With the obligatory idle banter over, it’s time to start the questions. The slicing game show music theme cuts the eardrums. The camera pans in tight. The contestant fidgets. The host flashes impossibly white teeth.
Prem Kumar quizzes Jamal Malik: Who was the star of Zanjeer?
A) Anil Kapoor C) Amitabh Bachchan
B) Shahrukh Khan D)Madhur Mittal
Hmmm. The boy knows the answer without blinking. Pakka – he’s sure. But I’m certainly not. I have come to watch Slumdog Millionaire. I’m thrilled to see a film about ‘my people’, but question one has me doubting whether I am one of them.
Question 2. What motto is inscribed at the base of the national emblem of India?
A) Money alone triumphs C) Power alone triumphs
B) Justice alone triumphs D) Truth alone triumphs
Jamal needs a lifeline. So do I. Money and power seem crass for a national motto, but how to decide between justice and truth? I would guess truth – Gandhiji being a lover of it – but guessing is the problem. I don’t actually know. And for that matter, I don’t know what the national emblem of India is either. For Jamal, an uneducated orphan learning millionaire answers on the streets of Mumbai, this answer doesn’t exist in his daily orb. In the following scene, the police inspector is aghast. ‘How can you need a lifeline for a question my five-year old daughter could answer?!’ That’s when I know. A silly game show slaps me in the face with my American roots. I can’t get past the $200 question on Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
Alas, the issue doesn’t end here. Instantly images of bald eagles on embossed golden circles, ‘In God We Trust’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum’ pop up before me. I know these answers, but they are relevant to a faraway place. Not the world of Jamal Malik, or my ancestors.
Then, finally, a question I can answer with musical ease.
5. Whose picture appears on a U.S. $100 bill?
A) Benjamin Franklin C) Franklin Roosevelt
B) George Washington D) Abraham Lincoln
No, there aren’t any $100 bills thickening my wallet, but I can sing ‘It’s all about the Benjamins’ with Puff Daddy any day.
What kind of millionaire am I? So far, an American one. But game shows are the land of culture and kitsch, not citizenship. How can I be so deaf to a culture I call my own? Maybe I’m not. Returning to the opening question provides a clue, for this is a film about what Indians believe.
As the film begins, we, the audience, are posed a question that feels more like a riddle: Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?
A) He cheated B) He’s lucky
C) He’s a genius D) It is written
At the end of the film, the answer is revealed, but any Indian knows to mark D) immediately. No amount of luck, genius, or trickery can best fate.
The name of the Indian version of the game show points to D) – Kaun Banega Crorepati? Translation – Who Will Become a Millionaire? Becoming rather than wanting – therein lies the difference. Do you want it badly enough? It’s a present tense question, in the active voice, and it’s all about your will. Will you become a millionaire? It’s in the future, passive, outside of you. You are not the actor, but the receiver.
Destiny is the true leading lady in the love story of Jamal and Latika, but destiny’s role is not always starring as a uniter of lost love. From the Western perspective, believing in fate appears a dangerous passivity, and a cruel, ‘you must have done something to deserve this’ karmic moralizing that cuts through the main artery of your will and bleeds you of your resolve. How many times and in how many voices has my mother repeated, reminded, scolded, consoled, chastised, revealed, and illustrated to me, in moments mundane and dramatic, ‘It is all written, beta.’ Often with a glance to an open palm, guiding the eye to one of the physical locations of destiny. Destiny is not esoteric or vague. She is corporeal, precise, unique.
But the Indian will parry with the counterpoint – what is this infamous will? What calamities have befallen those who pound on the chest of willful ignorance, not seeing all around as maya – illusion? This grasping of the ego as real has led to folly upon folly, battle upon battle. For will and ego are brothers in arms, isolating you from the truth of the stars.
These philosophical differences are starting points rather than arguments to be won or lost. Knowing the first principles of a people is key to understanding their motivations. Ultimately I feel at home inside the world of Slumdog Millionaire because I know that Jamal Malik believes in destiny. Or, more fundamentally, I know what believing in destiny looks like – the verbs and nouns, icons and symbols of that belief. But what of the other questions? Where do anthems or wordplays or names of movie stars fit into identity? Knowing the answer to a game show question is certainly entry to a culture club. We who have schooled in one world, but dined and prayed in another know only too well how many gaps there are in our dealings with both. Holes that leave us confused, but also a double-seeing that leaves us more subtle. I feel the pull of will and the power of destiny.
There is a clunky name for this mixed bag. Mexican-American, Kenyan-American, Indian-American. We are a hyphenated breed, a hearty half and half joined by a congealing dash. Maybe Slumdog Millionaire is right. It is written that way.