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From Mumbai to Cairo: What if Egypt Had its Own ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?

May 29, 2023
Credit: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Nearly half of the world still lives on less than USD 5.50 (EGP 169) per day.

This piece of information alone usually never crosses our mind as we order our overpriced iced lattes or boxes of sushi, but why has it become so easy to ignore the conditions of others?

One possible explanation is that our entire living reality is full of two-dimensional interactions.

Whether it’s buying coffee, food, accessories, or any other luxuries, the purpose of the interaction is the transfer of funds from one human to another.

A simple swipe of your credit card, or on your phone, and they’re paid.

The interaction between the buyer and the seller ends right at that moment.

We don’t take a moment to look at the underbelly of the economy where poverty lies: the informal economy where workers are severely underpaid and unprotected.

The only reminder we get of that underworld is through 60 second advertisements by global non-profit organizations and governments, and sometimes — but too rarely — through raw films or stories.

Slumdog millionaire: the story

Vikas Swarup is a retired Indian diplomat and writer who gave us snapshots of Indian society through his acclaimed novel Q&A (2005).

The multi-Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which features Jamal Malik and his brother Salim as the main characters, is based on the same book.

The inspiration for the novel came to life while the diplomat was finishing his British tour of duty at the Indian high commission in 2003.

Around the same time, Charles Ingram, a British army major, was discovered to have cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the country.

“If a British army major can be accused of cheating, then an ignorant tiffin boy from the world’s biggest slum can definitely be accused of cheating,” Swarup was quoted to have said.

The heart of the novel is like a game of chess between two contrasting figures: the poor Indian boy from the slums and the policemen who arrested him for allegedly cheating on India’s biggest quiz show.

For Ram Muhammed (or Jamal in the movie), the police are at the very top of the ‘food chain’ – the triangle of power in society.

He was always taught to never interact with the police, nor with anyone with immense power.

“They have the instruments of naked power,” he says in the book. “Street boys like me come at the bottom of the food chain.”

But when he is forced to interact with the police, Ram realizes that there is another instrument of power that carries greater significance than the police’s weapons or a businessman’s wealth: the truth.

He did not need to fight the police or start a social revolution.

Instead, Ram was able to expose the brutality and injustice of his life experiences through his honest observation of everything he had encountered.

These random encounters have helped him not only win the quiz show, but also acquire knowledge of life’s most precious lessons: how to treat one another more humanely, more selflessly, and more honestly.

The novel’s opening sentences are: “I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”

The neat, short, and concise expressive style that Swarup uses matches the blunt honesty of his protagonist’s dialogue and provides an alternative way to communicate about poverty; one without being pitiful or overly sentimental, but rather realistic and straightforward.

“The brain is seen as an organ that the poor are not authorized to use,” Ram says. The only organs that are deemed useful for the rest of society are their hands and legs.

Despite his honest victory in the show, Ram is forced to explain to the police and the world how he truly won the show and acquired his knowledge.

Through his dehumanizing experiences in orphanages, call centres, slums and gangsters, however, Ram illustrates the many unusual and different ways that one can attain knowledge.

From Mumbai to Cairo

At the time of the movie’s huge success in 2008, India was experiencing an economic boom, with an average GDP growth of eight per cent.

Simultaneously, it was also grappling with extreme inequality.

According to the country’s first comprehensive census of its enormous slum population, one in six urban Indians resides in slum housing that is crowded and “unfit for human habitation”.

The movie’s success shed light on the pitfalls of economic growth when it excludes social protection, not by suggesting a specific economic or political solution, but rather, by restoring ethics to economics.

Later in the movie, when we see Jamal (Ram) and Salim grow in their own directions after living in the slums, Salim boasts that he is now working for the ‘gangster’ of the slum, who is now a big businessman.

“Can you believe it? We used to live in that slum. Now, it’s all business. India is at the centre of the world, and I am at the centre of the centre,” he says.

This particular scene in the movie is symbolic for various reasons. The line ‘I am at the centre of the centre’ exemplifies Salim’s true size in the economy: a small dot inside a wider circle.

Wherever the circle goes, Salim follows. Pulled by the gravity of his boss, Salim is forced to commit horrific crimes to receive a fraction, or a very small percentage, of his boss’ fortunes and power.

The entire economic wheel is driven by pure profit rather than human wellbeing. “It’s all business,” as Salim says.

Even as India grows and develops, and as more people make money, the movie exposes the abyss that drives this kind of economic growth; one that is fueled by abuse, exploitation, and robbery.

Although traditionally, the study of economics holds a clear distinction between ethics and efficiency, often valuing the question ‘how much money will this produce?’ over ‘how will this affect a human’s wellbeing?’ There are new economic theories that challenge such notions.

Swarup’s novel and movie postulates the ethics of economic growth, and how wealth continues to get concentrated in fewer and fewer hands while others are left behind.

Economist Anthony M. Annett argues that our world today can no longer be driven by mere self-interest, but by valuing social relationships and interactions. “We must re-center policymaking on the common good, and re-embed ethical education in economics,” Annett says.

Egypt’s informal economy is estimated to have contributed 40 percent of total GDP (EGP  6.4 trillion) in 2020-21, and employs around 50 percent of the workforce.

If Egypt had its own Slumdog Millionaire, it would highlight the dangers of demonizing those outside the formal economy.

Just like Ram in Slumdog Millionaire, the life and value of an ordinary Egyptian individual in the informal economy is usually seen as worthless until they win millions, and even if they do, it is almost met with ridicule and disbelief.

But the message of the novel is that the true realities of those living in the underground cannot always remain hidden in the abyss. Sooner or later, the economic bubble will burst if the dignity of people is not respected nor protected.

The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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