Slumdog Millionaire and The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a classic play read, enacted and revered all over the World. How could it not be? Written by William Shakespeare, probably the greatest playwright in history, The Merchant of Venice is indeed a superb play.

Yet, this great play could NOT be written today.  Even the most ardent opponents of censorship in the world would do everything they can to ensure that such a play is NOT produced and take steps to banish the playwright from all civilized circles of literature.

This is because, in our opinion, The Merchant of Venice is probably the most racist piece of literature we have ever read. Recall how this play describes and treats Shylock, the money lender. The play does not merely castigate Shylock for being a heartless and brutal money lender who cares more about his bond that the life of Antonio the Merchant. But, the play demonizes the entire community of Jewish moneylenders and in fact, it demonizes all Jews.

Recall Scene I of Act IV, the Court of Justice – the Duke orders “Go one, and call the Jew into the Court”. From that moment begins a dialog that reeks of anti-Jewish racism:

  • “As seek to soften that – that which what’s harder – His Jewish Heart”
  • “Not on they sole, but on they soul, harsh Jew”
  • “O’, be thou damn’d, inexecrable dog”

Shylock is hardly ever considered as a mere individual;  he is defined as a member of his race and religion. Witness, the clerk of the court who calls this case as the “controversy between the Jew and Antonio, the merchant”.

Shylock does try to scorn his Venetian Christian abusers “You have among you many a purchased slave, which, like your asses and your dogs and mules You use in abject and in slavish parts” . But this is deemed irrelevant and the anti-Jewish diatribes continue in the play.

The worst racist point of this play is also the most nuanced. It is embodied in lines that have been celebrated and quoted around the world by students who learn English – “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, …it is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

What is so racist about these lines? The racism stems from the explicit presumption that mercy is solely a Christian virtue that a Jew cannot grasp without coercive persuasion and even then perhaps be unable to understand it because of his religion.   

Today, Merchant of Venice is taught around the world without any discussion of whether its demonization of Jews could be interpreted by impressionable young minds as a factual characterization of all Jews. After all, it was Shakespeare and who would dare question anything written by the great Bard.

So why do we bring up The Merchant of Venice? For three reasons:

  • To show that a great literary work can embody despicable racist attitudes that should outrage modern humanity,
  • To demonstrate how racist descriptions embodied in great works of art can last centuries and spread permanently a patently false, derogatory characterization of an entire religion,
  • To also demonstrate the enormous progress made by the global Jewish community, the progress that ensures that no one in western society will be able to get away from such public venting of anti-Jewish venom today.
Remember these three lessons when you read the rest of this article. Because, in our opinion, these three lessons apply to Slumdog Millionaire and the global Indian community.

Slumdog Millionaire

This blog has featured two positive articles about Slumdog Millionaire, including an exhortation to all readers to go and see the film when it was released. (see–we-will.aspx and–a-discovery-from-the-telluride-film-festival.aspx ).

We braved the New York cold and long lines to see this film. The first half of the film was a portrayal of what the western audience thinks of India – the poverty, the grim lives of the destitute and the fate that falls them. That gave the film its realism and established the rapport with the western audience. The second half of the film was pure Bollywood magic, the serene confidence of Mumbaikers that the underdog always wins in Mumbai and the end is always happy. Mr. Boyle, the director has indeed captured the “ras” (essence) of Bollywood.  We are not surprised that Slumdog Millionaire is such a hit in America and Europe.

We were personally delighted that a movie about our lovely Mumbai was honored at the Golden Globes last week and we were thrilled that the musical genius of A.R. Rehman was finally recognized in America.

But frankly, we kept thinking about the Merchant of Venice as we watched the awards being bestowed on Slumdog Millionaire.

Why? Because, in our opinion, Slumdog Millionaire, like The Merchant of Venice, embodies a deeply hateful and utterly false characterization of an entire religion. Indeed, we believe that Slumdog Millionaire is intrinsically more hateful and derogatory than The Merchant of Venice.

Why? Because, at least, the character of Shylock was central to The Merchant of Venice. Without Shylock’s selfish and brutal character, that play loses all its meaning. On the other hand, Slumdog Millionaire had no artistic or literary reason to demonize Indian Religion.The story would have been intact without the deliberate introduction of a premeditated characterization of a central Indian Religious figure.
It was utterly gratuitous and contrived.

Shri Ram is the single most revered figure in Indian culture. He represents purity, virtue, mercy, justice and limitless patience. He is revered as the greatest human being to have ever lived on earth, a great historical figure and by religious devotees as the Avatar, or the incarnation of God on earth.

Slumdog Millionaire, for some inexplicable reason, decided to demonize Shri Ram. The film shows a horrible caricature of Shri Ram and seems to insinuate that the worship of Shri Ram leads to murder. This is done by showing marauding Indian mobs killing the hero’s mother followed by the hideous visual of a boy dressed as Shri Ram . 

This was not a small scene that was isolated or one that was somehow added as a filler. The film clearly wants to emphasize the enormity of this scene. That is why this scene is included in the Trailer of Slumdog Millionaire. Watch the clip of the Trailer below to see the hideous portrayal of Shri Ram.

We can understand the need of the film to show the death of the hero’s mother to complete the depiction of a terrible childhood. There were many ways this could have been accomplished – death due to a speeding truck or car driven recklessly (so common in Mumbai), death due to underworld gang shootouts (again so common in Mumbai slums) or due to terrorist bomb explosions. The entire world has seen that every few months, an Indian city is hit with terrorist attacks and bomb explosions which kill hundreds of innocent civilians.

Yet, none of these commonplace occurrences was acceptable to the brains behind Slumdog Millionaire. In their warped mind, they had to show marauding Hindu mobs killing an innocent Muslim woman and making her son an orphan. The film does not stop by merely showing this scene. Slumdog Millionaire makes sure that the audience gets the message by making the anchor ask the hero a pointed question about the weapons used by Shri Ram.

If you doubt us, watch the host ask the question and the hero answer the question in the clip on Youtube. We regret that we are unable to include this clip in this article because the clip has been disabled for embedding. But, do watch it by clicking on this link (ideally right click on your mouse and click on the option “open in a new window” in the drop box that appears), .

You will see the hero say “If it were not for Ram and Allah, I would still have my mother”. Western viewers can visualize the pain of the hero in their heart and feel angry about Shri Ram and his worshipers who murdered the hero’s mother. To us, this seems to be a clear objective of Slumdog Millionaire. This is an example of how hate can be created against a religion, by incorporating the demonization of a religion into a soulful scene. In our opinion, in this respect Slumdog Millionaire puts The Merchant of Venice to shame.

Isn’t it amazing that Slumdog Millionaire went ahead with this demonization even after the devastating terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008.  Hundreds of Indians, majority of whom were Hindus, were killed by terrorists merely because they were Indians. Media reports suggest that the Pakistani attackers tried to segregate Muslims and kill only Hindus, Jews, and other non-Muslims among the hostages. During the past several years, over 2,500 Indian civilians, majority of whom were Hindus, have been killed in terrorist attacks in Mumbai and other Indian cities.

Amidst this reality of wanton murder of thousands of innocent Hindus, Slumdog Millionaire chose to depict a Muslim boy whose mother is murdered by Hindu killers in Mumbai. To add insult to injury, Slumdog Millionaire is being released with great fanfare in the same city of Mumbai, where several hundred Hindus were killed by Muslim Attackers from Pakistan, less than 2 months ago.

To say we are outraged is a severe understatement. But frankly, we are not sure what outrages us more:

  • The demonization of Shri Ram and Indian Religion by Slumdog Millionaire, or
  • The utter lack of outrage by the global Indian community.
This is why we laid out the 3 lessons in the Merchant of Venice section above. Clearly the global Indian community is far behind the global Jewish community in protecting its self respect, its religion and its culture. Perhaps that is why Israel and India demonstrate such radically different responses to terrorist attacks!

Are we being narrow-minded or intolerant?

It is fashionable in the Indian English language media to depict Indian culture as outmoded and to ape the European liberal left. That is why Indian English media heaps equal scorn on both Indian Center and American Center. Before this cabal labels our opinions as narrow-minded and starts lecturing us about both the Indian doctrines of tolerance as well as artistic freedoms, let us pose a question to them.

Can they show us a single mainstream, award winning Hollywood movie which depicts Jesus Christ as hideously as Slumdog Millionaire depicts Shri Ram or one that suggests that the worshipers of Jesus Christ are murderous as Slumdog Millionaire depicts the worshipers of Shri Ram to be? We would sincerely like to be educated.

The attack on Mumbai on 26/11 has been described globally as India’s 9/11. We live in New York and our office in 2001 was a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center. When the first tower fell, our windows were covered by dark soot and it seemed as if darkness had enveloped the city. Around 11:30 am that morning, we walked through the dust, soot and debris all the way to uptown. That is not a day we will ever forget both for what had happened and for how all of New York City came down into the streets to console each other and to give water to weary walkers like us.

Now, imagine a movie being released in New York City, less than two months after 9/11, which shows Christian mobs murdering a Muslim boy’s innocent mother in an orgy of anti-Muslim hate and which depicts Jesus Christ the way Slumdog Millionaire depicts Shri Ram.

Can you guess the reactions of New York City or America to such a movie at that time? Forget Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Even soft CNN and ultra left MSNBC would be outraged and express their outrage unequivocally. No one in American media would accuse American Society of being narrow-minded or intolerant for their outrage. If they did, they would be ridiculed by all segments of American Society.  

But, Indian English Media is always ready to term any outrage over defamation of Indian Religion or culture as intolerance and today’s global Indian community keeps silent publicly, preferring to express their personal outrage at home and with close friends. 

Could this difference in the two societies be one reason why America has refused to be attacked at home after 9/11 and why India tolerates being attacked at home every few months?

This article is an expression of our personal opinion of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and the characterization in that movie of Indian Religion, its most revered figure Shri Ram and of the devoted worshipers of Shri Ram.

We do not wish to be unfair to the movie or to the people who created it. So, in the tradition of this blog, we invite the Director, the Producer or any spokesperson for Slumdog Millionaire to give us their viewpoint or response via email at [email protected] or via a comment on this blog. We will publish it verbatim.

Editor’s Note: The history of Shri Ram and Indian Culture is a heritage shared by all Indians, regardless of their personal choice of religion or belief system. Indian Culture, Philosophy and Religion were developed nearly 2,000 years before either Christian or Muslim religions were introduced. So, we believe that the outrage over the depiction of Shri Ram is an outrage to all people who live in India. In this article, we use the words Indian and Hindu interchangeably because of the common heritage and because the two words are  derived in exactly the same way. The word ‘Hindu” is a Persian  transformation of the word “Sindhu”, the Sanskrut name of the great river that flows from Himalaya to the Arabian sea. Indian Philosophy, Culture and Religious Texts were developed on the banks of this great river and came to be called by Persians as Hindu culture (apparently they could not pronounce Sindhu). Thousands of years later, the English had trouble pronouncing the word “Sindhu” and they transformed it to “Indus”. That is how the country came to be called India, the land symbolized by the Indus river. So it is both etymologically and literally correct to use the term Indian and Hindu interchangeably. Those who do not wish to call the country or the culture by the river Sindhu, can use Bharat, the other common name for India. Indian Religion is so broad and universal in this vision that it never found a reason to call itself by any one name. After all, the use of any one name would limit the inclusivity of the Religion. Unfortunately, this allowed people outside India like Persians to name the Religion as Hindu which is a name that persists to this day.

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