Perception Through the Lens of Slumdog Millionaire

by Guest Contibutor Sulagna

First, I have to say that this isn’t a critique.

It’s a serious of observations, an analysis of my viewing, and a reflection on one of the warmest and most electrifying movies I’ve seen in a while. Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t perfect, but I know that after I saw it, I felt incredible. I had already known I would like it before I had gone in, because it fit the type I liked—the interesting premise, the quirky storytelling device, and, of course, the overall familiarity of the subject matter, but it defied my expectations. The hopeful, love-themed story was at Bollywood levels of intensity (though better made), and I easily identified with the setting and characters.

Here is where I realized that I saw this movie differently than how perhaps my non-Indian college friends at college did. I saw layers underneath certain scenes in the movie that I doubt they would’ve.

When Jamal answered the question about the Hindu god Rama, I predicted the clash of religion. As the pulsing beat of the music and the main character’s mother’s anxious face forecasted the riots, frustrated emotions burst in my chest, the fatigue of the age-long conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan pressing me with its weight.

Wasn’t it just a little more than a month ago that my family and I had watched the news about Mumbai on fire during our Thanksgiving holiday? I had felt uncomfortably separated from it—India felt so far away, but I still felt a scrambling anxiety at the events, nervous about what this changed.

Pakistan used to be part of India. When the British set up arbitrary lines dividing the country, these lines were religious as well. After the Partition, there were violent riots between the Hindus and Muslims in both countries and along the border. This history deeply affects relations between the countries today. What followed the Mumbai terrorist attacks indicated the changes that it would have: tensions between Pakistan and India rose, and the idea of “conflict” frightened me, when I allowed myself to think about it.

The scene of the Hindu extremists yelling with their weapons and the scurrying Muslim children were very easy reminders of these past events and facts.

And then there was Maman’s gang of children, trained (against their will or knowledge) to become expert sympathy seeking beggars. My mouth went dry as I felt a cavalcade of anguish inside. I had seen these children in the street when I would visit India, imploring me for a rupee, because as their belly-rubbing and palms pressed together suggested to my non-Hindi speaking self, they were poor and hungry—unlike me. There were so many of them too; crowding around us as we walked down the street, squished together and crouching across from the idols in temples, patting and pulling our clothes when traffic stopped. Their presence and suffering in the movie gave me guilt—it almost felt like my fault, because I knew this sort of thing happened, and these kids existed, but I hadn’t done anything to help them.
With this tumult of emotions, I came to a realization: most of the other people who would see this movie wouldn’t feel so much, or as deeply, as I did. They would view this scene with a certain amount of distance that I couldn’t have, because of the knowledge that I possessed.
The guilt went deeper—that I couldn’t just feel sympathetic to the characters and wonder at their predicament; instead I saw them in a different perspective, examining the world that director Danny Boyle presented through a filter of my own experience.

If this story had been set somewhere else, I would’ve just felt the usual consideration in the characters and the interest in the culture. But it was set in India, infusing the story with that which was permanently ingrained in me. My view was set to a certain slant of light that I couldn’t stop myself from seeing.

But as I ruminated on this idea, I wondered if this difference was actually a bad thing. My study of media in college had revealed the idea of “active audiences,” where certain people would see media in different ways, creating their own impressions and making their own conclusions. Everyone had their own special filter through which they viewed the world, and this film; it was a lens built from their own experience and personality and mind process, and it wasn’t the wrong way of seeing, just a different one.

However, there are ways to analyze this type of differences in perception. With these “active audiences,” there are three basic ways that people can take in certain types of media.
First, there is the preferred and usually dominant position, which is how the producer of that certain type of media wants you to absorb the media. Most people recognize Danny Boyle’s vision as one of a fiercely hopeful movie that would be uplifting and beautiful, which is evidenced by its critical acclaim and box office status.

Then there is the viewpoint of the opposite side, the oppositional position, which sees the movie in the opposite respect that Danny Boyle had in mind. They might find the movie to be a mere “feel-good” movie without any real value in its story or construction. There are also others who see that Boyle’s incorrect depiction of India is one of extreme poverty and corruption. Some of these people may even go as far as saying it “ennobles [this] poverty”, as Owen Gleiberman does in his Entertainment Weekly review of the movie, because it “turns the horror of broken Indian childhoods into a whooshingly blithe, in-your-face picaresque.”

Then there is the third type, the negotiated position, where the interpretation is independent of the producer’s intent. I didn’t need to be influenced into feeling for the characters or properly informed of Jamal’s life hardships and sufferings. I already identified with the people onscreen because of their familiarity and the background they shared with me, even with the multitude of differences between us, and I recognized the hardships as problems my parents would discuss with other family members or ones I would witness when I visited India.

And then there were the cultural additions that Boyle added to the film that were more than pieces of artistry and added more than worldliness for me—I knew them. Little things would make me smile, like the way I sometimes didn’t even need the subtitles (though my Hindi is still hazy), and how the main characters exclaimed over famous actor Amitabh Bachchan (and how Salim’s character mirrored the “Angry Young Man” archetype the actor always played in his youth), and the wondrous music composed by the much loved and well known AR Rahman, especially the usage of Sonu Nigam’s “Aaj ki Raat” and the earnest Bollywood-like dance sequence at the end.

I also realized that I would always hold this “negotiated” position in my view of any media that referenced India and its culture. There was an everlasting connection between us, not just because of my family, but also because I felt a certain amount of responsibility to it, having visited India constantly and seen its separate existence outside of the usual American perspective, but grown up here with that said perspective.

Similarly, every one of us sees the world through their own lens; mine is just markedly unique in this instance because of the different and distinctly Indian American experiences that affect it, and the importance these experiences play in viewing this type of media.

Related: You’re the Man Now, Dog! The Racialicious Review of Slumdog Millionaire