Being a part of Western culture often blurs our vision of other cultures around the world. For the most part, so many of us either forget or have never even thought about the fact that popular culture and ideals from our side of the world influence and impact other countries through globalization. One specific country that is impacted by Western globalization is India. A prime example of this influence can be illustrated through the use of the show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" in Danny Boyle's 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. This film encapsulates how Western ideals affect what it means to be “Indian" due to globalization, how Western culture affects our view of Indian culture, and how even the themes of the film portray Western ideals in India.
According to Indian author Shahi Tharoor, "the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. India is fundamentally a pluralist state; its pluralism . . . is reflected in its history" (6). A major part of India's history involves Western globalization, where popular culture is prevalent in Indian society and impacts the identities of its people. For example, Western-based popular culture, such as Disney products, McDonald's fast food restaurants, and even sexualized jean advertisements are prevalent in India today. In Slumdog Millionaire, there is a scene where the main characters, Salim and Jamal, are starving and are each offered a Coca-Cola bottle (Slumdog). The offering of an American-made product is an encoded message that is supposed to ensure the young Indian boys that they are in safe hands because of the symbolism portraying the supposed power and safety that our country possesses.
Unfortunately, the push to send American-made products to India (as well as other countries) can lead to contestation within the Indian culture and the media has affected much of what it means to be “Indian.” Shashi Tharoor describes his experience when he left an eighteen-month gap between visits to India and witnessed firsthand an extreme increase of the globalization of Indian life. He claims billboards advertising endless Western brand names were suddenly all over the place and that even new pop music in New York and London could be heard more profusely than the music of Bollywood (302). In addition to advertisements on the streets, Indian people have begun to be exposed to advertisements on television, since over 40 million households in India now own a television (Tharoor 282). Besides media images, values and beliefs about identity are starting to be integrated into Indian culture through globalization.
One Western ideal that has been integrated into India's culture is the idea of showing off one's wealth. The film itself is very much driven by the need for money and placing importance on physical goods as a means of power, which is very much a Western ideal. There was a time in India where showing off one's wealth was seen as being arrogant and classless (Sorrells). However, according to Balmurli Natrajan, "the insistence on caste as having a material basis shaped by capitalism can be extended to include the work of symbols in its concrete existence, since dominance and authority are legitimatized through symbols" (229). In other words, Western globalization has altered the way of thinking when it comes to class in India.
Even some of the music in the film was influenced by Western ideals. For example, Indian artist M.I.A.'s single "Paper Planes" is sung in English, yet speaks about a "third world democracy" with a chorus backed up by Indian-influenced singers (“Paper”). Featured in the movie, there is also a rap song mixed with Hindi lyrics as well as a track that has classical and Indian music mixed together (Slumdog).
Besides audio, there are various visuals throughout Slumdog Millionaire which illustrate the prevalence of Western culture in India. The Taj Mahal scene is littered with culture clashes as far as what types of clothing are usually associated with Indian and American cultures. For example, when the two brothers discover that they can make money stealing shoes from visitors in the Taj Mahal, Jamal chooses to wear Converse and Salim chooses cowboy boots. When the boys begin stealing clothes from tourists, they are often adorned in what is perceived to be a Western style of dress, illustrated by their choice of beanies, jeans, and other American-style clothing (Slumdog).
American influence comes up again when Jamal takes pictures for tourists in front of the Taj Mahal. After the picture is taken, Jamal compares the tourists' Polaroid to a brochure depicting an American Caucasian woman posing in the exact position that the tourists are trying to achieve. When the boys are discovered to be making money illegally this way, they are chased down by an officer who proceeds to beat Jamal in front of a vacationing American couple. After getting the guard to leave Jamal alone, the American woman says to Jamal, "Well, here is a bit of the real America, son," as she motions for her husband to give Jamal money (Slumdog). This action reinforces the idea on the Indian culture that it pays to be rich and that having money is one of the greatest accomplishments one could have in life (again, a Western ideology).
Another effect that globalization plays in the film occurs when Jamal attains a job at a magazine company during his late teens. The substance of what is produced in the magazine mirrors those that we have in America. There is even discussion of a story which sounds eerily similar to the dramatic story of Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie that has taken place in Hollywood. The magazine mimics the style which American magazines follow, except for the fact that the celebrities in their magazines are Indian. Within the same magazine publishing building, hundreds of workers between workloads concentrate on the television screen in the room, depicting the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
On a macro-level, globalization has its pros and cons when it comes to spreading information about one culture to the rest of the world. Slumdog Millionaire depicts Indian culture in only one light, and a predominantly stereotypical one at that. The film mainly focuses on the slums of India and shows images of poor, ruddy towns that are in dire need of help. Unfortunately, many people across the world take the media as it is to be true and this can misconstrue the understanding of other cultures as to what it is to be Indian. Even the title can group an entire people into being perceived in one way, since "slum dog" is a derogative term used towards Indians. The title, along with the images of the poorest areas of India, creates the idea that all Indians are "slum dogs" and, therefore, globalization allows for the negative and false portrayal of a culture to be spread throughout the world. Besides putting a culture down, these stereotypes allow for another culture (Western culture in this case) to appear to be the "better" culture of the two since it is implied that we apparently posses the tools in order to obtain wealth and glory, unlike the people of India.
The driving force of the whole movie that exemplifies the idea of globalization and its impact on a particular culture is the theme of the film itself. First of all, the theme "From rags to riches" is a Western theme and becomes even more Western as it is paired with a love story where the "good guy" prevails, the "bad guy" loses, and everyone “lives happily ever after.” In order to sustain and uphold the storyline, the characters in the movie are able to use certain technology that was made available to them due to globalization, such as the television and cellular telephones. Lakita, or the "damsel in distress," which is again a prevalent theme in American films, is able to find Jamal since she not only is able to see him on the game show in various shop windows and at home, but also because she takes possession of Salim's cell phone which she uses to communicate with and ultimately locate Jamal.
Within the show itself, much of Indian culture is lost, not only because it is an American-based show, but because the host himself has American traits. Although the host is Indian, his hair, clothing, and accent are much more similar to what is generally perceived as what it is to be “American" than what it means to be “Indian.” The host, as well as the other characters, speaks English throughout most of the film. For American viewers, this is great because we are able to understand the language without using subtitles. However, there is a loss of authenticity as it diminishes Indian culture in the film through homogenization of culture.
Although Slumdog Millionaire is a great movie, there are many places where the Americanization of Indian culture takes away from what it is really like to be Indian and what we are fed as consumers in another country. According to author Balmurli Natrajan, "capitalist relations require caste relations to reproduce itself in a postcolonial setting" (230). Basically, we are imposing our power on India through globalization. As an educated person, I feel privileged because I am able to see past the stereotypes created in Hollywood films such as this one, but it is quite unsettling to know that the same is not true for all Americans and other cultures who view this film. I can remember not too long ago when I was in high school that depictions like these of other cultures around the world were believable. Unfortunately, many people take these stereotypes to be credible and end up judging an entire culture without knowing the truth. Based on viewing Slumdog Millionaire, globalization has not proven to be a positive factor when it comes to sharing the richness of India's culture with the world but is, rather, a depiction of what it means to be Indian through an American lens.
"Paper Planes Lyrics." M.I.A. AZLyrics.com. Web. 10 Dec. 2010.
"You wanted to see the real India? Here it is," the young Indian hero of Slumdog Millionaire tells an American couple, right after they find that their rental car has been stripped for parts. The winking come-on of Danny Boyle's Oscar-nominated hit is precisely that—see the real India—but this is a movie with a conveniently fluid notion of reality. In this fairytale vision of squalid poverty, the slums of Mumbai are bathed in golden light, and hardscrabble lives are energized by jacked-up camerawork and the cool, cosmopolitan pop of M.I.A. on the soundtrack. We see the real-world horrors that might befall a kid from these parts—begging syndicates, religious violence, abusive cops—but experience them simply as plot contrivances, hurdles to be cleared as we wait for him to get the girl and go from rags to riches while he's at it.
Slumdog is nothing if not a transglobal movie—funded with British and American money, shot entirely in India by a British director with a largely Indian cast and crew, from a script by a British writer adapting a novel by a London-born Indian author—and it's instructive to compare the reactions from around the world.
Premiering at the big North American film festivals at Telluride and Toronto last fall, Slumdog was crowned an underdog Oscar contender, a film that could go from barely getting a release (its original distributor, Warner Independent, folded last year) to the ultimate Hollywood jackpot, just as its hero, Jamal, makes his way from the slums to the biggest prize on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.
While the film won near-unanimous praise when it opened here in November, in the United Kingdom, thanks perhaps to residual colonial guilt, there were a few more dissenting voices. A columnist at the London Times called it "poverty porn," bringing up the question of exploitation that has largely been elided in stateside discussions.
And in India, where Slumdog opened last week, the debate has been vigorous. Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the focal point of a key scene in Slumdog (he doesn't actually appear), wondered on his blog if the film would have received as much attention had it been made by an Indian director. Some locals have questioned its selective portrait of Mumbai, which ignores the middle class. Some slum residents, meanwhile, have taken exception to being called "slumdogs" (a term invented by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy; the original novel, by Vikas Swarup, is called Q&A). Despite all this pre-release publicity and mostly positive reviews, Indian audiences have so far stayed away.
It is understandable that the conversation has taken on a more serious tone in India, which has long been sensitive to depictions, by Indians and outsiders alike, of its lower socioeconomic classes. The great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was criticized in Parliament for "exporting poverty." When the BBC aired French director Louis Malle's Phantom India, an epic travelogue that sought to capture the contradictions and complexities of Indian society, it led to a minor international incident, culminating in the expulsion of the BBC's New Delhi bureau.
The slums in Slumdog Millionaire are brighter and livelier than any we've seen before. Boyle is a gifted stylist and, for better or worse, an indiscriminate sensualist, the kind of filmmaker capable of finding tactile pleasure wherever he looks, from the junkie deliriums of Trainspotting to the cosmic reveries of Sunshine. For Boyle the director, the slums are above all an endless source of motion and color. The scene that best sums up his attitude comes early in the film, when young Jamal, stuck in an outhouse but determined to obtain Amitabh Bachchan's autograph, holds his nose and (in a nod to the famous toilet-bowl interlude in Trainspotting) gleefully dives into the outdoor latrine.
Some would argue that Boyle is guilty of aestheticizing poverty. That's a loaded charge, with its own problematic assumption about what poverty should look like. I would contend that the movie's real sin is not its surfeit of style but the fact that its style is in service of so very little. The flimsiness of Beaufoy's scenario, a jumble of one-note characterizations and rank implausibility, makes Boyle's exertions seem ornamental, even decadent. Beaufoy has suggested that Mumbai itself inspired this narrative sloppiness: "Tonally it shouldn't really work," he wrote in the Guardian. "But in Mumbai, not for nothing known as Maximum City, I get away with it." This is a corollary to the all-too-easy defense that Slumdog is awash in clichés because it is an homage to Bollywood movies. The resemblance, in any case, is superficial. Some of Slumdog's melodramatic tropes are Bollywood (and Old Hollywood) staples, but the limp dance number that closes the film lacks both the technique and the energy of vintage Bollywood.
If Slumdog has struck a chord, and it certainly seems to have done so in the West, it is not because the film is some newfangled post-globalization hybrid but precisely because there is nothing new about it. It traffics in some of the oldest stereotypes of the exoticized Other: the streetwise urchin in the teeming Oriental city. (The success of Slumdog has apparently given a boost to the dubious pastime of slum tourism—or "poorism," as it's also known.) And not least for American audiences, it offers the age-old fantasy of class and economic mobility, at a safe remove that for now may be the best way to indulge in it.
Eager to crank up the zeitgeist-y significance, the marketing machine at Fox Searchlight, which ended up buying Slumdog, toldNew York magazine that "the film is Obama-like," for its "message of hope in the face of difficulty." (Otherjournalists have since picked up on the meme.) Slumdog has been so insistently hyped as an uplifting experience ("the feel-good film of the decade!" screams the British poster) that it is also, by now, a movie that pre-empts debate. It comes with a built-in, catchall defense—it's a fairy tale, and any attempt to engage with it in terms of, say, its ethics or politics gets written off as political correctness.
A slippery and self-conscious concoction, Slumdog has it both ways. It makes a show of being anchored in a real-world social context, then asks to be read as a fantasy. It ladles on brutality only to dispel it with frivolity. The film's evasiveness is especially dismaying when compared with the purpose and clarity of urban-poverty fables like Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados, set among Mexico City street kids, or Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, set in inner-city Los Angeles. It's hard to fault Slumdog for what it is not and never tries to be. But what it is—a simulation of "the real India," which it hasn't bothered to populate with real people—is dissonant to the point of incoherence.