|Best Picture nominee Slumdog Millionaire|
This is a guest post from Tatiana Christian.
Set in modern day India, Slumdog Millionaire is heralded as a classic fairy-tale, rags to riches sort of story. Jamal (played by Dev Patel), a 20-year-old resident of Mumbai, is a contestant on the ever-popular Who Wants to be a Millionaire with Prem Kumar (played by Anil Kapoor) as his host. The film starts off with Jamal being tortured by police officers, demanding to know if he cheated during the game. As a “slum dog,” Jamal grew up impoverished and uneducated – so how could he possibly know the answer to a question such as “Which statesman is on the 100 dollar bill?”
The context of the film is that of abject poverty; a group of Indian boys are playing cricket in what looks like an abandoned airstrip before being chased away by police. As Jamal and his brother Salim (played by Madhur Mittal) race through the slums, we get an eagle-eye view of the poverty in which they live. Between the dirt roads, homes made of metal and stone are clustered together. The movie doesn’t hold back from the specific reality of our main characters.
As the young children race through the alleys, we get shots of the garbage floating atop the water. There’s a scene of a young man wading through the river, throwing trash into a large plastic bag. The lack of general infrastructure is depicted in two scenes where Salim charges people to use an outhouse and where many women are shown washing clothes in a common area.
The concept of poverty is incredibly important when we examine Latika’s (played by Freida Pinto) role in the movie. In India, women hold a lower place compared to men, even to the point of increased gendercide [in the event that a woman discovers she’s pregnant with a girl]. This preference for the male experience is captured throughout the film.
We first see Latika when Jamal watches his mother bludgeoned to death by anti-Muslim Hindus. The boys are chased through the city, and we get a quick glimpse of a girl standing between two buildings. She’s motionless despite the chaos around her, and only begins to run when beckoned by Jamal. As they race to find help, with the uninterested police playing cards, Latika waits on the other side of the road. Like before, she only runs once Jamal summons her.
Latika continues to be a rather passive and almost mute character as she follows our main characters around. The boys have found shelter in a gigantic crate, and it’s pouring while Latika stands in the rain, shivering. Jamal and Salim bicker over whether or not to let her in – and much like before – Latika is given permission to act as she crawls into the crate, soaking wet.
The disempowerment of poor women in India is also reflected in this film. According to Rashimi Bhat, “Women and girls have less access to food, education and health care than men and boys. Hence, they may face poverty more severely than men.” This concept is seen when the children are discovered by Maman (played by Ankur Vikal), a man who rounds up children and forces them to act as beggars. Maman asks the children to sing for him, and those who can are blinded because they earn more money that way.
At the risk of having his brother blinded, Salim – who was momentarily granted a second-in-command-type position – tells Jamal to run. Latika joins them as they escape and eventually they find themselves trying to catch a moving train. Both Jamal and Salim have boarded, but Latika is still trying to keep up. When she finally grabs onto Salim’s hand – he pulls away, leaving her to Maman and his men.
Salim isn’t atypical in his hatred for women – or at least Latika – as he is living in a country where every twelve seconds a baby girl is aborted. We also see his dislike for females when he is bossing the other children around, and he grabs a sleeping baby from the arms of another female child. He carries the wailing infant to Latika, telling her to hold it because it’ll fetch double. At first, Latika refuses, but when Salim threatens to drop the female infant, Latika gives in.
The fate of Latika versus Salim and Jamal is pronounced throughout the rest of the film. As a young, impoverished, and presumably uneducated orphan Latika doesn’t have very many options. The rest of the film is dedicated to the exploits of the brothers who board a train going anywhere – stealing food, getting kicked off, and then boarding again. They wind up at the Taj Mahal where Jamal is strangely mistaken for a tour guide, which allows him and his brother to start a racket of stealing foreigner’s shoes.
Meanwhile, the fate of Latika can only be guessed at until Jamal resumes his desperate search to discover she’s become a child prostitute. When the boys go to search for her, this is probably the only time in the movie where we see an abundance of women. In the film, their purpose is to only serve the men, and we see glimpses of Latika dancing for an older man. Jamal and Salim burst in to save her, only to have Maman waltz in. Latika is, once again, portrayed as being powerless as she simply watches as the men argue over her fate. She doesn’t protest or otherwise attempt to run away. SPOILER: Once Salim kills Maman, they escape to an abandoned hotel. (end spoiler).
Once at the hotel, Jamal and Latika discuss destiny, which has “bonded” them and is what compelled him to search for her. There is a scene where Latika is taking a shower, and she comes out to get a towel from Jamal. She asks if Salim is still there, who contorts his face with disgust then promptly leaves the hotel room to visit Javed (played by Mahesh Manjrekar), the nemesis of Maman. It’s presumed that he has sold Latika’s virginity to him because he comes back to the hotel, and kicks Jamal out with a gun pointed at his head.
In this scene, Latika comes out and tells Jamal to go – perhaps to save him – and heads back into the room with Salim. This is the last time that Jamal sees Latika for several years.
Bhat says that women in India have: “Lesser means – assets, skills, employment options, education, legal resources, financial resources – to overcome poverty than men, and are more economically insecure and vulnerable in times of crisis.” After this incident, we see Jamal working in a call center, serving tea to the employees while Salim has settled for a life of crime working for Javed. Jamal lies his way into Javed’s mansion when he sees Latika standing on a balcony, and when he enters the house, she’s excited to see him but then emotionally retreats.
Jamal notices a bruised eye, and tries to convince her to leave with him.
“And live off of what?” Latika asks.
“Love.” Jamal replies.
This exchange is paramount to understanding Latika’s role in life (that of which we see in the movie). Latika has been forced to live with or abide by the rules of men who were more financially powerful, while also lacking any skills to live on her own. In this sense, she settles for an abusive, coerced relationship because she doesn’t know how to survive. Jamal, who doesn’t really understand what it means to struggle as a woman, suggests something impractical. It highlights his ignorance of her situation, his male privilege.
But, he tells her that he’ll wait for her at the train station everyday at 5pm. Surprisingly, she shows up, and for a few moments they’re reunited until Salim and his thugs come to re-kidnap her. It’s very telling to me that in the first (and only) time that Latika has fought for what she wanted, it’s immediately thwarted and ends with a kidnapper cutting her on her face. The extreme violence that Latika experiences when trying to exert her independence is overwhelming.
After this, Latika is taken to a safe house while Jamal is on his final question for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. While Javed and his thugs are busy with dancing girls, Salim gives Latika his cell phone and the keys to his car, as a way to atone for his past wrongdoings. This is incredibly important because while Latika experiences freedom, it’s through the assistance of a man (and one who sold her). But it’s also important to note that she’s not escaping to be free, she’s escaping to go into the arms of yet another man.
Tatiana Christian is a 20-something blogger who loves to blog around race, gender, media, and how personal experiences allow her to explore issues regarding social justice. I love to spend time on Twitter following and participating in conversations that help expand my understanding of the world.