The "Slumdog" Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology

by Ajay Gehlawat (Editor)


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Featuring a dynamic combination of landmark essays by leading critics and theorists, “The ‘Slumdog’ Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology” addresses multiple issues relating to “Slumdog Millionaire,” providing new ways of looking at this controversial film.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783083251
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 11/01/2014
Series: New Perspectives on World Cinema Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ajay Gehlawat is assistant professor of theatre and film in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University.

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The Slumdog Phenomenon

A Critical Anthology

By Ajay Gehlawat

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Ajay Gehlawat
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-295-8



Brian Larkin

In January 2009, Amitabh Bachchan, the lion of Indian cinema, reacted on his blog to the increasing success of the film Slumdog Millionaire with a caution. Tapping into an anxiety about how India is represented abroad, he asserted: "If SM [Slumdog Millionaire] projects India as Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations." Bachchan intensified a furious controversy both inside India and abroad over whether the film was a form of "poverty porn," whether it was Indian or not and whether its representations showed real problems in India or a stereotype of poverty served up for foreign audiences.

Slumdog Millionaire is, perhaps, an ill fit for Fredric Jameson's argument in "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" (Social Text 15 (1986)), that Third World texts operate as national allegories. Based on an Indian novel (Q&A by Vikas Swarup), adapted by a British screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy) and British director (Danny Boyle), co-directed by an Indian (Loveleen Tandan), financed from Europe, set in India and starring Indians – the film has origins complex enough for many Indians to claim it as desi while others disavow it as foreign. It is also not an allegory in Jameson's sense of private individual stories representing public political events. Yet the controversy itself is deeply Indian as it replays previous conflicts over the circulation of Indian cinema and what constitutes proper representations of India. What these controversies do is sharpen the focus on a dynamic central to the debate between Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad but relatively neglected in scholarly discussion. Allegory is not always a feature immanent to a text but is something texts have placed upon them through the act of circulation across cultural difference. Bachchan's reaction to Slumdog as a story of a "dirty underbelly developing nation" rather than of the hard life of two children is an example of this. His reading of the film as a national allegory derives not from his experience of the film but from his reaction to its success in the West, and it is only after this movement that the film comes to stand for the nation (and thus become an object of critique). Allegory, in this mode, is not tied to the imagination of writer or director but is derived externally from the movement of the text in and out of different publics. This is particularly the case for successful films and novels such as Slumdog whose popularity heightens a dynamic inherent to the process of circulation itself.

In his article on Third World literature, Jameson attempts to lay out theoretical grounds for analyzing non-Western literature and through that to expand the literary canon. The publicity brought by the debate with Ahmad means this aim has been probably more successful than Jameson could have imagined (if not in the way he expected). His argument, famously, is that Third World intellectuals and the texts they produce exhibit an "obsessive return to the national situation" that comes from their position as structurally marginal to the centers of power in the contemporary world. He insists on a sharp cleavage between West and non-West. "Nothing is to be gained," he argues, "by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts." This difference emerges from the experience of imperial domination and living in the dark shadow of American hegemony that together lead to the formation of a different, more politicized non-Western intellectual. It is the experience of this marginality, Jameson argues, that accounts for the obsessive concern with allegory. Novels that purport to be about private, intimate stories "necessarily project a political dimension in the forms of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society."

Ahmad, of course, rejects the claim of difference and the argument that Third World texts are wholly concerned with national allegories (indeed he rejects the entire category of Third World literature as a theoretical unity). In most societies, he argues, there is a vast diversity of literature in which thematic concerns about the nation-state are either minor or wholly absent. Using the example of nineteenth-century Urdu literature, he argues this body of work betrays a preoccupation with the place of women and the rise of a petite bourgeoisie rather than any sustained discussion of the national question. It is only because Jameson has little access to vernacular literatures and relies on translated works, Ahmad argues, that he comes to conceive of Third World literature solely in terms of its marginality and opposition to "global American postmodernist culture." While Ahmad makes some compelling points, he is curiously unconcerned with the basic question Jameson raises: what is the relation between cultural forms and nationalism? One can reject Jameson's totalizing summation ("all Third World texts") while still interrogating the close imbrication of nationalism, literature and film.

As the controversy over Slumdog reveals, the allegorical capacity of texts to stand for the nation stems not just from authorial intention but from the movement that looses them from original contexts of production and reception and opens them up to different publics that do not share the same contexts of understanding. While Jameson does not focus on this dynamic, it is central to his theoretical argument about the Western critical reception of non-Western texts. For Jameson, Third World texts come to the Western reader as estranged: "Western readers whose tastes [...] have been formed by our own modernisms" cannot read in the same way as the public for which the text is originally intended. For readers like himself, Jameson argues, the text appears as "already-read." The Westerner recognizes an "Other reader" standing between her and the text, at the same time realizing a "noncoincidence with that Other reader." His argument here rests on a radical form of alterity that is reflexive in that the haunting presence of this second reader is ultimately the recognition of cultural, religious, political, and social difference. Jameson's analysis is grounded in the difficulty of translation across difference, and it is in that precise encounter that the force of national allegory is released.

To return to Slumdog, it is as these images circulate outside of India through film festivals and awards events, and as they assume popularity in these arenas, that they come to take on the increasing burden of representing the nation and so intensify the controversy that surrounds the film. In the case of India, this controversy replays earlier ones that frame how Slumdog is understood. The most important of these was the fierce reaction to the international success of Satyajit Ray's film Father Panchali (1955). Father Panchali was the first Indian film recognized within the realm of European art cinema and achieved the feat of making cinema acceptable to an Indian intelligentsia who were notoriously condescending toward Hindi film and of projecting India's artistic achievement to a worldwide critical audience. In her later years as a member of the Indian parliament, Nargis, one of the few Hindi film stars whose reputation matches that of Amitabh Bachchan, accused Ray of exporting Indian backwardness for foreign audiences. Her fear, and that of many nationalists, was that the film would merely confirm Western stereotypes of Indian poverty and deny the possibility of India representing herself as a modern nation, and she argued that Ray was only successful because he catered to the Western desire to see Indian poverty. Indian films should present images of a modern India that, for her, was defined by dams and development (itself a reference to the dam-building sequence in her most famous film, Mother India (1957).

Accusations that Pather Panchali exported poverty had dogged the film from its release, long before Nargis's comments. Even though the film was selected to represent India at Cannes (where it won an award), attacks on the film led the Indian government to pass regulations directing that, in the future, "before any State Government sends films [...] abroad for exhibition, the State Government should ascertain the film's suitability from the point of view of external publicity." The art historian Kajri Jain argues that these nationalist attempts to control representations of India are a secular equivalent to ideas of religious desecration. They exemplify "what film-makers in particular recognize as the 'proper light' syndrome referring to the way in which certain images [...] are rejected [...] by representatives of the state because they 'do not show India in a proper light.'" In 1959 the Central Board of Film Censors reacted to the success of Ray's film abroad by extending its list of censorable images to include scenes representing "abject, disgusting poverty" – a clear reference to Pather Panchali and one that confirms its peculiar status as a film that brought tremendous prestige to India while, at the same time, destabilizing and threatening that prestige. The assertion of government control over this process reveals an awareness that any film shown abroad might come to speak for the nation irrespective of its content or aesthetic form.

When Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali according to the aesthetic norms of European art cinema at the time, it may be the case that he represented the sort of political intellectual Jameson wrote of, one for whom private stories were at the same time public narratives about the state of the nation. But the controversy that surrounded the film and more recently Slumdog Millionaire derives from Indian response to the critical success of these films as they traverse the festivals and cinemas of the West. Allegory, in these instances, is something external to the films. A cultural text is not a container of a meaning that lies inside of it waiting for the critic to release it but is already mediated by the process of circulation itself and accrues meaning by virtue of that traffic across difference. The Jameson–Ahmad debate has been mostly discussed in relation to its role in the analysis of postcolonial literature, but it has much to say about the difficulty in analyzing the traffic of cultural forms across national boundaries. At stake is how we understand the specificity and forms of difference that gives rise to different intellectual publics for writers and critics and the dynamics of translation this involves.



Sharmila Mukherjee

That used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh? We used to live right there, man. Now it's all business. India is at the center of the world now, bhai, and I, I am at the center of the center.

You wanted to see a bit of real India? Here it is. Well, here is a bit of the real America, son.

Halfway through Danny Boyle's 2008 magnum opus, Slumdog Millionaire, a remarkable imperial gloating comes from Salim Malik, the "slumdog" turned hip and rich factotum of billionaire gangster Javed Khan. In a scene of reunion between the film's two brothers as young adults, Salim, perched cockily atop the ramparts of an unfinished luxury condominium complex in the heart of metropolitan Mumbai, crows preeningly to his younger sibling Jamal about the emerging centrality of twenty-first century India in the global economy, and of his own omphalic position within this Indo-centric world. As he preens, his gaze sweeps across the blossoming Mumbai skyline which, framed by the force of the hyperbolic utterance, appears in excess of New York City's or Shanghai's. Salim's ethnocentric boast about his own arrival from abject marginality into the power and prestige of a Dolce & Gabbana–accessorized human/Indian subjectivity is aimed at converting his brother Jamal from idealist to pragmatist, such that he, too, can prioritize a dream of capital over a dream of love. It is also a brashly articulated affirmation of India's conversion from a "slumdog" nation to a "millionaire" capital of the world, from an aid recipient country to a major global player, a developer of the economies of other nations, even.

In Salim's utterance we glimpse, among other things, the possibility of the formation of a new global order, coalescing around India as one of its powerful epicenters. Salim's affirmation of India's centrality is not a random, episodic instance of an eccentric, Bollywood-inspired hyperbole, though one could say that the tone in which it is delivered is indubitably Bollywoodian in its sweeping disavowal of the complex geographies of economic and geopolitical formations. The semiotics of exaltation foreground an emerging global discourse on India as the rising economic power of the twenty-first century alongside China and, by implication, on the country's thrilling ascent from being Third World to becoming a nation of emerging global modernity. Partaking in the discourse of an empowered India is Balram Halwai, the servant turned successful entrepreneur in Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize — winning novel, The White Tiger (2008), who reflects not only on his own unprecedented upward mobility within India, but also on that of India's in the world. As he says in a letter to the visiting dignitary, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, the days of the "white man" are over, while the "brown" and "yellow" man are to be regarded as the emergent sovereignty of a globalizing world. Both Salim's and Halwai's (fictional) reordering of the global power structure into an evolving Indian/brown center and a devolving American/white marginality, lack rigor and complexity. Yet they are indicative of a discernible shift in the way in which India's place in the current narrative of global power is being conceived of and discussed. The discursive formation of India as poised to emerge as an original knowledge-producing, rapidly modernizing entity, is taking place slowly but surely — not in a vacuum, but in the substantial context of a world that is increasingly becoming "post-American." This is because power, it is said, is moving seismically from the West to the "rest," the rest being a group of geographically diverse nations led by economic powerhouses such as India and China.

Slumdog Millionaire (hereafter, SDM) captures India in its moment of triumphant ascension. In this chapter, I posit the film as a text that genuinely celebrates, or "Jai Hos," as it were, India's burgeoning globality and centrality. I predicate my reading of SDM's celebratory stance, which I believe is expressed most piquantly in the Bollywood-style song and dance sequence at the end, on an implicit understanding that the film's ideology is in sync with the ideology of a new global paradigm of power, under whose aegis a twenty-first century India is produced discursively, as a subject rather than as an object of history. In other words, a history of the Indian present is produced not in a relationship of subordination but relative coevalness with Europe. This is a refreshing departure from the usual mode of production of the East by the West. Western productions of non-Western histories, argues historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, have typically been "European" because, in the discourse of history, Europe remains the sovereign theoretical subject. He observes the peculiar way in which the writing of Indian, Chinese or Kenyan (among other) histories "tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called the 'history of Europe.'" What Chakrabarty avers is that, in cardinal ways, the discourse of history is always already mediated by Europe. Put otherwise, the discourse of history is predicated on Europe as the "silent," omniversal referent. In this chapter, I claim that in SDM's construction of India, Europe as referent, though not entirely dissolved, is at least provincialized in so far as the film is infused with global content – screenwriter Simon Beaufoy claims to have been inspired by Bollywood films of the '70s in penning the story of SDM and the primary episteme employed by SDM is global, not Western. This essay, however, does not attempt to arrive at or pitch a stable or unified category of a global episteme but instead contends that, produced through the grid of a global episteme, the India of SDM's construing is fashioned not under the silent referent of Europe, but under the omniversal referent of Empire. I wish to clarify that the India that is Jai Ho-ed, or catapulted by the film into discursive prominence (branded as being the center of the new world order) as a possible site of production of universal thought, is not composed in a referential vacuum (the "global" is not devoid of referentiality). On the contrary, I suggest that it is under the sign of a decentered and deterritorialized Empire that the formation of an India of hyper-real potential is administered.


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Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors; List of Figures; Acknowledgments; Introduction: The “Slumdog” Phenomenon – Ajay Gehlawat; “SLUMDOG” AND THE NATION: Chapter 1: National Allegory – Brian Larkin; Chapter 2: “Slumdog Millionaire” and the Emerging Centrality of India – Sharmila Mukherjee; Chapter 3: Slumlord Aesthetics and the Question of Indian Poverty – Nandini Chandra; Chapter 4: Watching Time: “Slumdog Millionaire” and National Ontology – Lakshmi Padmanabhan; “SLUMDOG” AND THE SLUM: Chapter 5: “Slumdog Millionaire” and Epistemologies of the City – Ulka Anjaria and Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria; Chapter 6: A Million Dollar Exit from the Slum-World: “Slumdog Millionaire”’s Troubling Formula for Social Justice – Mitu Sengupta; Chapter 7: Slumdogs and Millionaires: Facts and Fictions of Indian (Under)development – Snehal Shingavi; “SLUMDOG” AND BOLLYWOOD: Chapter 8: Slumdogs, Coolies and Gangsters: Amitabh Bachchan and the Legacy of 1970s Bollywood in “Slumdog Millionaire” – Claus Tieber; Chapter 9: “It is Written” (in Invisible Ink): “Slumdog Millionaire”’s SFX and the Realist Overwriting of Bollywood Spectacle – Samhita Sunya; “SLUMDOG”’S RECEPTIONS: Chapter 10: Why the Sun Shines on “Slumdog” – Anandam Kavoori; Chapter 11: “Slumdog” Celebrities – Priya Jaikumar; Chapter 12: “Slumdog Millionaire” and the New Middlebrow – Robert Koehler; Chapter 13: Slumdog Comprador: Coming to Terms with the “Slumdog” Phenomenon – Ajay Gehlawat; Chapter 14: The Life-Cycle of “Slumdog Millionaire” on the Web – Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland; Conclusion: Jai Who? – Ajay Gehlawat; Select Bibliography; Films Cited; Index

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“From national allegory, Bollywood, the slum, to the internet – this book comprises bold and exciting essays that explore the phenomenon of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in terms of its varied pleasures and contradictions. Ranging from the scholarly to the witty, this book is an engaging read.” —Rajinder Dudrah, Director of the Centre for Screen Studies, University of Manchester

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