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What slum-dwelling will teach you

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Director Danny Boyle’s latest effort, Slumdog Millionaire, picked up a few Academy Awards yesterday, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (from the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup) and the big one, Best Picture. If you haven’t seen the film, I encourage you to see it while it’s on the big screen. It’s a storyteller’s film, one of those rare movies that can illustrate the beauty of rubbish tips, demonstrate small humour in big life-changing moments, and use one character’s story to both reflect and contrast millions of impoverished children like him. There’s controversy within and around the film-which great films don’t court controversy?-and, best of all, there are lessons an audience can learn from a slum-dweller. The premise of the film centres on Jamal Malik, the ‘slumdog’ of the title, who has miraculously made it to the last question in India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Accused with cheating, he recounts to a police inspector the story of his life and the ways he has acquired the answers to the questions. There is one particular scene that illustrates how having a different life context can affect what one values as education. Early on in the game, Jamal needs to ‘ask the audience’ to obtain the answer to a question involving India’s motto, which the audience indicates to him is ‘Truth alone triumphs’. The inspector asks him why he needed to go to the audience: "My five-year-old daughter knows the answer to that, but you don’t. Strange for a millionaire genius." Jamal returns with "Who stole Constable Varma’s bicycle outside Dadar Station last Thursday? ... Everyone in Juhu knows that. Even five year-olds." For Jamal, who had never learnt the national motto, that lack of knowledge had never troubled him. It was much more useful to know what was going on in the street because that directly affected his survival and his livelihood. I believe the same should apply to everyone, in our context. If subprime mortgagors in the US had known that their loans were going to skyrocket after the initial low interest offered, would we be in this mess now? If we knew the nutritional consequences of the food we consumed today, would we ever buy fast food? If we knew what climate change was doing to our planet, would we purchase that Hummer? Find out what you need to know, then seek to know it. There should be no ‘unknown unknowns’, to recall an infamous Donald Rumsfeld quip. What lessons have you learnt lately?

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