The hysteria that is Slumdog Millionaire is beginning to die down. We have followed the allegations of abuse and lawsuits against the foreign film-makers with the jangling jingoism that passes for pride over the fact that two Indians have been awarded prizes by workers in a Western industry.
The same politicians who have done so little to alleviate the disgusting conditions that our slum dwellers endure, and who do next to nothing to stamp out torture in our police stations, are now citing the film made by the British as an example of so-called achieving India.
The film is a fantasy. Jamal (the slumdog of the title) is abused and humiliated by almost all those who have received far more formal education than him. The film is made more fantastical not by the number of violent episodes shown, but because it pretends that the social exclusion and powerlessness we reserve for our poor is not as complete as it really is.
We all know that an unschooled chaiwalla from the slums would not be invited on Kaun Banega Crorepati in the first place. We know that if that unlikely event ever happened, it is far more probable in real life that he would summarily be thrown off the programme if there were suspicions he was cheating. He is undereducated, he is poor, why bother with his human rights?
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The exclusion we reserve for the poor should make us consider whether the police would bother to interrogate a powerless boy to find out the truth or whether they would simply thrash him and dump him back on the streets?
The basic premise of the film is that Jamal, a boy from the slums, would not know the answers to questions that should have no relevance to his life. However, through a highly unlikely series of events, Jamal does know almost all the answers. The final question is typical.
Jamal is asked to name a fictional character created by a foreign author in a foreign language in a foreign country 164 years ago. It is the kind of question so beloved of our schooling system and so meaningless and pointless to the lives of any of us. We, who have done well within the irrelevance of our English language schooling, should find it easy—but a boy from the slums?
Slumdog takes up the utter pointlessness and meaninglessness of our rote learning system and improbably includes a slum boy in using it to become rich. It is only by luck that he knows the answers to these incredibly colonial, old-fashioned questions. Even then, in the end he does not know and has to guess.
It is a controversial, subversive film. Though it pays homage to Bollywood, it is not a Bollywood movie (when did a Bollywood film feature a non-violent slum boy hero?). Jamal is depicted as an intelligent, clever, resourceful boy who copes brilliantly with humour and optimism in the horrendous conditions and events of his life.
In the short period he does go to school, he learns little of practical everyday use. His is a filmy, fairy-tale version of the life of tens of millions of children.
The bad guys are not only the gangsters and communalists that Mumbai is infamous for, but also the educated policeman and the educated quizmaster.
All the heroes in this movie are the uneducated poor, fighting the neglect, oppression, exclusion and degradation that the more educated and powerful either ignore or, as with the villains in this movie, are complicit in perpetrating.
The film should raise questions about why so little is done to give a relevant education to poor children, condemning them to live off their wits. It should raise questions about why we do not stop our police force from using torture and casual violence.
It should raise questions as to why there are no decent government schools for the millions of people living in our slums. It should raise questions as to why we continue with a totally irrelevant curriculum.
Like most fairy tales, the film makes for an excellent educational tool. Children across the whole social spectrum would get a lot from seeing this movie and examining what is likely to be real, have elements of truth or is simply totally implausible. Is the dancing sequence at the end much more unlikely than a Muslim boy kissing a girl at a Mumbai station and surviving Thackeray’s thugs? Separating reality from fantasy is an education for us all.
However, our education does not let us examine what is or what isn’t, or any of the events concerned with our lives. It’s too busy making us remember answers from irrelevant and pointless texts. Slumdog Millionaire is a very good film made with Indian labour. The one thing it isn’t, is a reason to celebrate achieving India.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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