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Slumdog Subtext | The Nation

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Slumdog Subtext

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The extraordinary success and resonance that Slumdog Millionaire has garnered from audiences around the world has not been universally matched in India, where there has been revulsion and occasional protest at the portrayal of the brutality and squalor of Mumbai slum life. Indians can be very prickly about the country's image abroad, even if the picture is painfully accurate.

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Barbara Crossette
Barbara Crossette is The Nation's United Nations correspondent. A former foreign correspondent for the New York Times,...

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But there is another undercurrent in this film, almost a subliminal message, that is less talked about but of equal concern to Hindus. The improbable story of an orphan tea boy rising to instant wealth and celebrity through a popular television quiz show is in its way also a tale of personal recompense--if not revenge--for a victim from India's largest religious minority, the Muslims.

As Jamil Malik, the fictional contestant, tells his story to police interrogators (and sees the past flash into his own mind at each stage of the contest) it becomes apparent that almost every step of the way, in answer to question after question, his knowledge has been informed by Hindu persecution and violence.

What was that boy dressed as a blue-skinned god carrying in his right hand? The image is seared in Jamil's mind: it came with the Hindu mob that murdered his mother and other Muslims. Who was the author of the words to a commonly known Hindu hymn or quasi-religious song? Jamil knew the answer because it was a tune orphan children were forced to learn before being sent into the streets to beg. He sees in his mind a boy who can sing it well being blinded by having his eyes scooped out with a heated spoon. Blind children are even more pathetic and lucrative as beggars.

The scene at the dhobi ghat, the communal laundry where Jamil is beaten by police as he takes on the role of an impromptu tour guide to two clumsily portrayed Americans, is a little harder to parse in religious terms. But yet another dose of the violence that attends his young life is clear, and the $100 bill he receives from the shocked tourists leads indirectly much later to another giant step up the quiz show ladder with the question, Whose face is on the $100 US bill? Jamil's blinded childhood friend, still begging at the time of the assault that earned Jamil the money, remembered that the man with no hair on top of his head but a lot on the sides was Benjamin Franklin.

The irony is rich, if tragic. Jamil is not expected to know these things. That he does, however, owes everything not to the benefits he has received from life but from his marginalization, deprivation and vulnerability. This life is not just the lot of Muslims, of course. Millions of Hindus also suffer at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.

Still, any Muslim watching this film could not miss one of its most arresting lines. Near the end of the film, when Jamil's brother Salim, who has fallen in with gangsters, sinks into a bathtub of his crime boss's money after seeing Jamil win the top prize on television (and just before Salim shoots the boss) he murmurs the universal Islamic words of praise and thanks: "God Is Great."

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