No, really unbelievable: It could never happen. Not the money (a slumdog may have every chance of making a fortune), but the manner. It could never happen through the dignity and repose of Dev Patel’s Jamal, an utterly improbable slumdog.
Unlikely heroes: Could a real-life Latika transcend the brutality of rape and prostitution?
Director Danny Boyle has reported on the Indian slum with the Westerner’s thoroughness. He has shown its squalor, the randomness of its violence and the distance of the state from its problems more precisely than an Indian could have.
But he has not observed the character of the slum’s occupant standing beside him as the sweeping camera records the filth.
The single most important fact of poverty is the loss of dignity in the individual. The Indian knows this. The poor are actually second-rate human beings. Their existence is like that of animals: Their concerns are all immediate because that is the only level at which life engages them.
It is an existence of eternal reaction.
Constant hunger and helplessness have obliterated their dignity. Dignity is not congenital; it is acquired. The poor have very little opportunity to acquire it. The boy’s experiences inform the man, incident upon humiliating incident, layer upon undignified layer. That is why the man’s character cannot stand apart from the boy’s life.
Jamal Malik, whose mother is killed for her faith, whose friend’s eyes are spooned out so that he can beg better, whose hungry plea society rolls the window up at, is not going to be a disinterested observer of the world.
In the building up of his character, the influences on Jamal the boy are those incidents of theft and flight that result in his survival. Jamal the man cannot escape that through the goodness of his heart.
But Boyle shows Jamal’s heroism as coming not from his courage but from his dignity; his distancing of himself from his surroundings.
His carriage and manner, even when he is on national television, are that of a man for whom survival has a higher purpose. But that is impossible in a man who has lived a life where he has stolen and duped to feed himself. Jamal’s eyes, the softness of his face and the tenderness of his manner do not talk of the life Boyle narrates to us.
That is why he is unconvincing.
Enormous intellectual effort is needed for the man to distance himself from the trajectory of his fate and observe; but Jamal is not equipped intellectually to do that. He is practically illiterate, and in indicating that, Boyle is correct.
The poor are not particularly interested in knowledge. Those who have spoken to the poor will notice the glaze over their eyes. There is no curiosity in the nature of the world, because it has already revealed itself to them in full.
The boys who sell books at Mumbai’s traffic signals know which books are popular, but they don’t know why. They don’t care either, as those who will have offered them lifts to the next signal (“Uncle, please”) know.
The dignity of their profession dissolves immediately into an act of begging if it can swing the sale.
The poor have no poise because they are nothing as individuals. The poor are not dignified; they are craven. To show them in dignity is as fantastic as to show them content in their poverty. It is an act of imagination; it is as Boyle wants the slum dweller to be.
Latika, Jamal’s girl, is still fragrant after being sold into prostitution, and living through rape and an abusive marriage. Not possible.
The character of Salim, who rapes his brother’s love, who betrays his friend, who shoots his tormentor, rings true—even though he’s painted all-extreme.
The poor are rejected in India for their condition: Nothing beyond that matters because that fact is supreme. That is why the poor evoke our pity; very rarely do they evoke true compassion. If they did regularly, it would be intolerable for us to live, surrounded by such sorrow.
We are inclined to feed the dignified beggar, because he is “good”, more than we are the craven, filthy one.
But yet the poor do not telegraph dignity well because they do not know it.
After the quality of his depiction of the slum, and it is quite superb, Boyle lets us down by Sellotaping his fairy-tale characters on top of Indian reality.
Jamal’s spirit shines on the filth around him; he floats above the shimmering cesspool, even when he takes a dip in it.
Boyle tells us that there is individual redemption; he has taken what we can call the Christian’s view of poverty and the poor—blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the earth.
But we know that they won’t.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media Services Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai.
Write to Aakar at email@example.com