Slumdog Debates Continue…

July 4, 2010

Economic & Political Weekly EPW June 12, 2010 vol xlv no 24 41

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria (janjaria@bard.edu) – Bard College, the United States
Ulka Anjaria (uanjaria@brandeis.edu) is at Brandeis University, the United States.

Slumdog Millionaire and Epistemologies of the City

Much of the critical and popular controversy surrounding the 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire is derived from misconceptions over the representational possibilities
of popular fi lm, as well as the overwhelming national framework of fi lm criticism. By locating the ways in which the dystopic aesthetic of Danny Boyle’s earlier film, Trainspotting, is energised when it meets the Mumbai slum, this essay argues
that Slumdog explores the role of informal knowledge in the navigation of changing urban landscapes. In this way, it is not despite, but through, the film’s refusal of realist generic conventions that it offers its interpretation of the city.

What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?
–Police Constable in Slumdog Millionaire

The swirl of excitement, commentary and controversy surrounding the fi lm Slumdog Millionaire (2009) in India and elsewhere calls for a careful analysis of the possibilities and pitfalls of transnational cultural production. Alternatively seen as a celebration of urban India’s global coming-of-age, an affront to cultural sensibilities, a sign of neoliberal hegemony or simply superficial cinematic diversion, Slumdog offers possibilities for thinking about the relationship between popular film and the contemporary Indian urban experience. With its uncompromising view of Mumbai’s underbelly, Slumdog wades into the troubling history of western representations of India. Film critics and prominent individuals alike have criticised the film, if not dismissed it outright, for its rehashing of old stereotypes of urban Indian squalor and backwardness. Like most representations of urban poverty, films such as this have the potential to create a sense of a troubled place “out there”, disconnected from the comforting world of the viewer. In this sense, it is tempting to read Slumdog as part of a filmic lineage defined by such films as Roland Joffé’s City of Joy –which, as Vincent Canby (1992) put it in his New York Times review, represents an “India [that] exists to be a vast, teeming rehab centre where emotionally troubled Americans can fi nd themselves” – with the Third World city acting as a passive backdrop to western fantasies.

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