Throughout history, from the expansion of the Romans by military means into the surrounding countries in 150AD to the colonisation of the America’s in 1942 to the introduction of the English to Australia in 1788, the introduction of a new, more advanced culture has the same resulting change to the indigenous people and their culture – suppression. This idea of colonisers wielding having power over the natives is a common one throughout history and continues to be true now, when Western influence is exerted across many less-developed nations, including India.
Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle and produced in 2008, is a story that has two parallel cultures, Indian and Western, and the balance of power between them is quite clear. Through the use of both technical and symbolic codes, power in Slumdog Millionaire is constructed quite firmly as being in the hands of the new culture – the West. The use of different camera shots and angles help to reinforce the impression that the real power in Slumdog Millionaire lies with the West.
Inside the studio of the game show, there are equal shots of the people (the host and Jamal) and the equipment and cameras surrounding them. However, Jamal and host are nearly always shown in shots where they are heavily framed, ‘boxed in’ or ‘trapped’ by the cameras and technology. This leads to the focus of the scene being not on the people in it, but equipment around them and thus the operators of this equipment – the West. Having the focus directed constantly towards the West and its inanimate objects shows how the power in the scene belongs to the West.
When Jamal first enters the studio, a birds-eye shot of the studio shows him entering a giant circle of cables and metal poles. This birds-eye angle constructs the stage as a cage or large eye – a place where Jamal and the host are trapped and put on display for the amusement of others. These ‘others’ refer to the creators of this cage – the West, and this reinforces in the viewer how Westerners are the ones that hold the power in this scene.
Furthermore, the birds-eye shot depicts Jamal and the host as tiny and insignificant – swallowed by the enormous eye of the stage – further emphasising the disregard the West has for the individuals who they see as below them and fit only for entertainment. All the camera shots in the studio are steady and shot flat, with no tilt or jerky movements whereas all other shots (shots of the ‘other’ India) are all shot at an awkward angle, with occasionally erratic movements.
This seemingly lack of control in the ‘other’ India gives rise to the impression that without the presence of the West, there is no stabilising effect on society – that there is a lack of a dominant force. This then reinforces that the West are the real holders of power in India and without them, there is a power vacuum. Furthermore, we, as viewers, feel naturally more comfortable with shots that are level and steady as opposed to those that tilt and put us off balance – perhaps suggesting that we feel more comfortable when we know that the Western world is there with us?
Symbols, used throughout Boyle’s film, help to construct and reinforce the idea that the power in Slumdog Millionaire is that of the West’s. The repeated use of guns is one such example of this. Guns, throughout history, have always signified power and more often than not, have been used by Westerners to exert influence over others – think of the colonisation of the New World, the taming of ‘savages’, even the killing of wild beasts. Guns have always been a way to maintain Western superiority and this continues throughout Slumdog Millionaire through the use of guns as a representation of Western power.
In the scene when Jamal and Salim are attempting to rescue Latika and Maman finds them trying to escape, immediately the power is constructed as being with Maman. This is constructed through framing, dialogue (‘never forget a face I own’), camera angles that look down on Salim, Jamal and Latika and up at Maman and through traditional power balances between the older (Maman) and younger (Salim, Latika and Jamal). However, as soon as Salim pulls out the gun, this old balance of power collapses and a new one takes its place.
The power shifts away from Maman and to Salim, but it is really the gun, not Salim, that holds the power. As soon as the gun comes out, the camera angle immediately straightens, changing from being skewed to straight – which signifies the arrival of the West, in the form of the gun. The gun then remains the focus of the shots and Salim holds it straight out in front of him – the gun acting like a barrier. This barrier reinforces traditional ideas of the West as being a protective, parental shield for the disadvantaged innocents – roles that it can carry out by being in a position of power.
The power carried by the gun, as a representation of the West, is further emphasized as it transcends all over forms of power present in the movie. The gun allows Salim to break the traditional roles of power in regards to power over numbers (‘all of you, down! ’), age and money (‘here, you can have money’) – which helps to reinforce the true extent to which Western power trumps all forms of other power present in the Indian culture of Slumdog Millionaire.
Boyle’s use of narrative codes and conventions are another aspect of the film Slumdog Millionaire that reinforces in the viewer that the power in the film is held in the hands of the West. At the beginning, we are introduced to Jamal as a ‘chai-wallah from Mumbai’ who wants to be a millionaire. Immediately, we are positioned to see Jamal as just another lower class person who wishes to better themselves through winning lots of money – a common picture in the West. This is particularly true of the US, where fame and fortune are seen as the pinnacle of achievements and the components for a good life.
The game show itself ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ is in fact, an American show and so reinforces these US views. The popularity of the show in India also emphasizes the power the West holds in the country and thus again reinforces the importance of attaining these Western achievements. However, the film is a British one and so we, as viewers, are positioned to see the film through a British lens – not an American one, which can undermine some of the traditional American views presented throughout the movie.
At the end of the movie, Jamal surpasses all expectations and gets the final question right, earning him Rs 20million and making him a millionaire. This, at first appears to reinforce even more strongly the American ideals presented in the film as Jamal has won fame, fortune and freedom. However, the next scene shows Jamal sitting quietly and alone against the wall of a train station – a direct contrast to the hectic and busy studio that he had just left.
He appears unchanged by his life-changing experience, showing that although the West has the power to reward him, it does not hold any power over Jamal himself. This contradicts all the messages about Western power and its dominating force that we, as viewers, have so far received throughout the movie. This suggests to us that while the Western world may hold power and dominance across Indian society as a whole, it is unable to penetrate the minds of all individuals – that some, like Jamal, remain unchanged and ‘pure’ throughout the attempts of the
West to corrupt. Through the use of technical and symbolic codes such as shot construction and symbols (particularly guns), power in constructed as being with the West in the 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire. The movie presents the power being held by the West as the most important in the whole movie – surpassing all others. However, through narrative structure, Boyle then challenges this construct and invites us to consider not only the influence of the West in other nations, but it’s dominating and corrupting effect on those cultures.
Courtney from Study Moose
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