Plotting against poverty

A new film makes poverty a device for resolving the central conflict of the story

Slumdog Millionaire has a perfect plot. The protagonist Jamal Malik is a precocious slum-dwelling child with enough traumatic experiences that he has acquired an uncanny emotional and factual knowledge of the world as well as the human heart. The conflict that drives the plot forward is produced by his dire poverty. There are plenty of sub-plots that move forward the main story line. The classic conflict -- of a young man against the brutal world -- has been transformed into a thriller-like emotional drama depicting the battle between street-smart survivalism and the iron fist of poverty.

That is where the problem lies. How can one represent poverty while having a slick plot? The little first-hand experience of poverty I have tells me that poverty is actually the absence of all plots. Being poor means the story of your life is out of your control. Circumstances have more control over the storyline than the protagonist. That is why I felt that the experience of poverty feels "used" by the screenwriter of the movie. But, then, the next logical question arises: how to represent poverty in such a way that it engages people. That is the dilemma at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire. The life of the poor lacks all plots but the story of Bombay slums, or other favelas of the world, must be told in a meaningful way. Meanings are produced, out of countless facts and events, with the help of a story because human beings understand the world in a storied manner. There is a beginning, middle and end in almost all grand narratives. Even socially emancipating narratives, of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, imagine a perfect ending with the arrival of a classless society or the superman. Such is the seduction of the narrative arch that even science cannot escape it and imagines, almost out of habit, a big bang leading to human evolution and the implosion or gravity-free expansion of the universe at the end.

If human consciousness of the world is structured like a story, the experience of poverty, at least from the point of view of the audience, has to have a cohesive narrative structure. But, as I have posited above, poverty is the absence of all plots. Then how can one represent poverty in a story and still do justice to the experience of poverty? The answer to this question lies in the way the conflict is resolved at the peak of the narrative arch in the movie. Because the narrative concerns itself with poverty, the answer to the problem of representation is also part of the movie. Poverty provides the resolution to the suspenseful climax. Jamal's experience of living in abject poverty has sharpened his social acumen to the extent that he does not bite the false bait dangled before him by Prem Kumar of Kon Banaiga Krorepati?, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Why Jamal Malik does not bite the false bait is because the host of the programme says to him that Jamal is like him. They both have risen out of dire poverty. And then writes a false answer on the washroom mirror where the conversation is taking place.

The reason behind Jamal's distrust of the hinted answer speaks of his intimate knowledge of poverty and how it creates a vicious psychological cycle. The poor, in their struggle to survive and in the presence of scarce resources, turn upon each other. That is the point around which the plot pivots. And that is where the movie succeeds as an accurate representation of poverty, despite the perfect plot. The perfect resolution of the conflict, and the onset of the dénouement, depends on the lessons learnt by Jamal in absolute poverty, which has taught him not to trust anybody except himself. Because of the false answer written on the washroom mirror by another ex-slum-dweller, it becomes easy for Jamal to get at the right answer. He chooses the Life Line option of 50/50 to get to the two possibly correct answers out of the four options. Then he leaves out the answer provided by another former poor man. The remaining one option proves to be the correct option. At this point, the ex-slum-dweller Prem Kumar turns upon Jamal Malik and decides to hand him over to the police because he (Prem Kumar) thinks that Jamal Malik has an insider's help. The ex-poor man turns against the soon-to-be-an-ex-poor. And that is what makes the plot more convincing than the usual rich-versus-poor plots.

This movie is different and convincing because it shows the lasting and corrupting effects of poverty on the former slum-dwellers and that is the reason for the success of its plot. It makes perfect sense because it is psychologically so true-to-life even though the events, when ordered into a neat plot, are so unlike life. At a sociological level, then, the movie introduces a new dimension in the age-old question of representation. It turns the question of representing poverty as a problem to be resolved and extrapolated by the plot.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated January 25, 2009