The Financial Express

From Slumdog Millionaire to Crazy Rich Asians: Continental roulette?

| Updated: October 27, 2018 21:12:35

From Slumdog Millionaire to Crazy Rich Asians: Continental roulette?

Behind their catchy titles, the Slumdog Millionaire and Crazy Rich Asians movies symbolise various idiosyncrasies of Asia's climb out of poverty. Whereas the former depicts India rising from a far lower threshold infected by underground Mafioso businesses, the latter portrays how Singapore's more opulent climb is riddled with many plenty-is-powerful Great Gatsby pitfalls, such as the wastage, connivance, and noblesse-oblige attitudes.

As an award-winning film released on the eve of the Great Recession in 2008, Slumdog raised the kind of hope that the rest of Asia has lived up to in the time since: less affected by the Great Recession impacts, many countries have been climbing the global income ladder, minting millionaires and upgrading low-wage workers, just when many developed countries find their economies stalled or declining. Crazy, on the other hand, serves a warning to these climbers, particularly of what instant wealth and the quick-rich lifestyle entail: masked by globe-trotting vacations and sumptuous dinner parties whose leftovers would be a royal treat for under-privileged people, an entire social network frays increasingly, illustrating the exorbitant and invisible price wealth exacts. Two diverging faces, tones, and temperaments intertwine with fickle romance, leaving two unsuccessful social-climbing brands: Slumdog shows the energy and purity of love oozing out of strenuous social climbing efforts, vainly serving as the ends of all means available; and Crazy reverts the order, making romance the means to other, often materialistic ends, highlighting all the germs of a collapsing society. In the end, though, both convey important socio-economic messages other transitional Asian countries can benefit from.

Slumdog, set in an Indian slum, drags a loyal youth through a harsh pathway to either possible pockets of riches or a guaranteed heart of gold: his brother takes the former route, on the way to greater underground glory; he takes the latter, but shows the qualitative spunk in character and determination. By contrast, Crazy is set in high-flying Singapore, so high compared to the rest of Asia that its only outlet is to tumble, that is, witness its social relations collapse, ad hoc materialistic goals sap energies and resources, and without any guarantees that two lovers can fulfil their matrimonial vow, to "live forever in peace."  It revolves around a twisted transcontinental love affair depicting the same inter-class differences as Slumdog, but at a decadent, stiff-upper lip high-end level, against the low-end Slumdog counterparts. Since Slumdog highlights beneficial opportunity windows, it can be seen as an exotic "Who can be a millionaire?" show, but Crazy can only be rechristened "How to quickly spend that million?" Whereas Slumdog inspires and relaxes the nerves, Crazy discourages relations, indeed redefines relations.

Contextually, Slumdog hit the screen at a time when India had just abandoned its introverted, nationalistic, outlook for a more neo-liberal outlook. Poignantly using the Taj Mahal to depict how attractive the country was to tourists (one of the many industries to literally take-off then), the movie also inter-wove the slimy and sumptuous lifestyle rural migrants get exposed to, with contrasting types of toilets to make the point that the two far-removed worlds can (and must) in fact meet: the makeshift versus the modern. Slumdog's soaring love story reflected the material world's sky-as-the-limit orientation of the 1990s: more free-trade agreements were signed in that one decade than in any before, marking, indeed, the longest US economic growth phase of the entire 20th century, therefore the country whose styles and relations were to be copied far and wide. India was not alone in being caught in the developmental "take-off" stage: China, the farthest ahead in this exercise, stands on the brink of institutionalising affluence (as opposed to the uncoordinated flamboyance and surrealism of the nouveau riche counterpart). Singapore is the model of this cluster, while farther behind, a string of Southeast Asian countries and Bangladesh have also begun to go nouveau riche moments, evident in conspicuous consumption spiralling, in addition to transcontinental vacations, residence, and even romantic escapades lighting up agendas.

Crazy confirms Singapore being a world apart. Ever since Great Britain made it an international hub, its complete transformation after World War puts it in a class of its own. Slumdog, on the other hand, accents Asia's historical and formidable poverty levels beginning to loosen up. Upgrading is common. In Slumdog it carries hope, in Crazy it predicts that upgraded status going off the deep end: "too much wine and too much song," as Terry Jacks lamentably sang, left too many people wondering how to get along.

On the one hand, India shows the pathway out of poverty better than many other countries, ranking as it now does among the world's top-notch countries in wealth, resources, economic size, and future capacities (for example, a growth-rate higher than the hitherto world-leader's, China). On the other, Singapore captures Asia's decadence perfectly: no other Asian country can reach that stage with as high a proportion of its population, and no other Asian country can make transcontinental jet-set living available to a similarly high Singaporean proportion. That both boast spiralling numbers of billionaires shows Asia's capacity of the rags-to-riches transformation as effectively as the cultivation of aristocracy, that is, inherited wealth. Yet, they also expose the twin sides of opportunity-building and resource-squandering.

Just as India's economic growth is still peaking, even as it leads the industrialised countries with the rate, Singapore's has slid into a stagnant post-industrial society: productivity through manufacture in the former, and through services in the latter, dictate employment and export niches. Even then, India is unlikely to eliminate its slums in this or the next lifetime, while China's 3+% annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth-rate over 50+ years shows it is not in any sinking mode. Neither can ignore the bottom-tier if inching farther is to succeed; but neither can be stopped from curbing the nouveau-riche from the Singaporean type of high-life hedonism. The big difference in the size of the bottom tier may be the crucial factor across Asia, whether it is an optimistic Slumdog projection, or the pessimistic Crazy alerts/lessons. Whichever, Asia is on a roll, and both movies capture some pertinent realities that even romance and comedy cannot obscure. Let's hope other realities will.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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