Review of Slumdog Millionaire

I’ve just noticed that my tweet chum Louise has reposted her review of Slumdog Millionaire, owing in part to recent excitement over the film and the Channel 4 airing tonight. So, as it’s Wednesday and I have no imagination, I have decided to copy Louise’s idea and re-publish my own review of the film from last year, first published on the Se7en Magazine website. And I’m sure you’ll agree, it is not your typical review…

There was hardly a thing not achieved by Benjamin Franklin in his lifetime: political theorist, scientist, inventor, statesman and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He was also very well known for his discoveries in electricity. For example, he concluded that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were not different, but rather positive and negative, respectively.

Due to the scorn with which he poured on Christianity in his writings, critics denounced him as an atheist. This was not the case; in fact, Franklin was an avowed Deist, though to be a Deist at that time was as good as being an atheist. Rev. George Whitefield, who Franklin was in correspondence with, thought there no difference in the two, implying in his journal that a Deist is to an atheist what chalk is to charcoal.

Franklin’s biographer, James Parton, explained that Franklin’s God was a humane conception of Deism, and that “[h]e escaped the theology of terror, and became forever incapable of worshipping a jealous, revengeful, and vindictive God” (Parton, Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, p. 71). But it is precisely this benevolence, this impotence of a God who doesn’t stop disease that many people despair. For example, Christopher Hitchens, who has gained his reputation of late as an atheist with a bite, admits that he identifies himself less as an atheist and more as an anti-theist. What concerns him more is not the existence of God, but that if God does exist, then he really doesn’t like anyone. He didn’t step in while Jews where being gassed in the chambers in Auschwitz, for example. If there is a God, attests Hitchens, he is not to like.

The book that details this is his 2006 work God is not Great which appeared alongside other similar treatments of religion like Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’ bestseller The God Delusion. In his book, Hitchens mentions Franklin and the work that Franklin undertook which led to the invention of the lightning rod, and the reaction it gained among some that it was a device with which to anger God. Hitchens uses these reactions to show what would happen if the superstitious had had their way with the regulation of scientific pursuit, whether society today would be as advanced as it is.

Franklin, in 1750, published a proposal for an experiment to show that lightning is electricity. His proposal included a demonstration with a kite during a storm (which, unfortunately, was to mark the end of one or two naïve scientists). On 10 May, 1752, Thomas François Dalibard of France conducted the experiment with tall iron rods. Lo, it extracted electrical sparks from a cloud and led to the invention of the lightning rod. In that same year Franklin noticed that the rods could be used to protect buildings and indeed, after some experiments on Franklin’s own house, lightning rods were installed on the Academy of Philadelphia (later to become the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall).

Franklin, in one of his yearly almanacs, noted that in showing “[h]ow to secure houses etc. from lightning…it has pleased God in his goodness to mankind, at length to discover to them the means of securing their habitations and other buildings from mischief by thunder and lightning.” But this was not enough to curb worries of the superstitious. In 1753, Dr. John Lining repeated Franklin’s experiment in South Carolina, but locals objected to his plans on the grounds that the rod was too “presumptuous”, in that it would interfere with the will of God and that it would attract lightning. Franklin replied to the protesters and, in particular, Jean-Antoine Nollet the leading electrical experimenter in France and a strong opponent of protective rods:

“…He [Nollet] speaks as if he thought it presumption in man to propose guarding himself against Thunders of Heaven! Surely the thunder of heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail, or sunshine of heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple. But I can now ease the gentleman of this apprehension; for by some late experiments I find, that it is not lightning from the clouds that strikes the earth, but lightning from the earth that strikes the clouds.”

So in knowing Franklin’s involvement in the public acknowledgement of electricity, irony was not lost on me when I watched Danny Boyle’s award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, in which we see the life of Jamal Malik played out alongside the filming of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” on which Jamal is a contestant. The answer to each question asked of Jamal has a story of his past attached to it, and his great wealth of knowledge (as well as the prejudice attached to being an Indian Muslim growing up in a city slum) leads the host of the programme to suspect Jamal of cheating in some way. Jamal is interrogated by the police who ask him to justify his knowledge of the answers to them (which provides the film with its main narrative – the childhood and early adulthood of Jamal, his brother and Latika, the girl who Jamal falls in love with and whom he searches for in his older years. It is also this search that tempts Jamal into being a contestant on the game show).

One of the questions asked of Jamal on the show is to identify who appears on the back of a $100 bill (followed by the sarcastic remark: Do you see many $100 bills as a chai-wallah?” – a tea waiter which relates to Jamal’s job as an assistant in a call centre). Before answering, Jamal recollects a story of his past when he would have encountered a $100 bill. In being mistaken for a tour guide at the Taj Mahal and realising the financial benefits of such a job, he gives an American couple a factually inaccurate tour of the site. All the while, Jamal is aware that the couple’s car is being robbed. When Jamal, the couple and their driver (who is in on it) get back to the car to see the work of the thieves, the driver gives Jamal a slap round the ear. The couple, in a panic, give Jamal some American bills. Later on, Jamal gives the bill to a young, blind street beggar. He identifies the currency (somehow) but asks that Jamal describe the person on the back of the bill to determine its amount. Jamal describes his features and the blind boy recognises him as Benjamin Franklin. When the picture cuts back to the police interrogation, the sarcasm of Jamal (or, due to how unbelievable the story is) makes the police chief very angry, and he threatens Jamal with the electric rod he had previously allowed his assistant to prod him with in order to get Jamal to admit he’d cheated on the game show at the start of the film. The story of how Jamal came to know who Franklin was met with the threat to injure Jamal with an item Franklin had some part in inventing.

At the end of the film, Jamal’s brother Salim exclaims that God is great (“Allah akbar”) for the suspicion he has that God was watching over Jamal and Latika, and that they find each other in order for protection. Franklin also suspected God of being good when he allowed mankind to find electric rods to secure their “habitations and other buildings from mischief by thunder and lightning.” How modest both men were.

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11 Responses to Review of Slumdog Millionaire

  1. Pingback: The film Slumdog Millionaire on C4 tonight « Harpymarx

  2. HarpyMarx says:

    This is not your typical review indeed, but interesting from a different angle. It is clever plot device where the questions from Who Wants to Be… unravels Jamal’s life experiences and of course during the police interrogation this becomes apparent re his knowledge but I still found it lacking, though if you see purely as a ‘feel good film’ then you won’t be disappointed. Expecting deep analytical social/political commentary then you will be disappointed.

    • I think the film refers – by way of implications or hints – to some elements of our society that we should see depicted throughout the film, say for example the cruel victimhood of muslims. It’s probably necessary given the film was set up to be a popular film that information on stuff like this be given in small doses, not too high brow as such, but still begging for the relevent sympathetical viewing. The reflection of the abandoned muslim child in a country that has a presence, and a perceived – though not officially institutional – hostility towards Muslims is very important in a popular film, and to portray this in a way not too preachy is best for what it’s worth. Unless you saw the film as socially/politically dubious?

  3. HarpyMarx says:

    Indeed it isn’t preachy and that is very useful (and don’t start me on Ken Loach, for example…). I didn’t see the film as socially/politically dubious but I think I was hoping for more political analysis though the scene of the pogrom towards the Muslims is horrific and makes valid politic points but I just felt it too ‘feel good’… though in a contradictory way, I wanted a happy ending ….

  4. MPositive says:

    My reaction to this film is very mixed…I liked it, but I was very disappointed, too. I thought there were some serious errors in character development.

    I think we get fooled into thinking this great love is so rare, when it does exist everywhere…it’s just not put to such circumstances generally speaking because things don’t line up in life the way they did in this movie (“it was written”). Truth is stranger and more difficult than fiction.

    These stories of love and destiny are old and worn out in my opinion. They bother me because they really are not realistic…Latika’s character is poorly developed…she is the stereotypical female objet-de-désir of whom we learn very little about except that she is always a victim and everyone wants her.

    Then there is this insidious notion that as a man, if you just keep chasing after the woman, even after multiple times she turns you away, eventually she cannot avoid falling in love with you. The reality is, much of the time someone might be really grateful to you for doing so much for them, but they still might not fall in love with you!

    Too much happy ending stuff after nothing but struggle (it’s as if Jamal and Latika never had a happy time before, and will never be sad and struggling again after)…it’s just too extremely unbalanced and thus unrealistic. Real life is not so straightforward and easy to grasp as that, and then there are those black-and-white concepts like good vs. evil, beauty vs. ugly, the pursuer and the pursued, etc. that very rarely interact with each other the way they do in real life.

    Artistically the movie was very good, well directed, well acted, realistic in scene composition—another reason why the fairy-tale plot is such a letdown.

    • Thank you for commenting. If you think that some of the elements such as the pursuit of love are exaggerated (“this insidious notion that as a man, if you just keep chasing after the woman, even after multiple times she turns you away, eventually she cannot avoid falling in love with you”) then did you think this served a purpose from the director? Perhaps it is to promote the idea that love must wait? What are your thoughts?

      • MPositive says:

        Maybe it did.

        Some of my friends told me they thought this movie was like a fairy-tale, and that the thought of love that doesn’t die even through the toughest trials is very pleasant to think about.

        What I don’t like is the way sexist undertones and impulsive thought are promoted in the movie. I don’t know if the director intended this, but you see, Latika doesn’t even fight, EVER, for her own liberation. In the train station scene when they chase her as she is trying to meet Jamal, as soon as they grab her, she submits almost willingly. She can’t even help Jamal with that final question at the end. She is nothing but a sex object. That’s unrealistic, even in a heavily sexist gangster underworld.

        When it comes to fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast is a much better take on things. Here the Beast must learn from Beauty, and she must learn from him. There is a give and take. There is a story that develops both characters and puts up a good background to their being in love with each other.

        But in Slumdog Millionaire, Latika is but a shadow in Jamal’s life. A haunting one for sure–but what basis do they have to fall in love for ever and ever? They really don’t know each other. If the movie weren’t so sexist about Latika’s character development, it could have cleared this up a bit.

        I feel like this plot lowers, rather than raising, the level of understanding about how love really works. It’s a fairy tale without substance, a tasty piece of chocolate without any nutrients. Not everything has to have a huge point, but at the same time, this movie was not one of those movies that refrained from making a statement. And the statement it makes, I believe, promotes ignorance about love as opposed to enlightenment.

      • Very interesting point. Particularly your point on the ‘sexist gangster underworld’. The fairy-tale-esque and family friendly, for want of a better term, tends to obscure what is really at play – subservience, sexist undertones. Would you say this tends to set back the film’s attempt at showing Islam in defence, or a positive enlightened Islam?

        I see what you mean about the Beauty and the Beast preference, in fairy tales. You don’t see ‘traditional’ love as necessarily a concept predicated on masculine pursuit of love object, there is a dialogue there that is not replicated in Slumdog Millionaire. My only concern with this point is that, in overtly sexist films, this is matched by a protagonist that exudes masculinity, which Jamal does not. Perhaps this opens up another element, or a less than typical reading of the sexism at play here, but it does put a spanner in the works for the view that sexism traditionalism is at work here.

        Furthermore, with this obvious religious overtones (Allah Akbar is uttered at the end of the film by Jamal’s brother); of what, in the context of the film, is allah great for? With my reading of the film, above, I noted that to say God was great was to be modest about the brothers’ life trajectory. But, also God for Jamal’s brother was the all-seeing-eye, making sure the right paths would eventually cross, and I think that has been solved here. Latika may not simply be passive to love, but passive to God’s will – in the context of the story. This is a concern when someone believes this in real life, but magical things (or the secular version, unknown causes of events) are allowed to happen in films, and when passivity leads to romance, by way of magic and love, is this not allowed, and do we have to follow the notion that there is a sexist mode of operation at play?

      • MPositive says:

        I don’t mind a film portraying sexism or religious belief… in fact I think it is vital for a film to accurately reproduce these things. They should be present.

        My issue is that, even if Latika could not ultimately help her circumstances (very believable), she at least could have been developed so that she is more than the Princess at the end of every world of Mario Brothers, so to speak. It’s one of those things where it’s not the sexism built into the plot of the movie that messes it up so much as the sexist approach to developing the story itself that sours it.

        All the women I know who have had a hard-knock life and survived mentally have a sense of firmness and hardness to them. Many of them are very pretty and feminine like anyone else, but they aren’t these little sheltered girls who just kind of “la-la-la” through life – they have by necessity developed a tough, sometimes ruthless side to them. They’re not airheads. They know what’s going on. Latika should at least be protrayed this way, but instead, she’s a barbie doll, and if only Jamal can “get her,” their “happily ever after” is automatic. Nope, sorry.

  5. harpymarx says:

    But I think this is a major problem with characterisation of women, giving them dimension and believability. Indeed I think that is a very relevant point about ‘sexist approach to developing the story’… is it about prescribing as opposed to describing?

    There are a lot of variables in developing a character. On the issue of Latika, I think it is a tad unfair about the fact she doesn’t fight for her liberation, she reflects these contradictions. She is presented with limited choices in society; she witnesses a violent brutal pogrom as a child, she ends up begging on the streets being exploited by the adults around her including later on in life..there is some man exploiting her. Yet she does try to escape her circumstances and she has her face cut. Yes, the Jamal and Latika…coming together, living happily ever after in a fairy tale existence, there are elements of her having to be rescued by another man but the flaws and contradictions can reflect real life.

    “Latika doesn’t even fight, EVER, for her own liberation.”

    But how do you liberate yourself when you have only known exploitation, how do you raise someone’s consciousness about their circumstances, how do you instil confidence, solidarity and self-awareness?

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