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Class, Subalternity, and Ethical Choice in Modern India

By Anupama Mohan

There has been, in the past decade in particular, a rise in literary and cinematic representations of the “undercity,” the slums and shanties that flank all the major Indian metropolises, especially those of Mumbai and Kolkata. A small but significant constellation of films and novels has taken on the burdens of representing the allegedly unrepresentable, and it is important to register the emergence of this genre at this juncture in India when economic liberalization and the forces of globalization have created a heretofore unprecedented spread of the middle-class. Perhaps quite naturally, Indian literatures and cinemas of the new century have shown a deep interest in this “new political climate”[i]: a brief list of the works in the last decade that deal with the theme of “the rise of India” and the attendant marginalization of several communities within the nation suggests that we are witnessing a movement of sorts not entirely different from the “slum fiction” of the late Victorian period in England where, in a profusion of newspapers, photographs, documentary-style tellings, and novels, the theme of “the condition of England” became the focus. Among the notable works of 21st century fiction in English with stories set in India’s slums are: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (2004), Shantaram by Gregory Roberts (2005), Q & A by Vikas Swarup (2008), The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008), and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (2009). Among the films whose settings are explicitly the urban slums are Slumdog Millionaire (bilingual; Hindi and English) by Danny Boyle, Dhobi Ghat (Hindi) by Kiran Rao, and Slum Bala (Kannada) by D. Sumana Kitthur.

It is worthy of note that while the remarkable success of Indian diasporic writing in the 20th century from across the world has created a robust discourse around such themes as migrancy, exile, cosmopolitanism, assimilation, and notions of progress, the locus of internal diasporas within the national boundaries has inspired, in general, fewer representations in literature and the other arts, and by far, has been less successful at the literary and popular marketplaces. Perhaps, this is a reflection of the sociopolitical invisibilizations the internal migrants face anyway; but in the last couple of decades – no doubt, itself a manifestation of the sweeping social and cultural changes in post-liberalization India – the themes of the encounter between the rural and the urban, the place (or lack thereof) of the unaccommodated migrant within the nation-scape, and the ways in which locality, location, and power intersect have become important ways of rethinking the term diaspora itself. The histories of global migration have always been enmeshed with those of regional migration, and in the specific case of India, which has historically been a node of both kinds of migrant activity, one can think of only a handful of works in which the representation of the staggering complexity of the theme of migration has not been sacrificed at the altar of formula or ideology.

In this brief essay, I want to consider two films in juxtaposition: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat. Both films have something to teach us about the very nature of representation of the theme of migrancy, the difficulties and challenges that lie at the very heart of presenting in film a concise account of the incredibly complex lives of those who are marked by deracination, dispossession, and devolution, even as the art-form must struggle definitionally with its generic boundaries and spectator-ly expectations of plot, character development, song, and entertainment/edification.

Thus, it is that one of the central tensions of any literary or cinematic work that sets itself, for a theme, an entire nation – in this case, India – comes from its very positioning: should the representation be realistic, in which case authenticity becomes a major benchmark for its success, or should it be impressionistic, in which case the work is freed from the pulls of authenticity – a freedom that in the last four decades of the twentieth century, many Indian writers favouring the allegorical or magic realist mode have made much of. In the 21st century, what is striking about works themed around class consciousness and class struggle (themes that, I should add, have always been the focus of vernacular literatures in India) is that they often make recourse to both modes: the realistic and the allegorical. Deploying the realistic mode allows such works to create in great detail some of the features of Indian polity and social system that, then, allows for a literary or filmic critique to emerge, while the use of the allegorical mode essentially paves the way for the crafting of the narrative of magical India, India of the oral traditions, of mystic pasts, etc. In this brief essay, I am less interested in seeking to know the limits of each mode: for instance, it is fairly obvious that the realistic mode is limited by its own generative processes, and in the case of Anglophone writing, by its compradorial politics of class privilege and metropolitan elitism, while the allegorical mode is haunted by the spectre of Orientalised representations of India. Indeed, when the two modes are available simultaneously, as in a spate of works that have emerged in the past twenty years on the Indian literary and film scenes, the limits of both modes have tended to overshadow their possibilities for real critique.

Such mixing of modes is at work in the very cinematically shot 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire (from hereon, SM) where too the high ask of representing India shows up in the central plot of Jamal Malik’s turbulent life in Bombay’s shanties and slums and his subsequent rise through the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire to riches. An example of such fashioning can be found in a scene from SM which encapsulates the way in which the two modes of fiction or fictional representation that I am talking about work in that film:

Slumdog Millionaire Clip

As you see here, the two modes – of realist representation and allegorical or symbolic meaning – come together to reinforce the communal carnage of the riots in Bombay (in 1992-’93, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri masjid, and in which around 900 people died) and the question to ask here is for whom is such deployment intended? The figure of the young boy who simultaneously symbolizes Rama, Siva, and Krishna – the three major Hindu gods – is an essentialized figure, its unreality of the same order as an icon that combines Moses, Jesus, and Santa Claus, all rolled into one. The coming together of the two modes of cinematic telling – the naturalistic and the symbolic – projects in the space of a terse, powerful visual the theme of religious fratricide as the keynote of contemporary Bombay, but also, in the process, foregoes as the object of its critique, a more profound understanding of the ways in which such rioting was, as many critics have noted, connected intimately to issues of class and labour. The young Jamal of the film, nonetheless, remains a compelling figure precisely because we see him caught among, yet always responding to, the pulls of contradictory modernities in Bombay, although I would still argue that in the glibly triumphalist frame of the telling, in which Jamal is acted upon more than actively acting or choosing, his rise to money and fame remains an essentially unreal and uncritical celebration of neoliberalist success. It is thus only within the logic of neoliberal aspirationalism that the paradoxical statement – “Jamal is destiny’s child” – can be considered to be at the heart of a film that many have read – quite erroneously, I think – as “a celebration of India’s poor” or about the “resilience of the human spirit.”[ii]

Because Jamal is constructed as a subaltern figure, he functions as the underdog that we root for, but he never quite becomes humanized or fleshed in terms of an ethical subjectivity that could be seen as integral to his negotiations of the stresses of “life-worlds.” The young Muslim boy who has struggled in life on account of religion and class becomes a millionaire and gets the girl of his dreams, even as the film hurtles through this cathartic ending towards a standard Bollywood song, choosing for its climax a spectacle of kitsch and mass culture – the Bollywood song – that marks out the film as (escapist, compensatory) fantasy rather than social critique. The amoral energy of Jamal’s Mumbai paves the way for a powerful critique of corruption in India which, however, emerges because the subaltern is a pared-down figure, severely reduced in complexity, and dehumanized in ways that further disempower the poor, the migrant, and the unaccommodated Other as diasporized within the Indian polity. In such a role, he then functions as a bourgeois nightmare, the facies hippocratica of metropolitan success whose terms, historicity, and peculiar sociology themselves remain unchallenged.

For my reading, then, the subaltern is not only one who cannot speak or one for whom the lines of class mobility have been closed, but who, in a more profound way, is also outsidered by his inability to live fairly, ethically, humanely. He is most subaltern who has no access, in our epistemic and ontic processes, to those modes of ethical being and becoming which make us truly human. Crucial here is Gayatri Spivak’s reminder of the inevitability of representation, that “there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself” and that  “the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation” (308).  So, what happens when we can imagine in our films and our novels the figure of a subaltern who has access to an ethical subjectivity, whom we can see – despite the destitutions and privations of class, gender, and religion – as complexly caught in the contradictory pulls of urban modernities?

To answer this question, I want to juxtapose SM with Dhobi Ghat (or Mumbai Diaries, its alternative title), a 2010 film by Kiran Rao, which has been the winner of several international film awards. What distinguishes Dhobi Ghat from SM (with which it shares many similarities, not least of which are its setting and its larger effort to metonymically understand the nation through the city) is its persistent attempt to imagine the subaltern as an ethical subject, unshorn of his capacities for self-reflection and for thinking through dilemmas that are ultimately ethical in nature. I want to focus on one of the four characters that forms the story of this montage-like film: Munna, a dhobi or a laundryman who works in the area in Mumbai called Dhobi Ghats that, in the film, stands in metonymically for all of Mumbai. Munna is symbolic of India’s internal diaspora of millions who migrate across borders in search of employment and a better life. He is an unskilled worker, for though he has learned the work of a dhobi, he is not particularly good at it. Following the ways in which Munna negotiates his everyday life in Mumbai calls for critical distinctions to be made between the moral and the ethical.[iii] Survival for Munna entails adaptability – he works as a dhobi by day, a rat-killer by night, and is not averse to the occasional work of a gigolo or a drug-pusher, even as his heart is set on becoming an actor. As audience, we are asked to constantly weigh Munna’s moral derelictions against his ethical responses to the pressures of Mumbai’s modernity.

I would like to draw your attention to three such moments in the film where we are allowed to see Munna as a complex creation – someone whose poverty and marginalization nonetheless has not denuded him of that access to an ethical being that is really a result of the self-examined life. Such moments of self-reflection constitute a remarkable commentary upon the ways in which Rao suggests that we do not need to imagine the subaltern as always already and only dispossessed, disempowered, and crushed within the carceral structures of metropolitan modernity.

Dhobi Ghat Clip 1

Without giving away too many spoilers, I want to suggest, by a reading of these three clips, the ways in which Munna emerges as a figure through whom Rao demarcates an ethical horizon for civic belonging. In the first clip, a mere 30-second, also-there scene, we see Munna perform an act of kindness for which there is neither an explicit reason nor an audience: on his morning walk to take a bath next to the railway tracks where he lives in a slum, he encounters a drunk man passed out next to the tracks. Munna stops and moves the man’s position so that the latter does not come under some passing train. Munna then goes on to take his bath, as the city awakes to day and consciousness. It is a subtly, swiftly-told scene but one that marks early on the propensity Munna shows for reflection and ethical action. In the second scene, Munna, we realize through some slick editing and close-ups of faces, is infatuated with the upper-class girl Shai. We see him in this scene given a glimpse into Shai’s privileged, comfortable life – the beautiful sea-facing apartment, the dark room where Shai practises her photography, and the quiet sympatico she offers Munna along with some wine – which he puts away after his first sip, unconvinced – all of these are conveyed to us as Munna’s thrilling introduction to a world that he is not a part of.

Dhobi Ghat Clip 2

Here again, Munna provides another instance of ethical reflection when, quite intoxicated by Shai’s familiarity, the rain, the ambience, his hormones, he moves in for a kiss while Shai lies apparently drowsed in sleep, and on careful reconsideration, draws away. His motivations are complex here; and we do not know what mix of thoughts, what processes of ratiocination, what thresholds hold him back, but the very fact that the director provides the space for him to forge such a moment of ethical self-fashioning marks the film as a distinctive experiment in subaltern representation. In restraining himself, Munna also provides an example of ethical thinking manifesting in the form of self-restraint and the ability to not act. If a hero is known by the actions he does, then Munna carves for himself a space by which to not act can also be considered as an ethical choice. In the final clip, part of the film’s quiet climax, Munna and Shai bid each other goodbye and, in an act of considered kindness, friendship, and compassion, Munna hands over the address of the man that he assumes Shai is interested in (the painter Arun), even though it is fairly obvious that he is himself quite in love with her. It is an act of benediction among ethical equals, for even as the film underscores time and again the social hierarchies that keep Shai and Munna separate and disallow the cathartic fantasy, a la Slumdog Millionaire, of a union of the lovers, we are afforded a glimpse into how, despite his many privations, Munna continues to remain a compellingly ethical figure.

Dhobi Ghat Clip 3

Such a portrayal is difficult at two levels: for Munna, being ethical is a constant challenge and if we are to understand his circumstances as he perceives them, he is constantly weighing the events that surround him against the decisions that he must make in order to survive and succeed. For us, the audience, to invest in a reading of Munna as ethical too is a fraught enterprise because he is no saint, and these three tenuous moments of ethical choosing also require to be seen in juxtaposition with the moral compromises Munna makes as he negotiates life in modern Mumbai, compromises that render him less than savoury and rather unheroic as far as cinema-plots go.

So, in sum, how can we read Munna as providing a counterpoint to such a characters as Jamal in whose unproblematized amoral energy is also built in, as I have argued, the inability to imagine an ethical subaltern, or a figure whose responses to the complex processes of modern life entail reflection, consideration, compassion, and fairness? Munna is a richer creation, I would argue, than Jamal whose rise to success may well be a role model for countless young boys and girls trying to succeed in a bourgeois economy, but who ultimately, neither challenge the bases of such success nor provide a point of interest for an alternative understanding of the place of the unaccommodated, anonymous migrant in contemporary representations of modern India.

The rendition of Munna as a character involved in self-reflection also requires that the audience recognize and accord special status to these three moments, among others, in the film which appear in the midst of Rao’s larger critique of local political movements in Mumbai that invisibilize the numerous migrants that come into Mumbai everyday in hordes searching for the better life and for “their rightful place.”[iv] The exploration of how class difference is produced, practiced, and negotiated is the anima of such works as Dhobi Ghat which focus on the “continuous, connected spaces, traversed by economic and political relations of inequality” (Gupta and Ferguson 16). For the hero figures in The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire, a film like Dhobi Ghat offers us a glimpse of real and realized social beings through whom one may glean some insights – howsoever fragile and tenuous – into that contemporary phenomenon whose subjects and objects we all are and have been for a very long time: modernity.


Anupama Mohan is Assistant Professor of English at Presidency University, Kolkata. She completed her doctorate at the University of Toronto in 2010 and published a monograph, Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures, with Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. She writes and teaches in the broad areas of postcolonial studies, the history of ideas, critical theory, and cultural studies. She is also the author of a volume of poetry, Twenty Odd Love Poems, published by The Writer’s Workshop in 2008.


Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger: A Novel. New York: Free Press, 2008. Print.

Chamayou, Grégoire. Manhunts. Trans. Steven Randall. NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.

Chatterjee, Partha. “India’s Divide: Economic Growth and Marginalized Groups.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Vol. 14 Nbr. 2, April 2008. 139-47.

Dhobi Ghat. Dir. Rao Kiran. Perf. Aamir Khan, Prateek Babbar. UTV Motion Pictures, 2011. DVD.

Dussel, Enrique. Twenty Theses on Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Gallant, Erik. “Slumdog Millionaire kid stars face uphill battle.” AP Online. 17 Feb. 2009: n. pag. Mass Live. Web. 2 Jan 2014.

George, Nirmala. “Indian ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’: Poor Clerk First To Win Million, Like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’” The Huffington Post. 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 2     Feb. 2014.

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, “Space, Identity, and the       Politics of Difference,” (Feb., 1992), pp. 6-23.

Mohan, Anupama. Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Suabltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois: Illini Books edition, 271-313.

Slumdog Millionaire. Dir. Boyle Danny. Perf. Dev Patel, Freida Pinto. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.

[i] The focus on Mumbai’s internal diasporas is an important, explicitly political, move that Rao makes in a film that clearly challenges the Hindutva or Hindu nationalist narrative espoused by the Mumbai-based party Shiv Sena that has aggressively promoted the idea of Mumbai for those natively born.

[ii] The phrase is Partha Chatterjee’s. (139)

[iii] Although the film garnered positive reviews early, particularly for its atypical portrayal of modern India – so different in Hollywood from the many stereotypes of India – it also received much negative press, especially from major Indian actors and directors. The film has been criticized for peddling “poverty porn,” for its very title (which Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, a representative of a slum-dwellers’ welfare group, found derogatory and used as a reason to file a defamation suit in India), for sensationalizing the lives of slum children who acted in the film and found themselves catapulted into global fame but also suffered complicated fates because of their sudden fame.  See Gallant for a fuller sense of the film’s impact upon the lives of its actors.

[iv] I think of the distinctions between moral and ethical as central to any understanding of subalternity: where moral may refer to socially-sanctioned and individually-interpreted codes for identifying right from wrong, ethics is a field of study of what constitutes right and wrong. In this sense, an individual’s moral principles may guide her personal opinions and behaviours, while her ethical understanding may respond to contextual forces that are less absolute, less clear. E.g., a lawyer may not condone her client’s behaviour but, as a lawyer, she is ethically bound to defend her client and secure the best possible judgment in the client’s favour. In some ways, although morals and ethics overlap a great deal, it is quite possible to do things that are ethically correct but morally reprehensible, or vice-versa.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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