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Life Arts

Slumdog Millionaire: What Can a Slumdog Possibly Know?

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The film, Slumdog Millionaire, is about a slumdog from Mumbai, India who is turned millionaire when he gets a chance to be on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. It provides quite the look at slums in Mumbai and how a slum’s people can be totally won over by a Western game show especially one that might allow one to move up a class or two.

The opening sequence features children playing stickball (or something like it) and security forces storming through with vehicles followed by guards on foot who chase the children down on foot. The children are from the slums.

Jamel Malik, the slumdog who made it on to “Millionaire”, is seen as a child running through the slums along with his brother, Salim Malik. The two run into a guardian (possibly a mother although it is not clear). The two are hurried to a classroom with other children of the slums who are passing around what books they have and are reading The Three Musketeers.

At the same time that the audience is being introduced to the lives of children in the slums, a sharp and wretched introduction to the caste system in India is playing out as Jamel is slapped around, beaten, and even electrocuted by a guard who is doing the work of detectives who think Jamel was “cheating” on “Millionaire.”

Cinematography breathes life into this film unlike any other film released in 2008. The shots are off-kilter. Sometimes they are tight on the children giving us the chance to be in the tight corridors of the slums. And, then the camera pulls back to give us a wide shot and an aerial view of the slums, which are quite the sight.

At times, it's as if somebody who produced and created music videos for MTV during the 80s is in control of the film.

The soundtrack---the sound effects and the score---plunges us into the climate and setting. A.R. Rahman’s masterful work pulls vocals from Sri Lankan star M.I.A. and other Indian musicians and blends the vocals in with drums, sitar, and other instruments, beats, and tones.

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As one watches, the theme music of "Millionaire" and other "Millionaire" sound effects can be heard woven into the dramatic and emotional points of the film.

In less than twenty minutes, the audience is deep into the mise en scène of the film---the set, the props, the actors, the costumes, the lighting, etc. And, the audience figures out how the story of Jamel will be told through the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” game show. The host of the game show, Prem Kumar, is no Regis Philbin but perhaps, the Regis Philbins of India look and act like smarmy used car salesmen.Kumar, faced with Jamel, wastes no time in setting Jamel up to be incapable of playing the game; he is a chaiwalah, a “tea boy” who serves others and the term is uttered like an ethnic or racial slur.

As Jamel sits on the hot seat, his “hero’s journey” is told. Each question he gets in “Millionaire” somehow reminds him of the circumstances and incidents he has been through in his life.

Much of his life has been a quest for a girl he fell in love with during his childhood, Latika. Latika has taken on the life of a dancer with a dazzling figure who can serve masters of the slums well by bringing them in large amounts of money which these slumlords find necessary to their existence.

Jamel and Salim and Latika all have a childhood connection and that connection is with a master who on the surface is benevolent but underneath it all he is out for profit. The master teaches the children to sing and what he chooses to do to orphans to line his pockets may be the best testament of how impoverished Mumbai is.

Similar to a film like Mystic River, it's a childhood experience which incites the conflict that propels a major proportion of this story along.

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It’s not clear what the political and societal history of India is when the audience is introduced to Jamel as a child, but the time that Jamel is in when he is on “Millionaire” is one where software technology and the information technology sector is booming. Jamel’s work as a “tea boy” at one of the conglomerates in India that takes phone calls from all over the world gives him the opportunity to appear on “Millionaire.”

During the film, Jamel, Salim, and Latika shift from speaking the language of India, Hindi, to speaking English. So, one can say they eventually find a niche in the culture of India and find a way to live with their meek status in the world.

Jamel’s story with all its misery, sadism, and disappointments culminates in the end with a sequence not far from other Hollywood movies. The audience finds out what really compelled him to get in the hot seat and interestingly, it has little to do with money or the glitz and glamour which has thousands if not millions of people from the slums out in the streets and glued to television sets sitting in the windows of property throughout Mumbai.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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