Study Guide

Slumdog Millionaire Society and Class

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Society and Class

PREM: And what does an assistant phone basher do exactly?

JAMAL: I get tea for people.

PREM: A chai wallah!

Given his profession, host and audience alike immediately assume Jamal to be unintelligent and uncultured. Needless to say, nobody expects much from our young hero.

INSPECTOR: What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?

It is from the police inspector that we first hear the titular term "slumdog" used disparagingly to describe Jamal. This word, however, is not Indian in origin, invented instead by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle for the film. But it does successfully communicate the disgust felt by certain members of the upper classes towards slum dwellers.

[The "O…Saya" montage]

This vibrant sequence follows Jamal and Salim as youngsters through the winding alleyways of Juhu, as they attempt to elude a couple of policemen. With R.A. Rahman's rhythmic soundtrack propelling the action forward, we begin to get a sense of the frenetic feel and immense scale of the slum.

INSPECTOR: My five-year-old daughter can answer this question. But you couldn't. That's strange for a millionaire genius.

Jamal likely does not know the seemingly obvious answer to this question because he never completed a formal education. However, Jamal's response—in which he notes the going rate for pani puri—reveals that like his fellow slum dwellers he isn't stupid, nor a genius, but rather has acquired a completely different set of skills and knowledge that helps him navigate life in the slums.

JAMAL: If it wasn't for Rama and Allah, I'd still have a mother.

Following the end of British colonial rule in 1947, the British Indian Empire was partitioned into three separate chunks: Pakistan in the west, East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in the east, with present day India in the center. This division, prompting likely the largest mass migration in history, was based primarily on religion, with the majority of Muslims winding up in East and West Pakistan, and the majority of Sikhs and Hindus landing in India. (Source)

However there has long been tension throughout the history of modern India between the majority Hindu population and remaining 170 million-plus Muslims, coming to a boiling point in the 1992-3 Bombay riots depicted in this film.

JAMAL: I just need Maman to like my singing, and we're in the money. Big money.

LATIKA: And then what? Can we stop begging?

JAMAL: Beg? Are you kidding? We'll live in a big house on Harbour Road.

From this young age, Jamal and Latika are dreaming of the rags to riches story that their life will eventually become; however, upward mobility in traditional Indian society is just that—a dream—for those on the bottom rung.

JAMAL: Bombay had turned into Mumbai.

In 1995, the largest Indian city of Bombay was renamed "Mumbai" by the newly elected government. This nominal change coincided with a massive push towards modernization, Mumbai abandoning its complicated colonial legacy for a new role as worldwide economic powerhouse going forward into the 21st century. (Source)

SALIM: That used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh? We used to live right there, man. Now, it's all business. India is at the center of the world, bhai. And I am at the center of the center. This is all Javed-bhai's.

JAMAL: Javed Kahn. The gangster from our slum. You work for him?

In this exchange, Jamal discovers that Salim is now a henchman of slumlord Javed Kahn. Salim has ascended from homeless beggar to powerful mob enforcer, truly a remarkable feat. Jamal simply wonders at what cost.

PREM: A guy from the slums becomes a millionaire overnight. You know who is the only other person who's done that? Me.

Here we get a sense of Prem's story, as host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." His background is similar to that of Jamal, but it's clear his motivations could not be more different. Prem has achieved tremendous wealth and influence, and is desperate to hold onto his status through whatever means necessary. Yet despite his paranoia, Jamal is not there to steal his thunder. He is only there for the much more noble reason of finding Latika—the money would just be a bonus.

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