-slumdog-millionaire-hindu-janjagruti-samiti.
Tzanelli, R. (2013) ‘Manipulating the Western Tourist Gaze in Mumbai’s Slums’, Slideshare (PPT presentation). Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/tornadora13/sm-gaze-reality-tourism13.
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