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Gramsci and Foucault at the Movies: Anne Mwendar

The Winners of the SIS 202 Media Center Film Paper Competition.

The Transformative Power of Violence

The Transformative Power of Violence

by Anne  Mwendar


Slumdog Millionaire may be known for its positive critical reviews with a sweep of 8 Oscars, 11 BAFTA Awards (British equivalent of Oscars), and many more honors and awards in 2009. It may be known for its immense fiscal success grossing over $370 million worldwide. I argue that Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire is praiseworthy, not just for these achievements, but for the insight the film reveals on how violence can shape individual lives and mass cultures. Unlike many other popular films, this one does not tell a shallow, politically correct fairytale of life, but instead gives a deep, and at times grotesque, look into how violence works through the lives of billions across this globe. Violence is a cyclical theme throughout the film; it creates, sustains, and ultimately ends the culturally-given lifestyle of the main character, Jamal Malik. The violence in this film, seen in its various forms (direct political, structural, symbolic, and everyday), helps show the significance of violence as a part of shaping individual lives through their culture.


The film follows the life story of a poor chai wallah (someone who brings tea around the office) from the Dharavi Slums of Mumbai, India as he plays for a chance to win 20 million rupees on the Indian show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire”. The story follows Jamal Malik, this main character’s life and how he got to the show. As a low-level, teenaged worker, much doubt is held in Malik as to his abilities to win the game by the show host and police authority. They take him in for a brutal and invasive interrogation, under suspicion of cheating. In the course of explaining to the police how he knew the answer to each question, flashbacks to specific pivotal moments in Malik’s life are unearthed.

Told from Malik’s point of view, the story shows the nitty-gritty lifestyle of a Slumdog i.e. poverty stricken and surviving in a slum. Through Malik’s relationships and a series of adventures experienced with his brother, Salim, and best girl friend, Latika, the audience learns how he came to know the answers.

Critical Discussion

Structural Violence in the Construction of Jamal Malik’s Life - The structural violence in Dharavi, the setting of the film, is well articulated by the English director of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle: “an assault course on your senses”[i] . Mountains upon mountains of garbage are a playground. The stench of the open sewage emanates and the constant whizzing of flies feeding off of it is nothing but a noise gone unnoticed to Dharavi civilians. Dharavi, home to Jamal Malik and approximately 1 million other people[ii]  is spread over an area of 0.67 square miles.

As described by renowned medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, structural violence is “historically given and often economically driven processes and forces [that] conspire to constrain individual agency”  [iii] . With this understanding shared by many anthropologists such as Philippe Bourgois and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, structural violence works through economic oppression and social inequality to ensure a lack of choice for certain people in a society. There is no doubt that the film illustrates grotesque economic oppression and social inequality within its chosen setting. A result of decades of governmental corruption and negligence, the physical conditions of Dharavi have developed to make it the largest slum in Asia, right under the balconies of countless skyscraping apartments and buildings in Mumbai, the richest city in India. The definition of social inequality could easily be the relationship between Mumbai and Dharavi. While Mumbai flaunts titles such as “the 4th most expensive office market in the world”[iv]  and “business & financial capital of India”, rents in Dharavi can be as low as $4 per month [v] . In the film, these conditions of structural violence are the founding environment for Jamal’s way of life.

In one unforgettable scene from the movie, Jamal and his brother, Salim, are making a living off of a peculiar business. In Dharavi there is on average one toilet for every 1,440 people; this results in the use of nearby train tracks or Mahim Creek, a local river as a toilet. With stalls set up over the river for civilians to use, Salim stands guard in front of one of these stalls charging money for entrance. A lack of viable sewage and waste management systems has resulted in these boys leading a life making money off of their disadvantage. This business the boys created is just one example of many ways they learned to swindle and prosper off of structural violence. Sights such as naked babies with kwashiorkor-rounded bellies and scantily dressed young girls in seductive dark streets are integrated into various scenes throughout the film, to show the abundance of pain born deep in the structural violence of poverty in Jamal Malik’s life.

In addition, threads of direct political violence weave themselves into the very fabric of Jamal’s life. Direct political violence, in a deeper sense but also in a very literal fashion, introduces the life and story of Jamal in the film. The opening scene reveals Jamal strung up like a carcass in the police station and being electrocuted for an interrogation. As political and authoritative figures in the opening scene, these police and their perpetuated violence set an initial standard, in the film, for the lifestyle of Jamal and the story to come.

Direct political violence demonstrated through “targeted physical violence by official authorities and those opposing [them]”[vi] , manifests in another way in the film. Religion and belief systems are about as “official” an authority as one can get in many parts of the world. Dharavi is shown to be one of these places. Living in a culture based on the tense rivalry between Islam and Hinduism, Jamal is literally forced into the vicious lifestyle of a poor orphan. In an attack by extremist Muslim men on Jamal’s neighborhood inhabited by Hindus, Jamal’s mother is killed in front of his eyes. She is wacked by a club-wielding angry man into a pool of dirty water where her sweat and tears fell, washing clothes daily making a living for her sons. Jamal witnesses her brutal death as she is crying to her children to, “Run! Run away!” Jamal very clearly holds political violence accountable for the loss of part of his life, “If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah I’d still have a mother.” This violence that cost Jamal his mental and physical life support, his role model and mother, set the precedent for all that would evolve into not only his own character but also the character of his brother, Salim Malik.

While Salim is a peripheral character in the film’s main storyline, his life can be seen as a true display to the causal chains and transformative abilities of violence in culture shaping an individual as well. After their mother is murdered, Salim assumes the role of caregiver and authority in the family; he makes the tough and brutal decisions of survival as an orphan in a slum, for himself and his brother. Salim is marred by his mother’s violent demise. The night of her murder he does not allow their fellow orphaned peer, Latika, to share the small sheltered space under which he and Jamal sleep in the pouring rain. Salim works immediately to create alterity and an other in Latika so that he and his brother can survive. He adopts an “us-against–the–world” mentality of survival. The structural and direct political violence that Salim is subjected to as a child is almost wholly responsible for this internalized temperament. In the sense of this analysis of the film, we can see that structural and direct political violence are primary factors in molding individual characters by way of their culture.

Symbolic Violence Sustaining Life in the Slums - While the above discussed types of physical violence may create the characteristics and lifestyle of Jamal in the film, the internalization of this violence reifies and sustains that lifestyle. Symbolic violence, although not as overt and particularly discernable as structural and direct political violence, is just as impactful if not more.  Symbolic violence has deep impact because it is a violence administered by and functioning with the victim’s complicity[vii]  and knowing. Mostly emotional or mental, symbolic violence is tacit and can direct the most important facilitator of violence or peaceful human dignity and freedom: an individual’s mind.

In the film, the manifestation of symbolic violence can as well be seen clearly in the life of Salim Malik. After the death of his mother, he comes to believe that only a pathway of violence can lead to the life of luxury and position that he has always desired.  As a child the first authoritative role Salim holds is in the “orphanage” he, Jamal, and Latika end up at. At the age of 10, Salim is given the job of luring his fellow peers into a situation where the peer will be sedated and chemically blinded, so as to make more money as a child beggar. Salim was forced to witness and participate in this destructive and inhumane act under the pretext of a pseudo rite of leadership and ultimately manhood. Much like Philippe Bourgois’ account of a group of young Puerto Ricans who participated in the gang rape of numerous girls, this scenario illustrates how perceived everyday violence, in fact, perpetuates a self-sustaining cycle of symbolic violence. In Bourgois’ account the normalization of rape among these teens stems from their self-value and “reflects itself back on a sense of self worthlessness”[viii] . The violence that may have once been inflicted culminates to a point where it is no longer imposed but something that the aggressor willfully engages in. At the age of 10, Salim does not decide to willfully engage in the blinding of his peers and ends up running away with his brother, but the violence is shortly thereafter internalized. When Salim and Jamal are escaping Latika is with them, but when hopping the train that will ensure their safe getaway, Salim decides to let go of Latika’s hand and leaves her there to fend for herself against the child abusive orphanage owners. By 15, Salim has no mercy. When given the mere opportunity but with no need to, he shoots and murders Maman pointblank, the man who ran the orphanage. Salim is shown in the film to not only have accepted the violent events of his life but have helped to perpetuate and sustain these events. The culture Salim and Jamal live through is a culture of terror; that is to say the violence becomes “the form of life… with its systemized rules, imagery, procedures, and meanings”[ix] . Violence taking on this internalized form is greatly displayed through symbolic violence.

Everyday Violence in Escape from the Slums - Ultimately the film shows that the normalization of these various forms of violence is what leads to the break in Jamal’s life as a slumdog; he is transformed from “rags to raja”. Two main factors compose the raja-lifestyle for Jamal: no longer living in poverty and having the love of his life, Latika, with him. Through the game show Jamal wins the 20 million rupees and is obviously no longer poor, but in answering each of the trivia questions, it was a violent life circumstance that led Jamal to the right answer. Whether it was the witnessed death of his mother in answering, “What does the Hindu god Rama hold in his right hand?” or an encounter with chemically-blinded fellow beggar friend, Arvind, that brought the answer to, “Whose face is on the American $100 bill?”, Jamal found the answers in the everyday violent memories of his past. These “daily practices and expressions of violence” [x] , his individual lived experience that normalized this violence is ultimately what leads to his winning of 20 million rupees and the lifestyle it affords.

Lastly, Jamal is able to spend the rest of his life with Latika through the death of her ghetto-lord, abusive husband/pimp, Javeed. Everyday violence shown through, “petty brutality and terror at the community level” is portrayed in the film as Salim makes a sacrifice starting a shootout, killing Javeed and himself. A shootout with a gangster like Javeed is a normal event in Dharavi. This chivalrous act sets Latika and Jamal free to love and be rich happily ever after. The everyday accepted violence of Salim’s life ended up helping stop the slumdog lifestyle of his brother.


Through this analysis of the film, we can see that violence works in much the same way philosopher Michel Foucault theorized discipline: a mode of power, polyvalent, and shaping and transformative towards an individual. It is important to note that violence is dynamic and works through different causal chains as seen in Slumdog Millionaire. The violence portrayed in this film in its different forms is used to mold the story of an individual’s life and shows that violence in real life can be the influential and determining factor towards success or lack thereof. With support from analysis of this film, I believe violence has an infinity of defining traces[xi]   in an individual’s life and mass culture.


[i]  Doane, Seth. "Sunday Morning Video - Life In The Slums -" CBS TV Network Primetime, Daytime, Late Night and Classic Television Shows. 24 Feb. 2009. Web. (4:15)

[ii]  "Dharavi Slum." BBC News - Home. 2006. Web. 

[iii]  Farmer, Paul. “Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues.” Berkeley: Univ. of California, 2008. Print. (79)

[iv]   "Mumbai Among Top 10 Costliest Office Markets - Business." India Business News, Stock Market, Personal Finance, Economy - 7 May 2010. Web.

[v]  Dharavi Slum.” BBC News

[vi]   Bourgois, Philippe. "The Continuum of Violence in War and Peace." Print. Rpt. in Violence in War & Peace. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print. (426)

[vii]   Bourdieu, Pierre & Wacquant, Loic. "Symbolic Violence." Print. Rpt. in Violence in War & Peace. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print. (273)

[viii]   Bourgois, Philippe. "Everyday violence in Gang Rape." Print. Rpt. in Violence in War & Peace. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print. (346)

[ix]   Taussig, Michael. "Culture of Terror—Space of Death." Print. Rpt. in Violence in War & Peace. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print. (51)

[x]   Bourgois (426)

[xi] Gramsci quote