The Oscar sweeping Slumdog Millionaire directed by Danny Boyle and the Man Booker winning novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga occupied a major place in the print media as well as the television. Of course the Booker topic got a relatively limited attention in the television but the print media celebrated Adiga’s win quite cheerfully. Do I need to tell you anything on the popularity of the song “Jai Ho!”, or about the gossips on Frieda Pinto’s fashion statement? I read the novel and watched the movie at about the same time in the first month of this year, and could not help thinking how they resonated each other’s feelings.
Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on the popular quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, cops arrest him on suspicion of cheating- courtesy the cynical quizmaster played by Anil Kapoor- and how he explains his knowledge of the right answers, makes up the main plot of the film. The other important characters are Salim, Jamal’s brother and Latika, Jamal’s love interest. The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai, the son of a rickshaw-puller, who makes it big as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, picking up all the necessary tips for his success from the streets of India.
The significance of an analysis of the film and the novel arise, particularly for three reasons. Firstly, the plot of both the novel and the film is based on the miseries of the Indian poor. Indian corruption, faulty police machinery, the pompous brothel business, the grotesque mentality of our rich and upper middle class, the communal tensions and many other such stark realities are dealt with in both Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger. Secondly, they have both appeared at a time when the stereotype image of India as the centre of booming IT sector is slowly peeled off layer by layer as the world slides into a recession period, heading towards something like the Great Depression. Thirdly, both have been praised and heaped with some of the most prestigious awards by the western audience which show a global appeal of the challenges, most probably because the entire humanity faces these at this point of time. Now whether they portray some absurd magical realism or they truly stick to the Real is for us to judge.
Please let me put forward some very personal views, which may appear pretty silly to my experienced readers. As I write how both Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger are a bold expression of artistic protest against whatever is wrong, a point makes me scratch my head. I think that Adiga’s novel is a far stronger and more brilliantly crafted piece of work than Danny Boyle’s film, as far as representing the ‘reality’ and squalor of our country is concerned. Of course, I understand that there are vast differences in the two mediums, but still for a while allow me to go on with my ideas.
First of all, let me express my heartfelt congratulations to Vikas Swarup-the author of the novel Q & A on which the film is based, (you saw him on the Oscar stage, didn’t you?)- for the genius with which he had crafted the entire plot. Congratulate him for the entire concept of showing a glimpse of the Indian poverty through Jamal’s answers in the quiz show. At this point, we should also praise the brilliant script by Simon Beaufoy, with its swift flash backs and touchy scenes, which earned him an Oscar. But yes, there are some goof-ups in the script too. Ask him how Jamal and his brother, after falling off from a fast moving train, suddenly start speaking in English from the next frame. You have to read the novel to know how Jamal Malik learns to speak English! The story itself brings out the significance of certain fine human qualities like love and forgiveness. The film strikes you with some great shots and one of the finest original scores by our very own Allah Rakha Rahman. The scenes of a Hindu-Muslim riot, with certain dialogues like “They are Muslims, kill them” among the rioters, reviving the memory of the 1993 anti-Muslim attacks in Mumbai by Hindu nationalists, the shots of children being inhumanly blinded to make them suitable for begging, the aerial shots of the slums and the depiction how the human rights of the slum dwellers are violated everyday as they spend their lives pathetic of conditions, and the scene of how a teenage Salim suddenly draws out a revolver and shoots a pimp to save Latika from the evil clutches, and several others are but a few examples of what leaves you dazed for a long time once you are out of the theatre.
But there is an other side too. The script of the movie doesn’t allow it to go into the depths of the problems. When you are out to showcase something lying behind the veneer of ‘Shining India’, then why not with a bit of heart? The film lacks a heart: it shows the disturbances without giving any optimistic hope for a realistic change or redeeming feature. However, there is no denying the fact that Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most attention seeking and well-made mainstream movies of our times. But to credit it with phrases like ‘showing the real India’ or something to that effect is just not acceptable. Moreover the film has no political undertone and is a bit spurious in attitude. Basically, the film is too blunt to voice its protest still it is far better than most mainstream movies we are fed with. Watch Meera Nair’s “Salaam Bombay” or read Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games” and you will know about the true dark side of Mumbai.
Adiga’s novel on the other hand is free from such mess. His protagonist Balram Halwai leaves no stone unturned describing in the minute details of a poverty stricken India, and very successfully exposes the heartlessness and apathy of the upper class towards the lower class. Halwai nicely weaves out his life story to the Chinese Premier in the form of seven letters and along with it draws for the reader a stark naked portrait of “India Shining”. Aravind Adiga uses the commonplace events and yet his narrative is powerful enough to move you. Some of his lines like, “O! Democracy…….we may not have sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, but we do have democracy”; “…the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor….”; “These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies” and others are simply brilliant and shocking at the same time. He can make you realize that making your servant feed your pet dog a sumptuous meal, while he himself doesn’t get any more than a morsel, is wrong. It’s cruel, and Adiga is able to drive that point home. From a place called Darkness (of the Indian rural), Adiga stretches out to another called Light (of entrepreneurial success). He easily shifts in the narrative from detailing the woes of the rural to the savagery of the urban and there is imagery with which he brings the themes into sharp focus. Halwai does not merely describe the drawbacks and the grotesque insensibilities but criticizes it. Adiga himself makes Halwai think, but urges you to look around yourself and use the god-gifted grey cells. As his plot allows, he does not stick to his character’s lives, but take the liberty to explain the loopholes of the administrative and government activities. The novel takes you on a journey, just as a film like ‘Pather Panchali’ by Ray does; but not a movie like Slumdog. Slumdog Millionaire cannot make you realize that the pitiable condition of Jamal and Salim and of everyone like them is not an individual problem but a part of the great vicious circle of a faulty system. The movie lays more focus on people who are essentially wrong. But ‘White Tiger’ Balram Halwai in his easy going letters not only puts focus on the goons but on the refined and cultured, honourable and seemingly upright people who are worse than gangsters. It deals with the capitalistic mindset of the rich and elite and on how they corrupt every sphere of politics and administration. The novel is capable of giving a jolt to the neo-middle middle class which is oblivious to the suffering of the poor. Adiga’s canvas is very large and he paints it according to his wishes, touching everything with a promise of breaking the Rooster Coop. (Read the novel to find out what the Rooster Coop is!). Yes, the novel has sense of a Change and some lines like, “speak to me of civil war, I told Delhi……..speak to me of blood on the streets, I told Delhi..” hints at a political revolution while those like, “In 20 years time it will just be us brown and yellow men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the world” sounds prophetic of the rise of a truly developed India.
The Nobel Prize winner in literature in 2008 Jean-Marie Gustane Le Clezio, has remarked in an interview that we live in a troubled era in which we are bombarded by a ‘chaos of ideas and images’. He added that the role of literature today is perhaps to echo this ‘chaos’. I don’t pretend to be an expert of that stature who can give an eloquent and exact interpretation of what he meant but on a personal note I feel that this ‘chaos’ has an insight to the complicated structure of our social status and devastatingly cruel class division, which stalks our existence and juxtaposes the very foundation of human civilization.
It has always been the duty of progressive literature and art, to help mankind overcome several social evils and various obstacles to the development of our race. We should always remember that this responsibility is not only enduring but its necessity is increasing everyday. Actually, the truth is that our boastful claim of being ‘a highly civilized twenty-first century human race’ is hollow to a great extent. The scientific and economic development is unquestionable. But as far as ethical and moral development is concerned, the work to be done to make the developments change the ordinary lives is still lagging behind. Most of the malpractices and ills of the past which we think we have overcome is actually present even today, in different forms. Earlier there was the torture of imperialism on the common people, and now it is replaced by a crooked democracy and its regular molestation by the politicians. We read fantastic stories of highwaymen and bandits of the past, but look at ourselves now: we are at the heart of international terrorism, ready to be blown apart anytime. You can speak of Sati being abolished or things like that, but see what the ordinary women have to face today: domestic violence, rape, and what not; look at the rampant drug abuse and corruption about you, the rampant corporate dictatorship of the MNCs led by the big brother of global economy, the USA ….. the list is long and I wont bore you. You call this a civilization? I don’t buy that.
So the whole point of saying the above was that though a part of the Indian audience has severely criticized them, the importance of novels like The White Tiger and movies like Slumdog Millionaire lies in their effort to bring a change. Along with the regular education, if people are acquainted with such excellent creations, then we can once again regain our inner voice which we have lost due to our mindless materialistic pursuits. Whatever are our thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger, I think every sensible and rational Indian should watch the film and read the book, for they are truly rare of their kind, and on top of that they can make us think and awaken our sleeping conscience.