An Unsentimental Education

Like Coca-Cola, American game shows function as carriers of American “values” (and I use the term advisedly) around the world. Foreign versions of these game shows appeal to a global rising middle class, uniting them with their American counterparts even as they divide them from their own traditional values and social structures. Often, the middle classes in developing economies have more sympathy with our values and very little connection to their own poor.

It is the Indian version of the American game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” that provides the central metaphor for the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). It is the story of the clash of civilizations played out in the city of Mumbai, India, a city which recently has been the victim of more violent clashes. Yet that description might make it an “issues” movie, which is always the death of both good film, good literature, and good entertainment. And this movie is all three, because it is at base the oldest and most enduring of stories, that is, a love story.

We meet the hero of this story, Jamal Malik, as he is being tortured by the police. Jamal is a “slumdog,” an ignorant product of Mumbai's vast slums. But Jamal has wormed his way on to the game show, and answered every question. The Indian version of this show looks exactly like the American original, with the same music, set, graphics and shtick. Except that nobody is actually supposed to answer all the question. Brilliant and educated people fail before reaching the top prize, 20 million rupees. Yet Jamal is ready to answer the last question. The game show host suspects that he has found a way to cheat, and has had him kidnapped by the police. When the police inspector cannot torture a confession out of him, he reviews the game show tape and asks Jamal how he knew the answer to each of these questions, questions that range from Indian poetry to American money to French literature. It is in flashbacks to his life that we get the story of Jamal's education.

It is an education that begins as a young boy witnessing the murder of his mother in an anti-Muslim riot. He and his brother Salim become orphans, engaged in petty crime and dumpster diving. It is at this point that he forms his connection with Latika, another orphan of the riots. The three are “rescued” form this life by an unspeakably evil Fagin-esque character, who runs an “orphanage” that is a cover for a begging and crime ring. Some of the orphans are blinded to make them more pathetic. Jamal and Salim make their escape just as Jamal is about to be blinded, but Salim forces Jamal to abandon Latika. It is his struggle to find Latika that forms the heart of the story.

The movie alternates between the game show and the flashbacks, between the sleazy underside of Indian society, and the slick pseudo-American game show. It turns out that Jamal is not in the least interested in the money; he has wormed his way onto the show because he knows that Latika watches it. Latika is by now the consort of an abusive and violent mobster. But in the process, Jamal becomes a national celebrity, with all the underdogs and dispossessed rooting for him.

Jamal's brother, in the meantime, has become a hit man for the Latika's mobster. It is Salim who was responsible for losing Latika in the first place, and for her current life as an abused concubine. Jamal's 15 minutes of game show fame force Salim into finally acting with his brother in mind.

The movie is by turns funny and horrifying, but it is always moving and suspenseful. Be sure to stay for the final credits, because underneath them there is an homage to Bollywood which, though out of character with the movie itself, is still great fun.


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