He represents in petto India in transition—the monstrous hybridism of East and West.
Stardom is martyrdom: India arrives in the American imagination. (A PDF of this article is available for download.)
—Rudyard Kipling, Kim
The kind of life I have chosen is ultimately not for personal gain.
—Osama bin Laden
TWO WINTERS AGO,
making their way through Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, two young Muslim men became famous. One was Jamal Malik, a fictional orphan in a movie. The other was Ajmal Amir Kasab, said to be from a clan of butchers in small-town Pakistani Punjab. The former, in the closing scenes of the film, is weedy, gawky; lets his mouth hang open in a pantomime of nervous exhilaration; is newly rich from winning a game show; kisses the girl and then dances with the rest of the cast. The latter, in the most widely seen photo, is stout, steroidful; wears too-short cargo pants, a knockoff VERSACE
T-shirt, two backpacks filled with ammunition and snacks; carries a double-banana-clipped AK-47 that blurs as it swings through the depopulated space before him. On May 6, 2010, he was sentenced to be hanged.
I FIRST SAW SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
about twelve hours into November 2008’s languorous, meandrated attacks in Bombay, and the film’s visual style fittingly evoked the city as it was at that moment and as it is always: an unseemly collocation of bodies, buildings, land, and sea. On the whole the film was slight and slipshod, its world-pop-scored hullabaloo admitting a complaisant charm. But its reception and coverage, the quality and extent of the doting in the four months between its theatrical release and its apotheosis at the Academy Awards, and well into the months beyond; the numbersome awards it acquired, the churning regurgitant obsession it inspired in the press, the way it served as an occasion for all manner of sociological commentary—in these there was something incredible.
Breaking stories of Slumdog
’s latest plaudit received or offense caused perpetually supplanted one another. The two slum children cast in big roles became, as they gamboled amid diverse filth and were beaten for insolence in their see-through hovels, subjects of paparazzi surveillance. Freida Pinto, a previously undistinguished Indian fashion model who played the film’s love interest, tied for No. 5 in Vanity Fair
’s Most Beautiful Woman in the World rankings; Details
, with less film-industry cachet but wielding the imprimatur of disinterested gay good taste, put her at No. 4. The reigning No. 1, Angelina Jolie, let slip that she and her consort were planning to adopt a slumdog of their very own. Newsweek
discovered it had a genuine slumdog working in its Delhi bureau and persuaded him to produce an op-ed. The Washington Post
’s third annual Eastertide Peeps diorama contest received several Slumdog
-themed submissions; slumdog
itself entered the language as an all-purpose attributive for any story of unlikely success or thing Indian. A “slumdog effect” was credited with optimism among independent filmmakers, with a craze for bhangra-based fitness classes and an increase in donations to international children’s charities. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele sent out “slum love” to “slumdog governor” Bobby Jindal. Slumdog Millionaire
was proclaimed “the movie Generation O can call its own.” The big O himself said it reminded him of his Indonesian boyhood.
Even in the late stages of its overexposure, Slumdog
continued to metastasize: its plot into a Broadway musical; its monies, a scholarship fund; its concluding dance number, a Pussycat Dolls cover. The film’s success, said the Boston Globe
, derived from its “multi-tasking as romantic drama, exotic postcard, Eastern cultural study, pop-cultural riff, fractured narrative exercise, and Bollywood boogie-down sampler.” But Slumdog
’s seductive power had little to do with chemistry-free romance or visual flamboyance, with “photogenic squalor” or “polyglot verve”—and little ultimately to do with the story the film told. Far more powerful was the story told about the film, and the consolations it offered, mostly by accident, to a culture newly conscious of its waning preeminence. That story had everything to do with the coincidence of Jamal Malik’s and Ajmal Kasab’s debuts.
JAMAL, A NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD PEON
who works in a call center and is on the verge of winning Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
, is interrogated by policemen who suspect him of cheating. He relates, in flashbacks to childhood (six-ish), adolescence (fourteen-ish), and the near past, how he came to know the answers; these flashbacks tell the story of his life. He and his older brother, Salim, live in a Bombay slum until they are orphaned by their mother’s death. They meet a girl named Latika, and all three are impressed into a begging syndicate. The brothers escape, but Latika doesn’t. After traveling around India for several years, they return to Bombay at the insistence of lovelorn Jamal and rescue Latika from a brothel, but fall out when Salim claims her for his own. Five years later, Jamal is a tea-boy in a call center and Salim is muscle for the mob. They reunite, and Jamal again sleuths his way back to Latika, whom Salim has delivered to his boss as a kept woman. She and Jamal try to run away together, but Salim recaptures her. Jamal goes on the game show so that Latika can locate him; Salim, in a change of heart, sacrifices himself to secure her freedom. Jamal successfully answers the ninth and final question.
At the beginning of Slumdog
, the audience is presented with their own multiple-choice question (Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?
), whose answer is revealed at the end (D. It is written
). Throughout the film, this writ of destiny governs far beyond the game-show triumph that is its jurisdiction. As vignettes of operatic megapolitan pauperdom give way to a life of peripatetic high jinks, exuberant petit larceny, and agreeable if menial jobs, Jamal’s progress comes to feel oddly without impediment. Slumdog
was often called a fairy tale, which served as a defense of the film’s nonsensicality and occasionally as an acknowledgement of its plentiful folkloric motifs (Predestined Treasure, Princess in the Tower, Quest for Stolen Princess, Princess Rescued from the Lower World), but never as an assessment of its actual fabulous coherence. For at the heart of Jamal’s destiny are neither the haywire contrivances that endow him with the necessary factoids nor the flaccid arc of his star-crossed love, but an innate aptitude, an assurance of success, an identity that precedes experience. His is an ancient story, that of high birth and low upbringing, the prince raised as a pauper, the crownling sent abroad for safekeeping, the boy who, on reaching adolescence, manifests wondrous abilities that betoken the patrimony to which he will eventually accede (e.g., Theseus, Jesus, Harry Potter). Jamal’s birthright, his secret superpower, is simply this: He is not Indian.
Our princely weanie’s arrival is signaled by one of the film’s sporadic burps of lesser magic. After a brief montage of their wanderings outside Bombay, Jamal and Salim tumble from a moving train, roll down an embankment, and have doubled in age when they sit up; in front of them is the Taj Mahal; Jamal asks, “Is this heaven?” Until this point, Jamal spoke only Hindi, but now he commands perfect convent school English, acquired not after
he and Salim reinvent themselves as Taj Mahal tourist guides but, miraculously, before. Jamal’s English is not a late-blooming native speaker’s facility; it is actually a new mother tongue. Hindi he reserves thereafter for lowly sorts (rickshaw drivers, a blind beggar from his syndicate days); English is the language he turns to in amusement, shock, and anger, the language in which he professes (and, we might imagine, but for his boyish chastity, makes) love. On its own this transformation is not the shibboleth of Jamal’s election (it occurs as well with Latika and Salim), but for him alone it resonates with other exceptional developments. A few critics groped at Jamal’s incongruity, his essential Westernness, and flailed to explain it. “He’s got more affinities with his twentysomething counterparts here and worldwide,” suggested one—of this (impecunious, Indian, Muslim) young man—“than any of them do with their elders.”
IN JANUARY OF LAST YEAR,
just after Oscar nominations, the British and American media picked up on the story of Slumdog
’s child actors, poor children from the Bombay slums who had been cast as poor children from the Bombay slums. Three months into the release of the film that their street-kid cred had already helped to bolster, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (the youngest version of Salim) and Rubina Ali (the youngest version of Latika) were still living in Garib Nagar (“Poor Man’s Colony”). It emerged that Azharuddin (by then age ten) had been paid roughly three thousand dollars for his acting work and Rubina (by then age nine) around nine hundred. Azharuddin’s father had already spent all of the money on his tuberculosis. Authorities had recently demolished Azharuddin’s hutment, and he and his family were to be found living under a tarpaulin. The filmmakers said that they had established a trust fund for the children and that whatever (unspecified) remuneration the two had received was a lot more than the average slum wage. The children would get a lump sum (unspecified; one newspaper reported fifty thousand dollars) at age eighteen if they stayed in school. The film’s distributors decried the “unwarranted press attention”; Danny Boyle, the film’s director, and Christian Colson, of the production company Celador (whose biggest success before Slumdog
was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
), asked that “the media respect the children’s privacy at this formative time in their lives.”
A few days before the Oscars, the film studio announced that Azharuddin and Rubina would attend the ceremony with the rest of the cast. Their parents had been holding out for more money, but apparently they had relented. In Los Angeles, the two appeared alongside the seven (much wealthier) children and teenagers who had played Jamal or Salim or Latika (as “youngest” or “middle” or “older”). The group went to Disneyland; they were photographed with Mickey and rode on “it’s a small world.” When Rubina and Azharuddin made their wee-hours return to Bombay, the airport was thronged with well-wishers. “America was amazing,” said Rubina. “I loved the pizza there. People are so beautiful.”
With the pair returned to Garib Nagar, journalists reported that they had themselves become a nuisance: “Reporters were everywhere where any details of the children and their families could be taken down. Some residents complained about the chaotic scenes as journalists ran from house to house, and the odd scuffle ensued.” Azharuddin, on refusing to meet with an interviewer who had paid his father for access, was beaten, and the beating was photographed. TEARS… BOY AFTER BEATING
); AZHARUDDIN FEELS BETTER WITH AN ELECTRONIC GADGET—AZHARUDDIN WEARS AN OLD-FASHIONED PINK NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS T-SHIRT
(New York Post
). It was, “one stunned onlooker” told the Sun
, “like a scene out of Slumdog Millionaire
After a week back in the slum, Rubina said, “I want a proper bed and to live where the air does not smell of poo.” Azharuddin, who had fallen ill with a mystery slum fever, agreed: “There are too many mosquitoes and it is so hot. I just want to be in America now.”
Both appeared as runway models at India Fashion Week. Rubina costarred in a lavish Schweppes commercial in which she and Nicole Kidman hasten through a red-sandstone palace in Rajasthan. (Rubina found Kidman “strange,” and Us Weekly
declared a Feud of the Week.) Rubina’s father said his daughter had been paid more for the ad than for Slumdog
. He then tried to sell her to rich Arabs. The News of the World
, in a sting deploying their “Fake Sheikh” team, concocted a barren Emirati couple who met Rubina, her father, and his brother in a five-star hotel. With Rubina absented to another room to play with the “princess,” the uncle asked for a payout of twenty million rupees—some four times the price originally floated (and the same amount as Jamal’s winnings). “This is not
an ordinary child,” he said. “This is an Oscar child.” (He offered non-Oscar children at a discount.) The police arrested Rubina’s father but then cleared him for lack of evidence. There were doubts about the allegations. “If he wanted to be rich,” said a slum dweller speaking on condition of anonymity, “keeping her would be better than earning a lump sum.” Rubina’s mother, who had filed a formal child-trafficking complaint against her ex-husband, was photographed engaging Rubina’s stepmother in public fisticuffs. The filmmakers hired a social worker for the girl.
A sewer main broke and flooded Rubina’s shack. “Rubina was covered in feces,” reported one newspaper. “This is just typical,” Rubina said. Azharuddin’s shack was again bulldozed by the authorities.
“I was frightened,” said Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, who lost his pet kittens in the chaos. “Where is my chicken?” he asked forlornly, picking through the shamble of broken wood and twisted metal sheeting in search of the family hen.
The police beat Azharuddin’s father, which caused the boy to weep. “I wish Danny-uncle would come,” he said. Rubina’s shack was bulldozed, her father likewise beaten by policemen, and she too was reported to have wept. “I’m feeling bad,” she told the AP. She fell ill from “exposure to the humid night” and was taken to hospital. The municipal government said the children’s families would be given 180-square-foot apartments. The bulldozers returned to Azharuddin’s shack but spared it a third leveling because, his father said, the authorities were now aware of his son’s fame.
Danny Boyle flew to Bombay and was photographed hugging the children and promising to arrange for their rehousing. “I certainly hope this is the last time I have to speak to the media about Azhar and Rubina in this context,” he said. “All the tension and pressure on the family is media-dominated.” The government said that the children could not accept both the state-allotted apartments and those offered by the filmmakers. The children’s parents said the former would be too small and badly located. Garib Nagar caught fire, and both children had to flee. In July, Azharuddin moved with his mother, brother, and sister-in law into a one-room apartment paid for by Celador (his father stayed in the slum and died two months later). Rubina published her autobiography. “Rubina brings alive a world of wastelands and rat-infested shanty dwellings,” said the publisher of Slumgirl Dreaming: My Journey to the Stars
WHEREAS ALL THIS URCHIN-VENERY
transpired without objection, a few months earlier much facile hand-wringing had arisen over the filmmakers’ propriety in depicting India’s poor. When Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s august standard-bearer, posted to his blog a tame one-liner on the controversy (“let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations”), he was shanghaied by the press and pushed to the head of the column then advancing on Slumdog Millionaire
with the cry of “Poverty porn!” (Bachchan soon raised the white flag, calling the movie—in which he appears, via archival footage and stand-in doppelganger, as a blazon of Oriental authenticity, his eminence compelling young Jamal to plunge into a cesspit for an autograph—a “fairy tale.”)
At the same time, Slumdog
was cheered for showcasing the “New India” (or “India Shining,” in the enduring slogan of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2004 election campaign). India too had been hit in the global crash, but without America’s bubbles and debts: Here was the free market tootling along at a healthy clip. “You get this extraordinary capitalism, growing and building there,” said Danny Boyle in an interview. “We’ve got a problem at the moment in the West with capitalism… because in order to operate at its best it needs to constantly expand, so it’s definitely got room to expand in India. They’ll hit a wall at some point.” “Here,” said Slumdog
screenwriter Simon Beaufoy about London, “we couldn’t get an escalator on the Underground fixed in six months, literally. And over there they have built entire megacities in that time.” There were paeans to the Tata Nano, the new everyman’s car priced at one hundred thousand rupees (two thousand dollars); to Bombay’s spirit of entrepreneurship and its rising class of “slumdog thousandaires.”
Such rhetoric represents only half the binary cliché of India since neoliberal reform. “Incredible !ndia” (the Ministry of Tourism has been using this one since 2002) is, in the language of the film’s admirers, “a land of contrasts,” “a high-tech powerhouse with more beggars than cars,” a land in which Boyle’s “extraordinary capitalism” meets “incredible poverty” and creates “an incredible metaphor for globalization.” Recollections of Slumdog
were exaggerated in both directions, toward progress and poverty alike, the squalor of its early location shots contrasted with the sumptuous cityscapes that inspired some to interpolate development exemplars not actually found in the film. The critic David Edelstein, in conversation with Boyle, chirruped about the changes wrought upon Bombay by a dozen on-screen years: “crowded freeways” (there is one calamitous Indian traffic jam
on a surface road) and “hip nightlife” (there is none; this characterization, like another critic’s description of Salim’s “slick, nightclub world,” apparently refers to a makeshift, clientless whorehouse in an empty McMansion).
The poverty-porn indictment supposed an exploitive, lurid depiction of exotic privation and hardship, but Slumdog
, in the story of Jamal, controverts these charges even as it shares pornography’s premise: the elision of difficulty and the fantasy
AT THE CALL CENTER
where the adult Jamal (played by British actor Dev Patel) winds up working, his every movement belies his humdrum goferdom, class background, and scant formal education. His technological finesse, like his knowledge of British soap operas, shows up his superiors. This phase in Jamal’s fairy-tale maturation resembles a more recently devised form: the Bildungsroman
has lately monopolized Americans’ exposure to the literary life of the developing world, as much for the genre’s familiar rhythm as for the tendency of its new protagonists—in completing their formation (Bildung
) and, per generic convention, assuming their proper place in modern, bourgeois society—to acclimate not to the restless-making culture of their birth but to the United States. Jamal never emigrates; he carries the West within him. Amid those who merely and for modest compensation pretend to be the compatriots of the foreigners whose calls they answer, Jamal, neither born nor bred, is the real deal. That Jamal is a South Asian Muslim places his story within an especially populous subgenre of postcolonial émigré Bildungsromane
: those written after 9/11 and set in the Islamic world. E.g.:
Jamal learns the answers to the quiz-show questions by “living” them in the order they are asked, a serendipity that recalls the plotting of Bildungsromane as described by Wilhelm Dilthey, the genre’s first critic: “A regular development is observed in the life of the individual: each of the stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage.”
Reading Lolita in Tehran Prisoner of Tehran Honeymoon in Tehran Persepolis My Name Is Iran Iran Awakening Persian Girls Daughter of Persia Funny in Farsi The Septembers of Shiraz A Sky So Close The Other Side of the Sky Saffron Sky The Saffron Kitchen Salt and Saffron Dawn Mirage Desert Caspian Rain Infidel My Life as a Traitor Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth Living in Hell Jumping over Fire Burned Alive Behind the Tall Walls Behind the Burqa My Forbidden Face Lipstick Jihad A Bed of Red Flowers Minaret Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith Things I’ve Been Silent About Even After All This Time To See and See Again The Blindfold Horse Married to a Stranger Journey from the Land of No Inside the Kingdom Girls of Riyadh Bitter Sweets Naphthalene: A Novel of Baghdad Nadia’s Song The Story of Zaha The Cry of the Dove West of the Jordan Salaam, Paris.
Women (and especially cosmopolitan Iranian women) whoppingly preponderate in the authorship of these English-language “veil lifters,” which cater to curiosity about the misogynies and sundry oppressions of Muslim societies. Jamal’s story heralds a subtiliation of this trend: in that his congenital Westernness would redund actual geographic flight; in that his tale is not autobiographical memoir, which has impropriated to itself the mantle of the Bildungsroman
, but a return to the genre’s fictional third-person roots; and in that he is not the jeune première
of the veil lifter nor the budding cadet of the classic Bildungsroman
but something in between—an emasculated man.
“I had been looking at all these guys in Bollywood,” said Boyle of casting the lead. “There were some really good lads… but they all had the wrong look… like they can rip their shirts off and get under the waterfall in the Swiss Alps… I wanted a guy who didn’t look like a potential hero. I didn’t want that body.” (Said one of the good lads: “When I gave my first audition, I was quite lean.… But when they called me four months later for the final auditions, I had a beefed-up look.”) Azharuddin and Rubina likewise were chosen with an eye toward authentic unprepossession. (Said producer Christian Colson of the decision not to cast Anglophone children in those roles, “They’d look too middle-class”; added screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, “Very well-fed… completely wrong compared to these little ankle-biters who just zip around the slums.”) But with Patel this gesture was a nonstarter. His body language, his first-world sapling’s slouch, his stride so presumptuous of personal space and shitless sidewalks, and his barely Indian accent all mark him out from his castmates in high and gangly relief. (The visual evidence of Jamal’s poverty is, in the phrasing of Arundhati Roy—the only critic to identify his otherworldliness—nothing more than “an epic prop.”) Even as Patel’s physique and bearing enhance, on varying levels, our awareness of Jamal’s distinction, they commute his risk of masculinity.
“Jamal’s just a wet blanket,” said Beaufoy. “He just sits there.… He seemed dogged without any personality, really. Which made him look just slightly autistic or something in his quest for Latika.” The filmmakers attempted to correct for this late in production by adding scenes in which Jamal gets to erupt in overwrought rage. But these do nothing to attenuate his insipidity; nor does the romance itself, an epicene, unconsummated side plot in which Latika incessantly contrives to be kidnapped and raped while remaining, evidently, pretty into the ineffectual Jamal all the while. 2
Further evincing Jamal’s feebleness and his situation within the post-9/11 Bildungsroman
is his stance toward Islam: not the anathemas of a Hirsi Ali or the carefully modulated resentments of Persia’s royalist disenfranchised, but, by and large, apathy. The only scene in Slumdog
that connects Jamal to Islam is the pogrom in which his mother is killed. This event—which should be the seminal moment of his life—becomes but one more answer to one more question. (“Trifles,” as David Copperfield
has it, “make the sum of life.”) In the riot scene, Jamal and Salim splash in a shallow cistern while their mother and other launderers go about their Indically polychromatic business; the mother glances with unease toward trains rumbling on nearby tracks; the traffic clears to reveal an onrushing Hindu mob (the white noise of their roar subtitled, “They’re Muslims, get them!”); she is felled by a fanatic’s rebar; the fleeing brothers happen upon a young boy elaborately kitted out as a blue-skinned Hindu god who stares at them as he stands frozen in the posture of the relevant iconography. The little blue boy (Joseph from a first-grade Nativity turning up on the picket line outside an abortion clinic just as someone shoots the gynecologist) provides Jamal a crucial piece of knowledge about the god Ram (HINDOO DEITIES FOR $100
). Having related this anecdote to his interrogators, Jamal concludes, with husky piety, “If it wasn’t for Ram and Allah, I’d still have a mother.”
At the Oscars, one journalist asked Boyle about the rumor, later confirmed, that Patel was dating Freida Pinto (the object of Jamal’s desire), pointing out that a bona fide romance between these two newly christened People 100 Most Beautifuls “would be an amazing case of life imitating art.”
, the novel on which Slumdog
is loosely based, the Jamal character, a doorstep foundling taken in by a Scottish priest, is given the name Ram Mohammed Thomas—creed and sect unknown, he embodies India’s theme-park diversity. There is no Christian proxy in Jamal’s exasperation with the internecine grievances of two abstruse Asiatic religions, one of which nominally claims him. Boyle said that he sought in the riot scene to assume “the point of view of a seven-year-old, who wouldn’t understand any of the finer details of politics, nationalism, intolerance, bigotry… they cannot make sense of it”; this docile incomprehension Jamal will carry with him into adulthood. “Jamal’s life should have been brutally coarsened by tragedy,” noted the New York Times
, but it wasn’t, whereas for Salim, Boyle tells us, the mother’s death is “an event that really turns him to violence. He decides never to suffer again but to make other people suffer instead.”
Jamal’s oblique indictment of the bad men
(Hindu nationalists and Muslim radicals) whose cyclic barbarisms under banners of faith have ultimately led to his orphancy is almost aggressively apolitical (the riot, said Colson, “Danny’s been very careful to—depoliticize”). But if fascist Hindutva politics—the proximate cause of the mother’s death, with “Ram,” not “Allah,” actually showing up—is hugely more corrosive for India than is Islamic extremism, the susurrations of Muslim ultras are what reverberate abroad. One stage beyond progressive skepticism, Jamal’s faux truism is full of unspoken repudiation. (Salim, who prays mornings for the forgiveness of his sins, seems meant as a soft example of a bad man
, with worse lurking beyond the frame.) Jamal’s heroism, in short, is his gormlessness. “Agreeable enough if vague” was the Times
’ description. As a putative Muslim, he is made courageous and principled by his very lack of these qualities.
Such attitudes follow “Jamal” even outside the world of the film. Dev Patel “moved to tears” the visiting evaluator of his tenth-grade drama exam by performing an original monologue in which he channeled the bemused horror of a child caught in the Beslan school hostage crisis. Tanay Chheda, who plays “middle” Jamal, went on from Slumdog
to act in My Name Is Khan
, a film starring Shahrukh Khan (one of few Bollywood actors more bankable than Amitabh Bachchan). Chheda plays the young Khan/Khan, an autistic Muslim deemed suspicious and detained by authorities at the San Francisco airport. Explained Khan,
My Name Is Khan is also about Islam and the way the world looks at Islam but we are not taking any sides. We are only trying to say that there are only good people and bad people. There are no good Hindus, bad Hindus, good Christians, bad Christians. Either you are a good person or a bad person. Religion is not the criterion, humanity is. The tagline we have put in the film is: The first superhero with only one superpower—humanity.
Last August, as Khan was in transit through Newark Liberty International Airport, TSA agents became suspicious and detained him because his name was Khan.
his aura of mystical circumscription, rendered unlikely the analogy wherein the two spunky slum children were said to be duplicating his “rags-to-riches” trajectory. “The glamorous world of the Oscars stands in sharp contrast to the squalid conditions in Mumbai’s slums,” said one report as the two set out for L.A., “but in their case life is truly beginning to imitate art.” Azharuddin and Rubina would prosper like Jamal just as the “orphan indie film” had prospered like Jamal.
That this analogy grew ever messier following the children’s homecoming presented no impediment to its invocation. Absent the grand, mistily prognosticated success that was to have equated with Jamal’s twenty-million-rupee blowout, the commentary reverted to its pre–Academy Awards tack: Azharuddin and Rubina, restored to their former indigence, had simply returned to the meaner circumstances of their characters—their native lot. To Jamal went the second half of the film’s tagline, Destined to win
. The kids got Born to lose
Danny Boyle, in a promotional video for Slumdog
, said of India:
What we would regard as a terrible condition of life, you know, they accept that, that that is their destiny. They always used to say that about a kind of spiritual thing, that proper spirituality is infinite, and India’s a bit like that, because there’s so many people changing, everything’s infinite, and we used to say it’s like the ocean, because it’s changing, totally, everything’s changing about it, and yet it’s always there, and always the same. What we tried to do in the film, interestingly, we tried to use it as [an] optimistic thing that actually change can happen because of it as well. You can
use it as an idea where, and, and I think that’s where it’s a
hybrid between the philosophies there and a kind of more Western application, an idea, a romantic idea which is that you can change your destiny.
What Hegel (in referring to Africans) called “the enormous energy of sensuous arbitrariness which dominates their lives” applies to the children but not to Jamal. What Hegel (in referring to the Bildungsroman
) said of the young Bildungsheld
fits Jamal better: “However much he may have quarreled with the world or been pushed around in it, in the end he usually gets his girl and some sort of position, marries, and becomes a Philistine like everybody else.”
LATE IN NOVEMBER OF 2008,
“the same legendary rail terminal that’s the setting for the movie’s joyously Bollywoodized finale… was on the news as a massacre site. Yet,” asserted GQ
, “that only gave Jamal’s very secular defiance a new edge of triumph.” Let us return, then, to Victoria Terminus—a shooting location twice over—and to the anti-Jamal, the complement to his physical weakness, political insensibility, and inherent Westernness, the other South Asian Muslim who rose to fame at the same time: Ajmal Amir Kasab.
Years from now, the magazine went on to say, “we won’t have forgotten the scads of anonymous dancers who show up to shake their collective booty… behind Jamal and his honey in Slumdog
’s euphoric train-platform finale. Just think of them as the Mumbai victims’ posthumous revenge on the gunmen.” If terrorist
sounds a note of pejoration while insurgent
concedes certain autochthonous rights, gunman
, the American media’s epithet of choice for the Bombay attackers (and for which usage the New York Times
was called out and couldn’t explain itself), seemed tinged with near-approbationary awe.
All ten gunmen were superlatively competent. They remained sharp; the police assumed they must have taken amphetamines, cocaine, LSD to stay awake. (Autopsies showed they had not.) The police seemed almost vaudevillian in their uselessness. Some of them were armed with muskets, others had no ammunition. Those who were armed couldn’t shoot to save their lives. One cop tried throwing a plastic stackie chair at Kasab and his partner, Ismail Khan. All teams save Kasab’s (which attacked Victoria Terminus and a hospital) made for locations where foreigners and wealthy Indians congregate (a backpackers’ café, a Chabad Lubavich center, two five-star hotels). “If you speak to the media,” one of the gunmen was advised, via cell phone, by his handler, “tell them this is only the trailer. The film is yet to come.”
Kasab was perfectly cast. At VT, he and Khan racked up fifty-eight kills (a third of the final toll) in what was by far the most efficient phase of the three-day-long operation. Kasab had no handler; he “strolled.” “They were like angels of death,” said a newspaper photographer who shadowed Kasab and Khan through the station and whose photo of Kasab—clean-cut in back-to-school clothes, one-handing his AK-47—was universally disseminated. “When they hit someone they didn’t even look back. They were so sure.” The pair inexplicably passed over some of those caught in the station, doing them no harm. They went on to storm an obstetric and children’s hospital, outside of which they shot the state’s top anti-terror cop; they stole his SUV, shot at people outside a cinema, stole a sedan, ran into a roadblock, and then Khan was killed and Kasab pretended to surrender but then shot another cop before he was overpowered and arrested.
Kasab was captured on 26/11 itself, and by 30/11 he had become “the lone surviving gunman.” One of his first interrogators spoke of a “muscular, well-trained body” and a face that was “very calm but has a blank, cold stare all the time.” The police asked him who he was supposed to kill. “People.” Where was he supposed to go after completing the operation? “We were supposed to die.”
He had no surname, so the criminal-justice bureaucracy used his family’s caste, Kasai—butchers (If you have never seen a tiger, look at a cat. If you have never seen a Thug, look at a Kasai
). Some said he spoke fluent English. He had extensive Koranic instruction, or knew nothing of the Koran. His age was unclear. His vagueness construed his villainy.
has always been proposed or courted by the Bildungsroman
, and postcolonial Bildungsromane
have been especially prone to interpretation as parables of (and evidence for) a sort of civilizational coming of age. India, as Jamal, invited contemporary fixations as much for what it is as for what it is not.
It is not, for one thing, Pakistan, that unruly adolescent for whom Jamal’s story offered a model of bourgeois normality. Slumdog
’s run commenced with 26/11 and continued through what was widely presented as Pakistan’s deterioration and near collapse as it ceded political and territorial integrity to various bad men
Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant outfit on which India blamed the Bombay attacks, ambushed the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. The Taliban mounted commando seizures, of the Lahore Police Academy and the Pakistani army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, that recalled the tactics seen in Bombay: laying “siege” by inviting one’s own besiegement. “Their mission seems to be hit and run,” said an army spokesman. “Or hit and get hit.” The Taliban had won concessions for self-governance and sharia law and were within sixty miles of Islamabad. These guys again? Pakistan, it seemed, sure could use “a compelling story of how wounded people and wounded societies seek redemption and renewal. President Bush and I,” said Laura, “really loved The Kite Runner
’s India, meanwhile, for all its celebrated modernity, sustains but one figure of economic development apart from Jamal’s call center: the construction industry (building as Bildung
). The reunion of Jamal and Salim takes place in a half-built skyscraper bristling with rebar and the future, one of many being put up by Salim’s boss. “India is at the hub of the world now, brother,” says Salim. “And I am at the center of the center. See that down there? That used to be our slum
!” It bears mentioning that the slum where the brothers grow up is the object of real-life developers’ most exquisite plutonic desire. The comprehensive execution of such plans, which would involve an historic transfer of urban land and an equally vast dispossession, is a fait accompli where the film is concerned.
In 2007, Mukesh Ambani—the energy tycoon who later said “a fear-psychosis is being created to slow projects of national importance” when forty thousand protesters forced the return of expropriated farmland on which the Tata Nano factory was to have been built—was named Forbes
’s richest man in the world: the first Indian thus distinguished. Shortly afterward, he set up a new company to fund the films of Steven Spielberg and started building for himself, his mother, his wife, and his three children a two-billion-dollar, sixty-story house on land that had been set aside for a Muslim orphanage.
FOR A LONG TIME,
there were no new photos of Kasab. Then he was pictured sitting in a police station on a plastic stackie chair, his wrists in handcuffs and bandages. He looked bored. His T-shirt
now said SPORTS
. Late last February, the police filed against him a chargesheet that ran to eleven thousand pages. He was indicted for belligeration, for murder actual and attempted, for entering the train station without a ticket; connected to physical evidence that included leftover grenades, scraps of paper reading THIS IS A POINTER TO WAR
, and a large bottle of Mountain Dew. Hundreds of witnesses testified against him. He killed my sir.… This short man shot at my boss; How can I forget?; He is the one. She was my only daughter. He was carrying a bag. She died in front of my eyes. That shorty!
In the months following his apprehension and during the trial, Kasab remained opaque but became much more pedestrian. In court he smiled, laughed, and cried; in which acts he was called “baby-faced,” “childlike,” “college student”–like, “fresh-faced,” “very good-looking,” “sullen,” “curious”; a patsy, a monster, an expert in the production of crocodile tears. His lawyer, Abbas Kazmi, claimed the accused was a minor, but Kasab himself slipped up and told the court he was twenty-one. (“The cat,”
said Kazmi, “has now come out of the bag.”) Still, serologic and radiologic testing was carried out to establish Kasab’s majority. (His clavicle had fused; he could be tried as an adult.)
Kasab had left school at age twelve. He worked as a laborer. He may have had a falling out with his father, who had refused to buy him new clothes for the festival of Eid. He possibly became involved in petty banditry and with a friend sought out Lashkar-e-Taiba in order to acquire better weapons and thereby improve their brigandage. In another version of the story (A Kasai
never tells the truth; if he did he would not be a Kasai), Kasab said his father encouraged him to seek out the group: “He said, ‘Look, son, we’re very poor. Other people live the good life, and so can you. You won’t have to do anything difficult. We’ll have money, we’ll no longer be poor. Your brothers and sisters will be able to get married.’”3
Reporters tracked down Kasab’s father and asked him whether he’d handed Kasab over to L-e-T
for money. He denied it: “I don’t sell my sons.”
In July, Kasab abruptly pleaded guilty, and made an elaborate confession; “Hang me if you want to,” he said. But he disputed a few of the charges, so the judge resumed proceedings. During the trial, Kasab’s requests were numerous. He wanted meat (the jail’s kitchen was vegetarian). He wanted proper biryani
. He wanted long-grained basmati rice. He wanted to order a book of short stories. He complained of his boredom. “He was a young man without much purpose in life,” said Hillary Clinton. “He was susceptible to the blandishments of the terrorist organizations.” “This,” she noted, “is not someone who had some deep, overriding ideological commitment.”
In 2002, a captured seventeen-year-old L-e-T militant who had killed twenty-eight civilians explained his motivations for joining the group: “Muslims were being butchered in Kashmir… their homes were destroyed and their women were being raped. It made me very angry. On top of it all, it was very hot, and the thought of doing something adventurous in the mountains was very attractive.” “Our bodies would emanate scent, and we would go to paradise,” said Kasab of his own motivations. “Our faces would glow like the moon.”
Kasab supposedly told the police immediately after his capture, “If you give me regular meals and money, I will do the same for you that I did for them.”
In his indifferent allegiance, his meager parroted boilerplate on Islam, his apoliticality, his nebulous personality, and his entrapment by designs that he could not but execute, Kasab is familiar—but with an important variation. For Jamal, predestination means that he is bought off from birth, guided by a mysterious beneficent hand. For Kasab, said Clinton, “We have to make sure people do get a good education. We have to make sure that people do have jobs. I mean, those are all part of what we see as… a more positive alternative to what the terrorists are selling.” Kasab, too, could have been bought. His is the ghost Bildung
SLUMDOG HAS JAMAL GROWING UP
as India grows out of its bucolic Nehruvian socialism, and the film’s miscitation as “Bollywood” in turn became a bellwether: “Hindi cinema,” in a characteristic proclamation, “stands poised to finally make the international crossover.” 4
But any as-yet-unpawned jewel of the West’s dematerialized economy was too dear to lend out for long. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said of Slumdog
’s Oscar wins, “I think we should be very proud. Britain is showing it has the talent to lead the world.” In Hollywood itself the reception was one of magisterial biplicity. The film, a big studio’s indie division’s success, was welcomed as an exotic foreign confection risen against incredible odds, and which could be validated (could achieve its destiny) solely through its investiture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a brotherhood to which it had always rightfully, secretly, belonged. The film was, inspiringly, theirs
; but it was really ours
all along—bought and paid for. This narrative devolved to the film’s notable brown contributors: A. R. Rahman, already an internationally esteemed composer, now got to sit next to the First Lady at the banquet for Time
’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and to score the new Vince Vaughn movie; Anil Kapoor, already a Bollywood star, now got to throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game and to portray, on the new season of 24
, an embattled Iranian-ish premier who tries to make peace with the United States but in so doing ignites the assassinatory passions of his country’s bad men
4 This has for years been predicted by American critics who don’t watch Bollywood films.
In these persons, it would seem, we had a cohort of Jamals: satellites in the orbit (or firmament) of our culture, in whose victories we could share. Jamal’s own victory adumbrates the fading belief in American native birth as the ideal outcome in a global lottery, and it is notable for its curiously self-negating quality: Jamal doesn’t do
anything to get the money. His is a victory without competition. His success derives either from coincidence or from fate’s design, and destiny, in this sense, is outside the purview of accomplishment. As an American, his success is earned simply by being; as an Indian, luck is the most he can be allowed.
Even as the deliverance of Azharuddin and Rubina seemed finally at hand (roles in an Anthony Hopkins film), their destiny continued to snag. Bulldozers once more threatened Rubina’s hutment, and her father bickered with the Jai Ho Trust over the promised apartment. “I am confused,” she told reporters. “Pray for us.” But the children’s foremost problem was that they had become too famous, missing school often enough that they were threatened with the loss of their $120-a-month stipends and the lump sums contingent on the completion of their secondary education; they were traveling too often, said their trustees, and neglecting their studies for junkets and ceremonies while their families asked for cars and spending money. “He is tired, really tired,” said Boyle’s representative. “The demands are now skyrocketing. Danny is tired, Danny is frustrated at these demands and has left India for England.”
Through this film’s impossibly long arc, the only genuine charity went to saving those who needed no saving to begin with, civilizing those hitherto fine specimens of our civilization. Beaufoy, in talking about his travels to Bombay, offered a brilliant choice of verb: “That… colonial past that twenty years ago was still very present, really, had been erased totally and replaced
by this amazing kind of fast-forward capitalism.” From halcyon empire to mission cinématrice
: Take up the Poor Man’s burden.
PERHAPS THE FILM had
been destined for something. Slumdog
coincided with yet another, bigger story about a boy with an absent father and a repudiated Muslim patrimony: Jamal Malik was “a romantic young man who… cares nothing for money,” said one newspaper, and “we saw these laudable qualities in the hundreds of thousands of people (most of them young) who toiled to elect” this other underdog, who more than a few thought to call our “slumdog president.”
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
was restored to prime time in America. Regis Philbin would resume hosting. “In these hard economic times, more than ever,” he said, “it’s important. Somebody’s big payoff could end up being the retirement plan they’re not going to get from a 401(k) that has crashed.” Regis ex machina
that the romantic young man cared nothing for money:
“There’s something much more interesting, of course, that steps outside the show, in a way, is that he is not interested in the money, really. Which is strange. His reason for being on the show is very different.” “His goal isn’t money, it’s to raise his profile in hopes of finding the girl he lost.” “She’s the only thing of real value he sees in the swirl of riches and rags around him.” “I wanted to make it about more than money.” “The love story, which is much stronger than a television show, much deeper and more profound and more recognizable and more lovable and more timeless than a game show.” “I didn’t want to make it a story about a slum dweller who drives off with a Rolex watch on his wrist
in a Bentley at the end.” “’Cause I don’t think getting rich… is necessarily a great way to end a film.” “Someone who finally finds the love of their life after finding her and losing her and finding her again, that’s something I will applaud.” ♫Just a humble slumdog/Sittin’ in the chair, of a millionaire./What will I be holding in the end?/What’s my final answer?/Is it written there, do I really care?/I’m only here so I can phone a friend./ And if I thought I could find equivalence/I would swim a sea of human excrement!♫ “Salim is in a bath of money at the end, so the only one who gets rich in this film ends up dead.” “And that’s struck a chord with people… in an era where we’ve suddenly turned around and gone, ‘Wait a minute; this money thing, it’s been shown to be a real false idol.’” “People in early screenings wanted to know, Did he get the money? Well, he got the girl." "Have they got no soul?”
What a relief that it might be not about the money, at least for Jamal and for his people. For Americans, of course, the absence of money as the presence of virtue is a bit of a hard sell. 5
At one point in Slumdog, just after the Taj Mahal bits, “middle” Jamal leads a plump American couple on a tour of a crowded clotheswashers’ riverbank while Salim and his crew of suburchins jack the tires from the couple’s hired Mercedes. When the tourists return, their driver assumes Jamal’s involvement and proceeds to thrash him. Husband intervenes. “You wanted to see the real India?” cries Jamal. “Here’s the real India!” “Well, son,” says solicitous wife, waving to husband for his wallet, “Here’s a taste of the real America!” A crisp Benjamin. “This gets a huge laugh when you play it in America!” said Boyle. “They love it when the wallet comes out. They love all that.”
if the hero chooses virtue over money and for his virtue is rewarded with—money.
Of course it was always about the money. It was about the money even as the four gunmen in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel went about their business, one of them wearing a long-sleeved graphic tee, another looking like a young Charlie Sheen in a rakishly swiveled baseball cap (which read I LOVE JESUS
), all of them looking for all the world like those youths who, it is said, have more in common with one another than with their elders.
HANDLER: Get a couple of floors burning.
HANDLER: Have you started the fire yet?
GUNMAN: No, we haven’t. [Giggles.]
HANDLER: Nothing’s going to happen until you start the fire.…
HANDLER: Throw some grenades, my brother. There’s no harm in throwing a few grenades.
HANDLER: You haven’t even thrown a grenade yet.… How hard can it be to throw a grenade? Just pull the pin and throw it.
GUNMAN: There are computers here with twenty-two-inch, thirty-inch screens!
HANDLER: Haven't you set fire to them?
GUNMAN: This room is amazing. The windows are huge.… It’s got a double kitchen, double bath, and a little bazaar.
Likewise Rubina’s visit to the hotel where her father tried to sell her: “My house,” she said, “is as big as the toilet you have here.” Her experiences eventually changed her habits: “[Rubina] now pays for a clean lavatory rather than relieve herself by the railway tracks.”
Would that they had no desire for money; would that they just wanted money. Salim as foil or villain is our
bad guy, neutralized like Jamal, with the bed of not-his-money he builds as his funeral bier, with his English so seemly and agreeable even unto his dying words, “God is great”—not Allahu Akbar
, which they know now even in Sandusky. When Jamal is reunited with Latika, she whispers, “I thought we would meet again only in death,” but she fails to aspirate the final consonant, and it’s easily misheard as “debt.”
At the post-Oscars press junket, that orgastic culmination of not-about-the-money, Danny Boyle described the atmosphere of “unlikely” triumph:
There’s this amazing poet, British poet, called W. H. Auden, and he wrote this amazing poem, and he talks, he says, about Americans putting jukebox—he says, “Soon you’ll be putting”—and it was to do with when America was trying to travel to the moon. It’s really interesting, because of course India’s now going to the moon, this is the plan. And he talks in this poem about putting jukeboxes on the moon. “Soon you’ll be putting jukeboxes on the moon.”
I assumed the line to be from Auden’s “Moon Landing,” which—in a departure from Boyle’s predilection for apocryphal platitudes (Plato on kindness, Einstein on miracles) yet true to his talents as an unwitting oracle—would have offered a neat irony in the poem’s admonishment of American hubris. But the phrase proved impressively obscure, from lyrics written by Auden for Man of La Mancha
but never used in the production. Sings the costumed figure of Death,
Ladies and gentlemen, you have made most remarkable
Progress, and progress, I agree, is a boon;
You have built more automobiles than are parkable,
Crashed the sound-barrier, and may very soon
Be setting up juke-boxes on the Moon:
But I beg to remind you that, despite all that,
I, Death, still am and will always be Cosmocrat.
There is a holy dread of those for whom it’s truly not about the money. Those who know that death is no commodity, who do not count their lives cheap. Those princes among the bought-off, for whom there is no boredom, no seduction by honeyed zealotry or backsliding of the sort seen in Slumdog
’s slumkids, but instead a willful reverse trajectory: millionaire to slumdog. Those who would give up a quarter-billion-dollar construction fortune to live in a cave near the Khyber Pass.
THE WESTERN MEDIA'S INTEREST
in Ajmal Kasab waned long before the trial began; his romance had faded. In India, though, the coverage remained intense. “Kasab seems as interested in the journalists as they are in him.” He goofed off in court. “Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam turned to him and said: ‘Don’t laugh. Be serious. Otherwise I will call Dara Singh,’ a reference to the legendary Indian wrestler often invoked by parents to keep their children quiet. Kasab laughed even more.” “Nikam condemned Kasab’s behaviour saying he was throwing tantrums every now and then.” “Kasab’s behaviour was brought to the notice of the court after he refused to eat food on Wednesday and banged the utensil against the wall.” He offered to sketch L-e-T leaders whose likenesses were unknown to authorities, but officials found the drawings useless: “When he gave us the sketches we did not know what to say. He had drawn doodles like a small child.” The judge scolded him endlessly. “Keep away this casual attitude and show some seriousness.” “It is not proper to misbehave in jail.” “Why did you throw away your plate of food?” “Are you crying? What is the matter?”
As the prosecution’s case wound down, Kasab became quieter, and for much of his time in the dock he slept, awaiting his conviction. (In one Bangladeshi newspaper’s imperfect English, he had become the “lonely gunman.”) He perked up when it came time for his final statement, in which he denied having been present at any of the attacks and said the police had detained him in Bombay days before, had shot him in the hand, “just like in the movies,” as part of the frame-up. What had he been doing in the city, the judge wanted to know. Kasab’s answer can be interpreted two ways: He had come either to watch some films or to break into Bollywood.
Throughout it all, he kept on asking for things he could not have. “I am bored and need books to read,” he told the judge. Countered the prosecutor, “Now, what is the use of reading books?” “I need a few things urgently,” wrote Kasab to his lawyer. “These are Urdu Times
newspaper, a perfume bottle and a toothpaste. Also please seek court’s direction to police asking them to deposit the amount, seized from my possession, in my jail account.” But the seized monies were the property of the court, and so Kasab could not order the one-kilogram cake that it was his right to request from the prison bakery for his twenty-second birthday.
He didn’t get anything he wanted, but he asked nevertheless. He wanted to walk on the verandah outside his cell. He wanted, on the Hindu holiday of Raksha Bandhan, when sisters tie bracelets around their brothers’ wrists, for someone to tie a rakhi
on his own. He wanted to meet Amitabh Bachchan.
you should do it, Big B. You were at least considering it when you wrote on your blog last year that “one from the extended family visualizes a situation of getting me to prisoned youngster—would that be too polite to address him thus, better stick to propriety, alright, alleged terrorist.… And I wonder today, if that were to happen, what really would I engage him in…” But the press, once again, distorted everything you said and shouted you down.
I say go, Big B. Go to him now, as he goes to the death halfheartedly sought out, the destiny only delayed by the court’s formalities. Maybe they’ll grant him a last request. He can’t take it with him.
Go, Amitabh-ji. Buy him off. Buy him off when there’s nothing left to purchase. This boy who would have been rich, who went abroad to seek his fortune and to die. He who would be brother but for the Radcliffe Line. You, who were born to the united India in whose eye he was not yet a gleam. You, prince who has retaken his kingdom. You, king, born subject—to all those straight-backed stiff-lipped Boyles and Beaufoys. You, born in Allahabad, God’s city. Your Sikh mother from what is now Pakistan. You who were, once, called the Angry Young Man. You who were the Muslim coolie Iqbal Khan: When someone dared pull a gun in your
train station, you sent a falcon to seize the weapon and fly it to you; when you saw that penniless old man boarding the Akbari
for hajj, you gave your own lunch to him. You who as Anthony Gonsalves, the doorstep foundling raised by a Catholic priest, warned about “the hemoglobin in the atmosphere.” You who as the Hindu police commissioner Dev Pratap Singh got a repentant terrorist to turn informant. (You, who on the set of Dev
frightened the hell out of me.) You who as the Muslim poet Anwar Ali Anwar threw the goddamn Portuguese out of Goa.
You, the answer to question number one, for one thousand rupees. You, for whose autograph Jamal Malik swam a sea of human excrement.
Go now to the countryman who should have been. One more underpaid child actor cast in a production that succeeded beyond anything he could have guessed. Who will receive no reward in this world or the next. This boy who had until then left so little trace on this world that his age had to be ascertained from his blood and his bones.
It is all that remains to be done here. You know it is your destiny. After all, was not your flagging career revived, were not your troubled finances resolved, when Celador came to India and picked you as the host for its new franchise of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Photos 1–12, 14, 15: untitled images from the set of Dev (dir. Govind Nihalani), 2003. By the author. Photo 13: untitled image from the set of an unknown film, 2004. By the author.
Some transcripts of mobile-phone audio courtesy of Quicksilver Media, Channel 4, and HBO Documentaries.