English 495 ESM
A Capitalistic Dystopia
Slumdog Millionaire, an alluring drama film by Danny Boyle, casts light onto the poverty- stricken slums of India, which is juxtaposed with a merging Westernized capitalistic society. The film is about Jamal, a young man who is a former street child from the slums, and his journey to justifying his correct answers on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? No one believes that an uneducated boy from the slums can correctly get through a game show which tests knowledge, without subjecting to some form of cheating; the film narrates Jamal’s life experiences which have supported his answers, through flashbacks. Slumdog Millionaire presents the effects of globalization, where the realization of the “American Dream” is the most realistic freedom from the chains of the social castes; the low expectations of the lower class, perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Even though the film ultimately represents a rags to riches story, where Jamal wins the game, reunites with his love, and seemingly detaches from the urban poverty of India, the representation of upward social mobility is far from a utopian model. The construction of space, where the shanty slums are juxtaposed with the new high-rises, reveals the destructive elements of capitalism in Slumdog Millionaire, where the limited opportunities for the poor, and the non-productive hierarchies of education, sustain the cycle of poverty.
Urban space, specifically the scarcity and inefficiency of space, is apparent in the slums where young Jamal, Salim, and Latika grow up. The opening scene, where Jamal and Salim are running away from the policeman, presents the everyday life amongst the shanty town, with its shacks made out of scrap materials, excessive garbage, unsanitary conditions, and lack of an adequate water source and electricity. The space epitomizes the poverty within India. Following the Bombay Riots, the culture of the space alters, for what used to be the slums transforms into a modern center of urban development. Looking down at what used to be their slum from the high-rise in the midst of construction, an adult Salim tells Jamal, “Now it’s all business. India is at the center of the world. And I’m at the center of the center” (Boyle). The wealth that the new economic Mumbai center has perpetuated is controlled by gangsters; thus the capitalistic economic system helps a few but hinders the upward social mobility of the majority of the working class. The inhabitants of the slums are displaced, and individuals like Salim have to take the risk of working for the controllers of the wealth for the sake of capital, for “those capable of embracing [the risk] would be the managers if not the masters of their own lives” (Martin). The local slum gangsters, like Maman and Javed Khan, take advantage of the “at risk” population, particularly the kids, to exploit them for their capital gains, for capitalism allows the underworld to function outside of the labor relations, and thus “disintegrate the social” with the cycle of “misery, poverty, unemployment, starvation, squalor, violence, and death” (Jameson 35).
The limited opportunities for the poor, as symbolized by Salim, Latika, and Jamal, secures the power relations of capitalism, where the “crime, war, degraded mass culture, drugs, violence, boredom, the lust for power, the lust for distraction, the lust for nirvana, sexism, racism—all can be diagnosed as so many results of a society unable to accommodate the productiveness of all its citizens” (38). After fleeing from their slum after the Bombay riots, Jamal and Salim are led to lie, steal, and con to make money for their survival. Maman’s entrance into their lives is welcomed, as he provides temporary relief from the dangers of street life without a guide; however, his exploitation of young, orphaned children as a tool for making him money as beggars, exposes the limitations of the poor in an economic system where the concentration of wealth sustains itself among the wealthy. Whereas the boys, like Salim and Jamal, have the option of joining the underworld, girls, like Latika, are commodified for capital. Latika was Maman’s greatest asset, whose virginity would bring him great financial gains, if Salim had not chosen to kill him during Latika’s rescue from a dismal future in prostitution. The lure of money in a capitalistic framework directs Salim to choose a life of crime to ensure his employment, which seems like the only feasible option for a young, uneducated boy from the slums, elucidating Martin’s points that “as a social force, capital not only dispossess people of old habits of life but also attaches them otherwise” (Martin).
The non-productive hierarchies of education, consequently perpetuates the cycle of poverty in a capitalistic society, where knowledge and success is directly linked to proper, institutionalized education. Jamal is tortured and investigated by the police to get him to admit to cheating during the game show, for it is inconceivable for a young, uneducated, “bloody village boy” from the slums to succeed in a competition focused on knowledge, without proper education. The police investigator is confounded by Jamal’s unwillingness to admit to his fraud, for “professors, doctors, lawyers, general knowledge wallahs never get beyond 16,000 rupees. He’s on ten million. What the hell can a slumdog possibly know” (Boyle). Moreover, the game show host never fails to remind Jamal of his low status as a “chai wallah,” and the unlikelihood of a “slumdog becoming a millionaire overnight;” the host finds Jamal’s unusual success a disruption of the normal order of the status quo (Boyle). The police, the audience, the host, and the millions of viewers at home find it impossible to associate Jamal’s success with knowledge gained from real life experiences. They fail to realize that the urban space of the slums where Jamal has grown up, has shaped his selfhood and identity, for a capitalistic society where the 1% concentration of wealth is associated with educated businessmen undermines the capabilities of the lower class. The low expectations of the working class, and the traditional approach to education, affirms the continual inequality of those who exist outside of the tremendous concentration of wealth in the upper classes, thus making Jamal’s happy-ending a destruction of the idealized utopian construct which “comes to us as barely audible messages from a future that may never come into being” (Jameson 54).
Slumdog Millionaire symbolizes the negative effects of capitalism on the lower class, and its ability to trap people within the cycle of poverty. The lack of upward social mobility, the marginalized view of education, and the displacement of the working class within the construct of urban space perpetuates the inequalities within the economic system that undermines the majority of the working class. Despite his social limitations, Jamal is able to become a millionaire on the game show, and reunite with his love; his staggering circumstances representing a “rags to raja” construct, are ultimately linked to destiny. His destined success resembles the idealized happiness of the American Dream, and the benefits of globalization; however, fails in its ultimate representation of a utopia, for “a utopia is most authentic when we cannot imagine it” (Jameson 46).
Jameson, Frederick. “The Politics of Utopia.” New Left Review. 35-54., 2004. Web.
Martin, Randy. “Where Did the Future Go?” Logosonline. Logos 5.1, 2006. Web.
Slumdog Millionaire. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. Dev Patel, Saurabh Shukla, Anil Kapoor. Celador Films, 2008. Digital Stream.