I watched Danny Boyle’s global hit, Slumdog Millionaire, and like everyone else, I too cheered for Jamal Malik, the underdog, all the way to the final question for the final million. I did. I told myself not to get hung up on the garbage and the shit, the violence and the squalor. Not to take it all too seriously. After all, the film is supposed to be a modern-day fantasy. A Pauper to Prince fairytale that dares to imagine a different life for an orphan boy from the slums of Mumbai. And that, I told myself, should make the film worthwhile.
But as a globalised Indian woman watching "the world’s first globalised masterpiece," I wanted a fairytale with more dare. I wanted the film to imagine a different life for Latika the slumbitch as well.
I waited for the girl to show some spunk, kick some butt, and have the same improbable run of luck as her boyfriend. Modern girls too have the right of fantasy, right? Wrong. The slumbitch didn’t bite.
Latika is the only female character in a male-dominated story with a masculinist point-of-view. For some reason, Boyle’s film doesn’t include any of the other female characters who appear in the novel on which it’s based (most significantly, the female lawyer to whom Jamal confesses). With barely fifteen lines throughout the film, Latika’s function is to provide what is known in Bollywood parlance as "the love-interest." As such, the slumbitch remains firmly locked in the age-old fairytale role of damsel-in-distress, a pretty little innocent waiting for Prince Charming to come to her rescue.
As little Latika stood soaking in the rain, I expected her to shove the boys aside and fight for a place under the roof, to exhibit the same primal instinct for self-preservation any self-respecting slumbitch would. But the girl just stood there getting drenched until little Jamal took pity on her and invited her in.
I got my hopes up for just a bit when the girl showed spunk and put the chilly in the willy of the beggar boy. Perhaps she’ll grow up and put some chillies in the willies of the big boys I thought. Wrong again. When Salim, the bad big brother throws Jamal out and presumably engages in sex with Latika, the girl doesn’t put up a fight. Indeed she offers little resistance as she is forced into prostitution by the big bad wolves. Even when Jamal sneaks into the abusive gangster king’s house and pleads with his sweetheart to run away with him, she refuses out of fear.
Women’s fears are always all too real. Even in fantasyland. So of course when the damsel does takes a risk and escapes to the railway station to meet her Prince, she’s hunted down by the gangsters and her pretty face is slashed. In the end, Latika escapes not because of her own enterprise or initiative, but because big brother sacrifices himself, gives her his car and phone, and tells her to run.
Still I remained adamant. I refused to give up hope for the slumbitch. Then came the climax. Jamal doesn’t know the name of the third musketeer, the answer that will win him the final million. He uses his life-line and dials his brother’s number. Latika realizes she has the ringing phone. She pushes her way through the crowds outside the TV station to get to the car to pick up the phone. Go bitch go! Pick up the phone and give him the answer. Surely the slumbitch would’ve had some unaccountably unlikely encounter in her sex working career. But the dumb bitch didn’t know. "I don’t know, Jamal," she cooed, looking as pretty and as helpless as can be. "You’re on your own, Jamal," said the gameshow host. The same old romantic formula eroticising masculine independence and female dependence, male power and female powerlessness. My cheers choked.
Imagine if the bitch had actually known the answer. She’d have had a legitimate stake in the dog’s million! That would’ve been a daring fairytale for global patriarchies everywhere.
Revathi Krishnaswamy, Writer and Critic, is with Dept of English & Comparative Literature, San Jose State University, California, USA
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