Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2009 > August 2009 > The Slum, the Dog and the Millionaire

Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 34, August 8, 2009

The Slum, the Dog and the Millionaire

Categories of Bourgeois Myth in Global Cinema

Sunday 16 August 2009, by Dev N Pathak

Carried away by the effect of the Oscared Slum Dog Millionaire (SDM) and tend to take its leitmotif for something eternal? Then Rolland Barthes was so very right. Bourgeoising myth redefines everything for a specific purpose and metamorphoses the mundane into extramundane, socio-cultural into natural, and temporal into eternal. Stretching a bit further, if it is a popular myth of our times, then the fascinating categories, the mythological icons, are the slum, the dog, and the millionaire. What would be more corroborating than the fact that a substandard literary material, Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger, bagged Man’s Booker sending shudders to India’s literature-lovers? The all- pervasive implications of the collective dream, something Freud used to allude to myth. Under the spell of the myth, the beholder believes in the make-believe fanned by the political economy of our times. Startlingly distinct about this is an inversion of notions: The Dog is as ferocious as a tiger and a tiger is as vulnerable as the dog: a motif that shares both, the story-teller of SDM and White Tiger.

From a child’s intelligent perspective, rag-to-riches stories are more often than not successful. Modernity loves such tales and so do its avowed worshippers. And because it is hypermodernity, as Giddens would irritate us by saying so, the tales are grounded in the cathartic environs and hyperbolic twists, with the melodramatic kitsch in the backdrop. The significance of melodrama has increased ever since it was pronounced outdated by our so-called avant-garde cinema geniuses. With a slight difference though, as real is unreal as much as unreal is real, a realistic sleight of hand at melodrama indeed!

The Tale

Yes, sterling performances by some of the real-life actors, especially the kid-stars, who were exotica of global cinema showcased during the Academy award ceremonial gatherings this year! Was it not a step further in the same direction, indeed to stress the enmeshed real and reel, to augment the faith of the lip-biting consumers of the tale? And what is the tale? Needless to retell the already told on the celluloid, though many of us watched the downloaded version muffled in the extra effects added by the website perhaps; it is significant however, to tell the untold, that is, about the changes in stance over the decades. Who can forget the Meera Nair take on almost the same bunch of kids, Salam Bombay, which was raved and reviled for mixed reasons? And then, also Dharavi. They were somewhat thick descriptions with inherent interpretations. They were also irrespective of saleability; however, they were in the league of films aiming at international and national awards. Hence no apparent lust to spice up the plot and spruce up the presentations in them, as we can recollect watching them, with yawns in our heart and unfulfilled desire in our eyes, on the only TV channel, then Doordarshan. Were they interested in partaking on the bourgeois myth that renders human strivings toward uplift into an eternal trait? Perhaps not, no matter how boring they were to us. Not at all, arguably as well.

The Myth

Then comes SDM in the thick of the global world, where it is a weak debate to distinguish Indian cinema and world cinema with the effect of cross-over logic, setting a trendy trail ablaze. With laid-bare the myth, it foretells the abilities of the dog, as the young protagonist jumps into the shit-pit and winds his way to the superstar for an autograph. The shit-smeared protagonist, succeeding in manoeuvring his way and manipulating his fate, is almost a reactionary alternative to the Machiavellian moves of the power elite. Pareto called them innovative fox eligible to dethrone and replace the status-quo lover lion. SDM does not mince words and straightaway calls them the dog inhabiting the slum, the haven of possibilities. Isn’t the latter pretty close to a divine abode wherein the dogs almost rejoice oddities? The storyteller has us believe that it is the beholder who is irked by the squalor and not at all the inhabitant dogs. Plight is also pride: the irony of our age. The loud and clear message: dwellers of Benighted Heathen, rise and grab a chance to become the millionaire. Almost closely reminding us that romantic dictum Paulo Coelho forced upon us: you dream and the world conspires to help you realise it. Yes, even those obstacles on the path turn out to be blessings in disguise, let alone the tricks of the anchor of the game-show bidding for a failure of the protagonist; even shit plays a fillip.

What it takes for granted are the questionable categories of success and failure, in everyday life or in aspirational enterprise; what it shies away from is the perennial engagements of humankind with values; what it reaffirms is the beaten idea that the human being is a Robinson Crusoe in an ethical vacuum. Can a dog afford to dream beyond boundaries? Can every manipulative dog dare to be a millionaire? The tale says, yes. The truth says, no. The buyers of the tale will be too fascinated by the tale to heed the truth. Thus, will be lost the whole implication of the truth, as to why the need to be the millionaire in the first place. Why is it so very important to dream big, yearn more, hanker for the endless?

The Thought

The locational impact on the myth of this kind is very significant. It is located in the global world with no boundaries for the flow of cash and kind, transaction unlimited is the mantra divine, and merchandise makes even pitch-dark shine. An invigorated domain of immense possibilities is opened on the world. It is liberating from the constraining limitations of nations and notions; it is enslaving for our confused and thought-devoid minds. The void of value is ruled by certain monopolistic notions of success and failures. Almost like what the Calvinist-Protestants thought—that only the successful surplus-makers, successful in capitalist business, are the chosen men of the god. The Rest are the condemned creatures crawling under yokes. If anybody tries to recapitulate a Schumacher and utters small is beautiful, s/he will be instantly lumped with the regressive-opinionated-romantic. No tolerance for anything that sounds an alternative to what the dominant paradigm suggests.

Yes, the myth and the tale evade the perennial fundamental questions the human faculty is engaged with in the quest of a better mode of living. It is complacent with the dominant notions of the time. Is everything fine with the dominant notions of the time? Does everything that glitters is gold?

The author is on the faculty of Hindu College, University of Delhi while finishing his doctorate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems; School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)