The Culture of Information Technology

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

“Kar le kar le, tu ik sawaal,
Kar le kar le, koi jawaab,
Aisa sawaal jo zindagi badal de…
[Ask a question,
Try and answer,
The kind of question that will change your life]

It's just a question of a question.”

—Title track, Kaun Banega Crorepati

Light bursts forth like rays from the sun. The Indian film star Shahrukh Khan pirouettes across a set, made deliberately larger than life. It is glitzy, neon inundated and disproportionate. Women in some form of modernized traditional Indian clothing stand behind the so-called King Khan as he exhorts the audience to ask a question. The irony, of course, is that in this Indian version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” it is Khan who asks the questions. As he swiftly changes clothes from scene to scene, a rapper in one moment, a suave sleazy conman of some sort in the other and an overgrown American teen hipster in yet another, his supporting cast range from close cropped capped rappers to women of unidentified nationality in golden and silver lamè. In another frame, Shahrukh in waistcoat and trousers dances with women in tartan mini-skirts and white shirts. They all gyrate to a catchy tune that repeats the mantra of the one question that can change lives.

Slowly seducing the audience with song and dance, Shahrukh coaxes them into participation, insisting that they must come out with their deepest desires since this opportunity might not arise again. Assuring them that they will win the game he asks them to strengthen their hopes. He ends with the oxymoronic question “Is a hot chick cool or a cool chick hot?” On the poorly manifested and highly pixellated version that I watch on the Internet, the paucity of this content seems glaringly obvious.

Danny Boyle's film Slumdog Millionaire, is set in Mumbai and chronicles the unexpected success of a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. A rags-to-riches chronicle of a protagonist called Jamal Malik who wins the game show, the plot is nothing if not predictable. The twists in the plot and the form of resolution are, however, what are interesting to this essay. Jamal is also what Prem, the character who portrays Shahrukh's counterpart in this reel life version of reel life, refers to as a slumdog. By winning the game's prize of Rupees one crore, Jamal stands as testimony to what chance can offer even the most underprivileged, as long as they have the hunger to grab it.

In the film, Jamal is an orphan from the slums. The main plot revolves around Jamal's love for his childhood companion, Latika, who was tragically lost to him when escaping child trafficking slumlords in Mumbai. This plot is furthered through the game show that he accidentally gains access to, when working at a call center. Through the questions that he answers correctly, the audience is made privy to the details of Jamal's life during the course of which he overheard and absorbed information that one would not consider within the sphere of possibility for an underprivileged lower class citizen of India. So, for example, Jamal knows that Cambridge Circus is in London because he has absorbed the communication lessons taught in the call center as he serves chai to the “phone-wallahs”. Similarly, he knows that the Hindu god Rama holds a bow in his right hand, because he espied a young boy in costume when running away from Hindu rioters who attacked his slum. He also knows that the picture of Benjamin Franklin peeps out of a hundred dollar note because he was once guide to American tourists visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Kaun Banega Crorepati has been one of the most successful television serials of the recent past. Running for many consecutive seasons on the channel Star TV, it debuted with much fanfare and employed as its host one of the longest reigning superstars of the Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan. The serial then not only offered contestants a chance to win large sums of money but also live out the fantasy of being intimate with a film star. Amitabh Bachchan is no ordinary hero. Tabloids have long sung paeans to this lanky star of unlikely heritage and deep-throated baritone. Born to distinguished parents in northern India, his father the poet laureate Harivanshrai Bachchan, the Big B as he is known was rejected by the film fraternity in his first few years on account of being too lanky and not good looking enough. Finally making his fortune in the eighties through a string of films where he portrayed the angry young man who violently attacks a corrupt system, often at great personal cost and sometimes, loss of life, he went on to make some of the highest grossing films in Indian cinema.

In his current films, he prefers to portray an ageing patriarch seeking to keep together large families of upper middle-class men and strong, yet traditional women that live in castles and travel in helicopters. Bachchan hosted two seasons before ending the contract which was subsequently offered to Shahrukh Khan, also one of the highest paid stars in Bollywood history, one known in earlier stages of his career for taking on a plethora of roles, including that of villains and anti-heroes. Shahrukh Khan, in order to distinguish himself from his superstar predecessor opted to make himself more accessible to the contestant and audience.

Kaun Banega Crorepati and Slumdog Millionaire share commonalities in the sense that each of these stories is about the very process of the search for information that seeks to combat rapid change. Information is hearsay. It is what we absorb every second of the way as we make our way through life's unrelenting lessons. The body is a receiver and the mind a processor. The atmosphere and the body then replay the articulation between the computer and the data that it is fed. Information is also ostensibly, the solution to what Richard Sennett has called the “the specter of uselessness”. However to recognize true information is not easy; anything could be it. So while information might be a solution, its search is not a solution at all, but merely an activity meant to mimic activity. It is not my intent to say, for example, that Kaun Banega Crorepati or Slumdog Millionaire are films that dictate to young men and women, the idea of information technology culture. However in this long-short account, normality is affectively charged with the power of information technology as a story and a set of possibilities. If one imagines lives as being structured by desire — desire for a “better life”, desire to be comfortable, desire to be independent, and desires to escape the very life that offers such possibility — then one must also ask as to the ether that produces the form of desire. Perhaps, Rene Girard's theorization of desire as mimetic and contagious may work as a heuristic to understand the relationship between the proliferation of media images around information technology in India, and daily experience. For desire in this analysis is very much a densely sedimented body of image, text, discourse and bodily experience. Those asking questions of the culture of Information Technology or IT must also then ask questions of the ways in which forms of work are simultaneously forms of desire.