Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by Danny Boyle. Los Angeles: Fox Searchlight, 2008.
Slumdog Millionaire is a fairytale in the era of globalization, weaving together an engaging tapestry of pivotal moments from protagonist Jamal Malik’s life. Jamal’s experience demonstrates the popular education principle that learning can happen anywhere and most often happens simply through the process of living. The story propels him from the slums to the championship of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? with the connecting thread being Jamal’s undying devotion to the love of his life, Latika. The film’s buoyant optimism offers contrast to the casual violence of slums rife with poverty, leaving viewers feeling uplifted. Yet the film—written and directed by Hollywood Caucasians—serves the purpose of fulfilling Western fantasies of impoverished India.
As Slumdog Millionaire continues to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, one has to wonder whether this capitalist success will trickle down to the downtrodden masses it purportedly celebrates. Early indications are not so promising—news outlets have reported that the child actors in the film, who all lived in poverty in India, have seen their roles in the film result in very little change in their day-to-day lives.1 Similarly, the portrayal of the leading female character situates Latika amid the “political economy of sex,” which “takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated women as products.” 2 Latika, whose childhood is filled with a series of physical and sexual abuses, becomes another commodity in the unwieldy expanse of globalization; her love is the prize that represents Jamal’s exit out of destitution. In contrast, Latika experiences liberation in the form of being transferred from one male to another—albeit better—man. In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, life imitates art, as a film conceived as a brainchild of globalization replicates neoliberal models in its commodification of women as objects and of Third World poor people’s experiences as artistic fodder for the Western gaze.
When using Slumdog Millionaire in the classroom, incorporating critiques of popular culture and media with widespread appeal is fundamental for developing critical thinking skills of students. In classroom curriculums, it is important to first define globalization as the process through which economic and cultural hegemony diffuse across international landscapes, and develop discussions based on how this macro-level process impacts families and individual relationships.3 Questions for discussion may include: How has globalization affected India broadly, and Jamal’s life specifically? What are the roles of women within the matrix of globalization processes? And how has globalization brought the film to the American market? As a homework assignment, have students identify their own part in globalization processes, starting with their role as consumers, and working backwards through the demand and production chains. Students should attempt to identify the geographical location of the production of the food, clothes, and other items that they consume on a daily basis.
1 Dean Nelson and Barney Henderson, “Slumdog Child Stars Miss out on the Movie Millions,” The Daily Telegraph, January 27, 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/4347472/Poor-parents-of-Slumdog-millionaire-stars-say-children-were-exploited.html.
2 Gayle Rubin. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, ed. Ellen Lewin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 88.
3 Relevant texts include Jennifer Cole, Generations and Globalization: Youth, Age and Family in the New World Economy ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) and Shobha Pais, “Globalization and its Impact on Families,” paper presented at the 4th Viennese Conference on Mediation.