By Dan Lieberman
Heard about financial scams, medical scams, sport scams, government foreign policy scams? How about a cinema scam?
Every once in awhile a seemingly ordinary film entrances an audience beyond expectations. The Indian film Slumdog Millionaire appealed to Americans with its "rags to riches" story of a deprived youth from the slums of Mumbai, India, who used pluck, luck and an astonishing memory of incidents in his life to win 20 million rupees in a quiz program. The unusual coincidence of the film's arrival in U.S. theaters at the same time as the terrorist action in Mumbai provided an added kicker to the film's box office success. A fascination with the provocative news reports spilled over to a fascination with Mumbai. However, those interested in the attacks by Islamic extremists on mainly Hindus in Mumbai must have been surprised to witness a film that contains Hindu attacks on Muslims.
Slumdog Millionaire's plot is simple, enchanting and unique.
An adolescent orphan, whose family had been killed in a religious pogrom that targeted Muslims in the slums of Mumbai, manages to become a contestant on an American look-alike television program: So you want to be a millionaire? As he deftly answers the questions and proceeds to becoming the millionaire, a suspicious television moderator convinces the corrupt and prejudiced police to force the youth to confess that he is committing a contrived scam - somehow he is obtaining the answers. The police are rough and go to the extreme of torturing the adolescent to confess his scam. Being as the young man is from the slums, he has no legal protection. Nevertheless, adversity has strengthened his will and he refuses to oblige his torturers. Finally, the police chief requests to know; well, if he isn't scamming, how does an impoverished and uneducated orphan from the worst slums of Mumbai know all the answers to difficult questions? From that question, the story unfolds.
Each question, by a coincidence, has played a part in the youth's life. Experiences have given him the answers.
Who was the Indian actor in a certain film during the 1970's?
Oh, that actor landed one day by helicopter in a field close to where the youth was living. He raced to the helicopter and met the actor.
And so on.
However, the film, which reveals the oppression, prejudices and economic exploitation within Indian life, evolves into an insensible fairy tale love story. In their menacing voyage through the corruption and degradation of India's underclass, the boy and his brother bring a neighborhood girl into their lives, with whom the hero has no intimate contact but ardently loves. The plot shifts abruptly in later years when the grown brother becomes an assassin for a local gangster and the grown girl become the gangster's ‘moll.’
In the finale, after a tense pause and nail biting correct answer to the final question, everything is conveniently resolved. The gangster and the brother are killed in a shootout. The girl is free, and the new millionaire can be finally united with his lost love. In a Sleepless in Seattle style, a film plot made several times, where the lovers are finally reunited at either the Empire State building, the Athens' acropolis or the Giza Sphinx, these lovers wander and search for each other until seeing one another across a platform at the immense Mumbai railroad station.
That's the film we see.
Is that the film that is being shown?
The plot is too simple; a fairy tale story that doesn't match the power of the cinematic expression. The characters are too cardboard, too stereotype, almost comic book, especially the gangsters. The love story is too insensible and contrived.
The experiences that supposedly enable answers to the questions are undoubtedly true and pound the audience senses with revelation of the inattention to the downtrodden in India's impoverished neighborhoods. Nevertheless, they all have a slightly exaggerated quality, an almost surreal aspect that indicates the substance is true but the youth has embellished the presentation. The slum dweller has obviously added components to his experiences to establish reasons for his knowledge that will satisfy the inquisitive police chief, who after not being able to gain a confession by torture, is willing to accept the dubious answers.
So, what is the explanation for the film's ethereal quality?
The explanation is that the adolescent contestant has scammed the quiz program and the film scams the audience. An alert audience should recognize the scam and think - well, what has actually happened?
We observe the film through the voice of the youth until the end. The cardboard characters of criminals and his long sought lover are as he wants us to believe them. The relationship between the characters are too movie like, unlike the naturalistic description of his childhood battles with deprivation and despair. The imagined criminals are undoubtedly associates in the scam. The contestant is probably wired with a receiver (under the skin, similar to a pacemaker?) and is receiving broadcasted information from his collaborators, who watch the program, find the answers on the Internet and transmit the answers to the ultimate millionaire. The transmission only needs one, two, three or four vibrations to provide either the A, B, C, or D response to the question
Perhaps this analysis of Slumdog Millionaire sounds absurd and conspiratorial. That's a valid response. But without the explanation, the film is a betrayal and disaster, only another fairy tale Sleepless in Seattle story? Isn't there something more that is underlying the words and actions of the characters? Isn't the movie more meaningful and dramatic if the audience can figure out the scam and not be scammed? The scam gives the film a moral: The difference between those who are poor and those who are rich is only a scam and underdogs can beat the odds if they adopt the practices of those who control their destiny.
By a clever use of subtext, Slumdog Millionaire becomes a work of art.
Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter.Dan has written many articles on national issues, which have circulated on websites and media throughout the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org