An Analysis of Slumdog Millionaire and Transcultural Nursing
A number of themes are introduced within the first few minutes of Danny Boyle's 2008 Slumdog Millionaire thanks in due part to his quick-cut method of editing. What the viewer sees is an Indian culture permeated by and in conflict with both itself and Western ideals. The first contrast the film illustrates is between the distinctly American game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," here hosted by a flamboyant north-Indian with fair features particularly suited to India's television market, and the behind-the-scenes activity of Mumbai police, who suspect the contestant of the show, Jamal Malik, of cheating his way to a 20 million rupee grand prize. The police operate in violation of Western ideals of human rights (they torture Jamal in hopes of gaining a confession) but in an apparently acceptable procedure on a local or native level. However, when torture fails to produce a confession and instead renders Jamal unconscious, the Inspector grieves that Amnesty International will soon show up "peeing in their pants about human rights." It is a revealing moment in the film that juxtaposes India's underbelly with its glittering made-for-TV appearance. The juxtaposition indicates a conflict in cultural attitudes concerning human behavior and welfare. This paper will analyze Slumdog Millionaire in terms of theme, cultural issues/conflicts, characters, their relation to Transcultural Nursing, as well as the film's affect on me and how it might affect patient care.
Themes and the Transcultural Perspective
The film not only illustrates the tensions between rich and poor, upper caste and low caste, it also shows the tensions between Hindu and Muslim (as with the brief depiction of the Bombay Riots in the early 1990s), the tension between morality and immorality (embodied mostly by the dubious character of Salim, whose selfishness drives Jamal and Latika apart, but whose self-sacrifice at the end of the film allows Jamal to reunite with his love), and of course the tension between human compassion and hateful violence.
In one sense the film is a "rags to riches" story set against an Indian backdrop "of social levels that seem to be separated by centuries" (Ebert, 2008). That fact that the movie, as Ebert states, "bridges these two Indias by cutting between a world of poverty and the Indian version of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'" illustrates the dichotomy that exists in the Indian culture: a vast gulf is present that separates an increasingly Westernized and wealthy Indian culture from both a more traditional and ancient Indian culture and a poorer and exploited Indian lower class culture. The film helps give a human face to the latter in a world that is easily caught up with the former. In terms of transcultural nursing, the themes of rich vs. poor, Western vs. Indian, inhuman vs. human are all interconnected and affect the way characters are formed not simply as members of one nationality, ethnicity or class but rather as human beings.
At the same time, transcultural nursing (as defined by Madeleine Leininger) focuses on "providing culture-specific and universal nursing care practices" based in cultural dynamics (Sitzman, 2011, p. 102). The film makes a transcultural anaylsis that is much more difficult because it is essentially a heterogeneous mix of cultures. Salim, for instance, has been raised in the same "slum" environment as Jamal, and yet his end is decidedly different: he dies in a hail of gunfire while sitting in a tub full of money he has gained through a crime and immorality -- ironically mirroring the fortune that Jamal comes into through a life of perseverance, ingenuity and above all love. The juxtaposition, however, perfectly reflects the dichotomy of values that exists in the modern Indian culture: wealth is adored oftentimes at the expense of personal honor, and yet honor and decency also side-by-side corruption in the same culture, where wealth co-exists side-by-side poverty.
A transcultural nursing perspective would have to take this dichotomy into consideration when treating individuals in such a society. It might be considered that those who value wealth above goodness ultimately invite a bad end upon themselves. Yet those who value goodness and life above material comfort are content. Even Salim appears to learn this lesson, humbly asserting as he dies in his tub of wealth that "God is great," which is an assertion he can make knowing that he has finally sacrificed himself for the happiness of another. This appears to be a universal lesson that transcends cultural attitudes. Still it can find concrete application in Indian culture through the bond that the Salim and Jamal share while living the slumdog life as children on their own. A transcultural nursing perspective should therefore consider the bond of family and the struggle to survive in a culture that is hostile to movement from one class to another. After all, according to transcultural nursing theory, behavioral traits in patients may be explained by behavioral traits in one's culture. The characters and themes of Slumdog Millionaire illustrate the traits in the Indian culture, which itself is a clash of Western and Indian values, both of which have humanizing and de-humanizing elements to them.
Indeed, the film underscores the basic humanity and goodness of its hero Jamal by situating him against a world that is governed by corruption, passion, greed, and violence. Jamal witnesses this violence first hand while participating in an unauthorized game of cricket on a stretch of runway. He and the other children are pursued and threatened by police who will not hesitate to deliver crushing blows. The world that Boyle presents in the film is a dangerous one, where being a "slumdog" in the low caste means having to face stark realities, prejudices, and dangers. Indeed, prejudice is a theme that pervades the film as well. The game show host's prejudice against Jamal causes him to try to trick Jamal to lose.
Characters and Cultural Issues
However, it is important to note the realistic quality of the film and its usage in the overall Romantic genre that film ultimately subscribes to. Mitu Sengupta (2012) asserts that "by drawing attention to the film's celebration of characters and spaces that symbolize Western culture and Northern trajectories of 'development'…the film's reductive view of slum-spaces will more probably reinforce negative attitudes towards slum-dwellers, lending credibility to the sorts of policies that have historically disposed them of power and dignity" (p. 599). Sengupta's hypothesis highlights the underlying artificiality of contrasting themes in Slumdog Millionaire, but the effects of the film's realistic bent need not be viewed so negatively. The film has a way of humanizing that aspect of Indian life that is looked down upon in Indian culture. It may exploit Western sympathies, which tend to advocate the underdog, but the film's intention is not primarily to raise social awareness but to tell an engaging story that has not been told before.
Thus, one of the main cultural issues described in the film (the blinding of orphans for the sake of increasing profits for the leader of the beggars) is shown as nothing more than a sad reality. It is neither trivialized nor romanticized. Some liberties are taken with regard to place and time (and of course fortune and the suspension of disbelief all come into play), but the reality of the "slumdog" world is that such dangers exist. Jamal is motivated by love to overcome them and save the Latika. Boyle's "brazen and unvarnished" technique in viewing these realities is what gives his films their sense of self-worth (Mast, 2006, p. 459), and no less is true in Slumdog.
Indeed, the characters themselves learn to deal with reality according to notions of conscience and nobility formed within the environments in which they find themselves. Jamal consistently strives to achieve success (as his gaining of the signature of Amitabh Bachchan shows and of reunion of Latika despite torture and deception). His brother Salim, however, is less inspired and prone to taking an easy way out if it means a quick benefit for himself. Thus, he steals Jamal's prized photograph with Amitabh's signature and sells it and enters into business with a crime lord in order to elevate himself from the low class "slumdog" lifestyle. Salim realizes his mistake, however, and rights the wrongs he has committed by freeing Latika and killing the crime lord who would otherwise hunt her down and return her to bondage.
Slumdog Millionaire illustrates the vast array of people and the diversity of cultures within the nation of India. Salim's assertion just before his death emphasizes the importance that spirituality plays in the Indian culture. For example, the Hindu religion teaches that if one is of a low caste -- this is the unfortunate result of bad karma -- perhaps the effect of misdeeds of the person in his other life. Controlling one's self and doing good would, over time, result in a better karma: thus, through a series of "many incarnations one can master and overcome one's evil tendencies…