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Democracy’s chances,or this boy’s life; Slumdog encapsulates the logic of global capital

Bonnie Honig<br> The film,Slumdog Millionaire,has been received as a traditional love story (boy meets girls,boy loses girl,boy gets girl) set in a new setting. But the film actually offers a profound meditation on the contradictions of democracy and the ideological faces of global capital.

Written by Bonnie Honig |
February 25, 2009 4:49:35 pm

The film,Slumdog Millionaire,has been received as a traditional love story (boy meets girls,boy loses girl,boy gets girl) set in a new setting. But the film actually offers a profound meditation on the contradictions of democracy and the ideological faces of global capital.

The film looks at what happens when the American dream of social mobility is imported to India. The world’s largest democracy is also riven by rigid class and caste structures,so when a young survivor of anti-Muslim riots who grew up unparented as a Mumbai slumdog finds himself in a position to win millions of rupees on a television game show,the whole nation takes an interest.

So do the police,who suspect him of fraud; how else could he come so close to winning? As in the seldom delivered dream of American upward mobility,most members of the national underclass identify with the hero and root for him. Even the police come around.

The conceit of the film is that the hero,Jamal,in order to show his police interrogators how he honestly knows the answers to the shows arcane questions,must tell his life story. As both he and the police inspector point out,this successful game show contestant cannot help but answer the questions put to him; he has endured several lifetimes of hardship and yet he is a naif who in the process of proving he is not a fraud even confesses to having taken part in a murder.

As Jamal’s life story unfolds,piece by piece,its striking singularity becomes apparent. While the film presents by way of gorgeous cinematography the teeming massness of Indian humanity,divided by class and religion but lived up close and inseparably,it at the same time also presents the audience with a portrait of the unutterable singularity of a life,but surely also each and very life,lived in its midst.

Jamal,who as a child helplessly witnessed his mother’s murder and then later failed also to save a childhood friend,Latika,from violent captors,is not as interested in money or social mobility as are all those around him. He is not available to be bought (off). The rewards of money better suit Jamal’s older brother Salim. Salim seeks compensation. But Jamal is different. He is committed to his desire. He longs for romance with his damaged childhood friend,a longing that is not commensurate with the pleasures money can buy and cannot be satisfied by any substitute.

But insofar as this longing is surely also for the murdered mother he also could not save,it is itself already a substitution. What calls for scepticism here on the part of the films viewers then is not that love is finally found among the ruins but that this love,so long sought after and now finally found,will really satisfy the deep and incommensurable longing that tears at the soul o f the violently orphaned Jamal.

In the end,in any case,the real romance of the film is not that staged between the two lovers,nor is it the film’s apparent affirmation of the singularity of life. Rather,or in addition,the film’s romance lies in its belief that such singularity might be rewarded,however inadvertently,by that sausage-making representative of capitalist (dis)order,mass society,and social mobility: the modern game show. If there is a miracle here in his game show success,it is not that Jamal knows the things he knows — each answer is accounted for by yet another breathtaking scenario from his violent and adventurous youth — but rather that the game show has managed to put together a list of questions that happens to map onto this boy’s life’s total singularity. Normally such singularity is seen perceptively only by a mother: as Adriana Cavarero notes,even the monstrous Medea knew the sons she killed by name and loved them in their unrepeatable singularity.[1 But here such recognition does not come from the missing mother.

It is rather proffered by way of the mass entertainment industry,which manages to reward Jamal’s unrepeatable singularity,however miraculously,inadvertently. Now that is the real fantasy that the film illicitly sells,the suggestion that singularity is a money-making trait,that it can find its reward and wrest recognition from an economy that by its nature betrays singularity daily.[2 If the film succeeds in making this fantasy feel plausible,it does so leaving its viewers feeling well and rightly walloped by the serving of (in)humanity it has just dished out,measure by measure. Against that background,Jamal’s unrepeatable singularity leaves a lasting,haunting impression.

In the end,though,what makes Jamal’s story not just a fable of singularity but also a tale of democracy is its dependence on chance. For not quite every one of the protagonist’s game show answers is accounted for biographically. One or two answers,including in particular the very last,are shots in the virtual dark,moments when the miraculous chance encounter of Jamal and the game show diverges and the hero is left without guidance of any kind. In this moment the film acknowledges even further the role of utter contingency in the life of singularity,a role that Jacques Ranciere sees as fundamental to democracy itself:

The demos is not the glorious,imaginary body that is heir to the sacrificed royal body. It’s not the body of the people. It’s the abstract assemblage of ordinary people,who have no individual title to govern. It is the pure addition of chance that comes to revoke all ideas of legitimate domination,all notions of personal virtue destining a special category of people to govern.

[3 In other words,without the nod to contingency,the people may come to replace without significant difference the king,the rightful ruler,the deserving hero. But there would be no revolution in this. Democracy needs to take its chances with contingency. With the nod to contingency,democracy wins. It can only do so when the demos,as such,is undeserving,more specifically,when the demos breaks the tables of value whereby deservingness has hitherto been ladled out.

In conventional terms,according to dominant modern tables of value,the hero of Slumdog Millionaire is undeserving. Jamal is an orphaned slum dweller with no education. The host of the game show (himself not as distant as he might like from Mumbai’s slums) tries repeatedly to put Jamal in his place,laughing at him for his work at an Indian call center.

Jamal,the host points out,is not even a call-taker there but only a tea server,servant of the outsourced servers of the West’s dependent consumers. The television show’s live audience laughs too. But the film’s audience knows better. Jamal is even less deserving,even more a wild card,than his crisp white shirt and call center job suggest. We have seen him abject,poor,beaten,and covered in shit. That is how we know something else too: this is a boy who w ill not give up on his desire.

Early in the film,we saw what Jamal did as a boy when,because he took too long in an outhouse,his older brother locked him in. His brother was in a rush to see Bollywood superstar,Amitabh Bachchan,who was turning up in their neighborhood at that moment. Jamal wants to see him too. He worships the actor and,when he finds he is locked in the outhouse and cannot get to his idol,Jamal does the unthinkable: he drops into the pit below,climbs out from beneath the outhouse,and turns up in the gathering crowd of admirers covered in shit,his arm outstretched for the autograph he does indeed win.

[4 His older brother will later sell that prize,just as he will later take Latika for himself,for a time. These are the prices Salim demands for the care giving he devotedly,but on some level resentfully,provides. He is himself only a child,yet he must grow up fast if he and his brother are to survive the slums.

Jamal’s brother learns early to seek power and money by allying himself with ganglords. Eventually,he will trade those in for a devotion to Islam that seems to come out of nowhere. In his final scene,when he trades his life one last time for Jamal’s happiness,he dies declaring his faith in Allah. Jamal,however,is never tempted by any form of faith. His desire stands apart from,is truer than,any order economic or religious — that claims to be able to satisfy it. In this lie his power and his singularity.

[5 In this too lies his exemplarity for democracy.

That this (or any) shit-child can grow up to become a millionaire is the legitimating story sold by global capitalism. That he can get the girl and live happily ever after is a romantic story that serves the same economic order when it distracts desire from its inherent dissatisfactions,and seeks to shape it into more compliant forms. But what if we stay focused on the fact that even the film’s truest love is herself a substitute for the unjustly lost mother? And what if we resist the lure of capitalism’s false promise of equal opportunity in order to hold on instead to the dangerous promise of truer ones? Then we might see something else:

That Jamal with his fellows has every right — because they have no right — to claim political power and that this,indeed,is the dream of democracy,its true desire.

Desire itself is at work in democratic politics and it wants two contrary things. The desire for the other as singularity looks past the other’s traits,past what Hannah Arendt would call the what of subjectivity and toward the who. Focused on the other’s singularity,desire insists that the other cannot be traded off in a calculation of net pleasures and pains,nor sacrificed to the common good. At the same time,the desire for democracy insists that no one person’s singularity be treated as grounds for privileging or deprivileging any single person as above or below any other. It is precisely in the unreasonableness and contradictoriness of democracy’s various demands that we may find evidence of its connection to desire.

The release of desire is depicted in the final scene of Slumdog Millionaire,an at first blush completely jarring performance of a big Bollywood dance number in which Jamal and his love and a host of others perform John Travolta-like dance moves on a Mumbai train station platform.

This overperformed happy-ending seems to highlight its own artifice. Perhaps its aim is to call attention to the Hollywood/Bollywood quality of the entire sweeping life story just told,to rewrap in incredulity and artifice the happy ending romance it had seconds before packaged as realism for the viewer’s satisfied consumption. If so,it broadcasts a certain postmodern knowingness about the fictiveness of its own story. Or possibly,just possibly,it does something else. Perhaps it offers a peek at desire,which makes no sense.

On behalf of such a reading,we do well to recall the film’s horrifying opening sequence,in which we see Jamal’s body by turns limp and contorted in pain as he is tortured by the police who interrogate him. The film’s final sequence is that opening scene’s double: here Jamal’s once tortured body is released into the pleasure of dance. Notably,the dance scene,which might be expected to be a celebration of the romance’s resolution (boy has now got the girl),is not in fact a couple dance but a teeming group formation. The pleasure exhibited by Jamal in this final sequence may express love for Latika but why then is it not directed at her?

Is there acknowledgment here that,in Lacanian terms,she is not (his) desire’s true object? Instead,his pleasure shows in his body’s movement,in the dance,itself. This,then,is the underside of the film’s global capital fable,which aims to satisfy but really aims to train us to be oriented to wants that can be satisfied.

Not the unreachable mother but the not-quite-impossible-to-get girl. Not the dream of democracy but rather the lottery of upward mobility. But want has its double: Desire sheer,unutterable,an-economic,embodied,material,ungovernable pleasure.

We sense it,we find it,in the dance: not in the couple form as it has been commodified and normalised but rather in the singularity of the human and its teeming democratic situation.

[1 Horrorism ,Columbia University Press,2008

[2 And it is the contradiction in which the film itself traffics as it is screened in front of millions of audiences in the wake of winning sought-after prizes for its own unique artistry.

[3 Jacques Ranciere,Literature,Politics,Aesthetics: Approaches to Democratic Disagreement interviewed by Solange Guõsun and James H. Kavanagh SubStance # 92,2000,p. 19.

[4 That is to say,this scene is not only remarkable because it literalizes the slums abjection,but also because it manifests the power of desire in Jamal and of his fidelity to it.

[5 How to mobilise that singularity into democratic collectivity without betraying it is the most fundamental problem of democratic equality,not one Ranciere,who is not a theorist of singularity,really faces.

The writer is a professor at Northwestern University

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