Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm

One week after seeing the irony-drenched, terminally depressed and postmodernist “Synecdoche, New York” at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, I returned to the scene of the crime and watched the altogether marvelous Bollywoodish “Slumdog Millionaire”. An entire book could be written by a film scholar about the differences between the two films and the two cultures they express.

Charlie Kaufman’s solipsistic exercise perfectly mirrors an American society that is politically, spiritually, and artistically exhausted. In the final scenes, Synecdoche’s playwright-director Caden Cotard, now very old and close to death, walks unsteadily across a cityscape strewn with dead bodies that looks like the aftermath of a terrible war. Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan end their film with the entirely Indian cast doing a rapturous song and dance in one of the gritty rail-yards that figure so prominently in their film. The dancers are brimming with life and joy, feelings altogether absent in the typical Hollywood movie since the 1950s perhaps.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is a reference to the main character Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young cell phone help-desk technician who has become a contestant on the Mumbai version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, the dreadful British quiz show that has spread virally to the U.S. and elsewhere. As was the case with the show it was based on, the Mumbai version includes a smarmy host named Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) who belittles Jamal every opportunity he gets. As a denizen of Mumbai’s vast slums (a slumdog in local parlance), Jamal is used to being abused and humiliated but rising above his meager circumstances.

And rise he does. He keeps coming back week after week, poised to win the grand prize of 20 million rupees. Since Jamal appears to be poorly educated, the host begins to become suspicious. For example, how could he possibly know the name of the composer of an obscure song?

As it turns out, he only knows the answers because they have an accidental connection to turning points in his troubled life. For example, he knows the composer of the song because he was asked to sing it when he was a tot living in captivity under the brutal tutelage of Mumbai’s version of Oliver Twist’s Fagin, who sent his wards out each day to beg. Just before Jamal is about to turn in a performance of the song that will supposedly earn him riches, his brother-also a ward of the cruel master-rescues him from a fate that another boy had met. When that boy’s performance was deemed adequate for the streets, he was blinded to help garner sympathy and alms.

The movie crosscuts between scenes in the television studio as Jamal ponders over the answer to each successively more difficult question and flashbacks to his childhood as he and his older brother Salim struggle for survival on Mumbai’s streets. The only other person that Jamal has an emotional connection to, other than his brother, is Latika, a girl who like them is homeless. From the minute Jamal saw Latika in the pouring rain and invited her into the hovel that he was sharing with his brother, he has always loved her. When he decides to enter the contest, it is with the hope that his celebrity might attract the attention of Latika who he has not seen in years.

As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned rags-to-riches love story. Indeed, as should be clear from the screenplay’s similarities to “Oliver Twist”, there is something positively Dickensian about Jamal’s story. In the same way that class distinctions in Victorian England forced a sensitive novelist to take up the plight of the poor, so were the makers of “Slumdog Millionaire” inspired to expose the brutality of life in the slums of Mumbai, a point of view that can not be found in Thomas Friedman’s gushing over the benefits of globalization in India. Indeed, what distinguishes “Slumdog Millionaire” from conventional Bollywood efforts is its determination to call attention to the realities of slum conditions in India. In doing so, they have much more in common with some of the more critical-minded Indian movies like Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” a film also about children being forced to become beggars, and Shonali Bose’s “Amu,” which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in “Amu“, the three children in “Slumdog Millionaire” also lost their parents as a result of anti-Moslem violence.

Although I usually focus on the politics of a movie, I am obligated to say a word or two about “Slumdog Millionaire” as a pure cinematic experience. Suffice it to say that Danny Boyle is one of the more innovative directors on the scene today, having both the Scottish junkie chronicle “Trainspotting” and the zombie classic “28 Days” to his credit. The movie is a feast for the eyes and has a sound track that features some Indian/techno music that kicks ass. While there might be some other movie waiting in the wings between now and the annual NYFCO awards meeting that has earned the same kind of accolades as “Slumdog Millionaire”, I rather doubt that anything will displace it as movie of the year in my eyes.


  1. I thought it was great as well. It is Bollywood meets City of God.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — November 24, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  2. I agree this movie is a feast for they eyes and the soundtrack does kick. However I don’t know that I think of this as truly reflective of a “bollywood” film, which I personally think is a good thing. Perhaps Boyle’s direction prevents the film from veering into the over the top romance, dance and song of traditional bollywood films. I think his bollywood contribution comes at an ideal time in the film and appears to provide some levity to a generally intense film.

    Comment by 4wrdthnkndad — December 16, 2008 @ 1:04 am

  3. Louis,

    Your review is “nice” but not Marxist (“unrepentant” or otherwise). There’s no need to go back to Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer about class struggle as the hallmark of Marx; read Huberto Solas’ critique of Malle’s CALCUTTA

    and the recent article of the Slumdog scriptwriter

    The guy and the film sees and promotes the Indian caste system and the american dream in disguise.

    So, either get rid of “Marxist” from your blog or the “un” from “repentant”, or “walk the talk”.


    Comment by Rik Sorge — December 18, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  4. A few factual corrections on the movie. Jamal’s Millionaire airing only takes place over the course of 2 days, as he answers a slew of questions when time runs out before he can answer the last one, which gives the opportunity to capture and question him. He does not go back week after week; no Millionaire show is run that way. Second, Jamal has recently seen Latika; he had just seen her at the train station when she was captured by Salim and taken back. When he goes back to her house they are already gone. (In the first scene at her house, she mentions that the gangster is going to take them away. It’s probably a few weeks or months at most that pass before he gets on the show; not sure why or how it would help. Perhaps the idea that if he won, they’d have something other than “love” to live on.

    Comment by surl suzie — December 22, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  5. […] Slumdog Millionaire […]

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  6. Wow, seems like the last few posters aren’t the only ones with their knickers in a knot:

    Slumdog stars sued for defaming slumdwellers

    I happened to really enjoy the film. Much better than anything else I did during the Christmas holidays.

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — January 23, 2009 @ 1:28 am

  7. […] Since I have lots of respect for my friend’s opinion (he shamed me into disavowing my conservative political beliefs in 1961), I found myself thinking more and more about whether my take on the movie was correct. Although I obviously can’t retract the pleasure I took in the movie as entertainment, was my take on the movie’s politics still valid? This is what I said in my review: […]

    Pingback by A second look at “Slumdog Millionaire” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 24, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  8. […] long after I posted my rave review of Slumdog Millionaire, an old friend from Bard College whose politics can be described as a shade to […]

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  9. […] movie as entertainment, was my take on the movie’s politics still valid? This is what I said in my review: As should be obvious from the plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a very old-fashioned […]

    Pingback by A Second Look at “Slumdog Millionaire” | The Activist — March 3, 2009 @ 3:52 am

  10. Nice review , Louis, but a few problems.
    Yes, you are right that Jamal has always loved Latika…and this in part is what saves him from Salims fate.
    But its not true Jamal goes on the show because hes not seen Latika in years. Its necessary to see the film at least twice (ive sen it 8 times!). Jamal found Latika after following his brother Salim. Latika is overjoyed to see Jamal,but seems to spurn him.He says he will be at Mumbai station each day at 5pm waiting for her… Shes says forget me…BUT she does indeed come to the station….thus proving her courage (she risks retaliation from Javad) as well as her love. She is then kidnapped by Salim and his men. Its after this that Jamal goes on the show.

    We already know that he knows how to get on…but showed no interest, even while working as a chai-wallah at a Call centre station.
    He goes on Who Wants to be a Millionaire to let Latika know where he is.

    ‘It’s probably a few weeks or months at most that pass before he gets on the show; not sure why or how it would help. Perhaps the idea that if he won, they’d have something other than “love” to live on.’

    This might be true…BUT theres no guarantee he would win. Notice he has little interest in money, as the police inspector surmises, and thats AFTER hes won 10 million rupees!

    He goes on th show because we learn he knows she watches it…had she watched Big Brother, hed have gone on that!

    This is the years best movie and one of the best and warmest in 10 years.

    Comment by brian — March 15, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

  11. […] life where he and his wife struggle to cope with the demands their daughter’s illness, and his job. Derailed. When he meets Lucinda on the train to work in Chicago, there is an immediate spark between them. […]

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  12. […] long after I posted my rave review of Slumdog Millionaire, an old friend from Bard College whose politics can be described as a shade to […]

    Pingback by Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire « Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle — March 31, 2010 @ 5:37 am

  13. I FULLY AGREE that it is a good movie, no doubt about it, but it is highly overrated. If u people like this, there are 100s of other Indian Movies that are made much better than this(Both old and NEW). As for Rahman’s music, it is GREAT (again no doubt). But this is definitely not his best. Pls go hear “dil se” and u’ll know what i am talking about! Compare this movie to previous Oscar winners like American beauty, and well, u’ll know wat i mean.

    Verdict : To everyone who has still not seen the film, It’s definitely a one time watch. Good music,Good story and Good (kind hearted if i may add) cast and crew. But i request you to watch it with an open mind. And by the way, Mumbai is not just a “slum area”.

    Comment by Susu — December 28, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

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