by Shelly Seale
By now everyone has seen, or at least knows about, the movie Slumdog Millionaire and its astounding sweep of the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and millions of movie-watchers' hearts worldwide. For good reason – the film is affecting without being affected, has great multi-dimensional characters, and gives us phenomenal cinematography with brilliant India as its backdrop.
This tale of life and love in the slums of Mumbai alternates between heartbreak and triumph. The story follows two brothers who live in an underworld of abject poverty, far removed from the country’s glitzy upper class or technology and business boom. Their lives become even more brutal after they are orphaned.
Following them throughout their childhood and into early adulthood – along with their friend Latika – we see them fight against exploiters, brothel owners, child abusers, and even each other, in their struggle to survive.
Slumdog Millionaire is a fictional movie ending with a bizarre twist of fate. However, the reality of the story is that for millions of children in India, the life portrayed in the movie is a a world away from the rags-to-riches ending of the film. Today there are 25 million Indian children living without parents, on the streets or in orphanages or other institutional homes – some good, and some bad or corrupt like the one portrayed in the movie. They live in orphanages, slums, railway stations or on the streets, where they are highly vulnerable to abuse, harassment, HIV/AIDS, and being trafficked into child labor if they're lucky - brothels if they're not.
Slumdog Millionaire shows us a side of India, and a way of life, that hundreds of thousands of children in Mumbai alone struggle to survive every day.
I know this is true, because I have met many of these children myself, and seen with my own eyes the real-life horrors depicted on film. For more than three years I traveled back and forth to India, following the lives of just such children for my recently published nonfiction book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. I also conducted thousands of hours of research into the issues affecting these young people, and interviewed dozens of NGO and social workers, doctors, teachers, orphanage directors, activists and government officials. My sole mission was to give these children, who are largely invisible to the world, a strong and hopeful voice with which to make their stories heard.
During this journey, I spent some time in the infamous Dharavi slum of Mumbai, where many of the scenes for Slumdog Millionaire were shot. Although more than a million people live on its five hundred acres that were once swampland, surrounded by luxury high-rise condominiums, Dharavi surprised me. It was not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto. It looked and felt much more like a village, not a place right in the middle of the huge, sprawling city of Mumbai. Women made papadam and men made clay pots. Industry and entrepreneurship abounded as I wandered through Dharavi; very few people were idle.
To me, Dharavi dispelled the myth that poverty is due to laziness. I had rarely seen people work so hard in all my life - up to eighteen hours or more each day in demanding physical labor at a relentless pace that few westerners experience. The residents there seemed to have no privacy, no moments of solitude or sanctuary. They lived virtually on top of one another.
The actors who play the characters at their youngest ages in Slumdog Millionaire are themselves Hindi-speaking street kids from Dharavi. In the months following the runaway success of the movie, the media revealed shocking stories which claimed that these child stars were still living in slum squalor; while at the same time reporting that director Danny Boyle and producer Christina Colson set up a million-dollar trust fund to pay for education and new homes for the children and their families. Other news stories accused the father of the child who played young Latika of putting his daughter up for sale to potential adoptive parents. The father accused the newspapers of lying and exploiting his family's poverty.
The truth behind these conflicting accounts may be difficult to determine, but the fact remains that while the world’s eyes are wide with horror at the thought of the film’s bright young stars living in poverty, that is the everyday reality for millions of other children who remain forgotten.
Slumdog Millionaire has met with controversy from those who feel the film exploits India’s poverty, or who protest the use of the derogatory term slumdog. But while these problems are only one side of India, they do exist – although often a blind eye is turned to them. A.R. Rahman, composer of the film’s soundtrack, said, “If SM projects India as a third world dirty underbelly nation and causes pain and disgust…let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”
Santosh Desai, journalist for The Times of India, wrote that “it as if we have stopped noticing the vast numbers of the urban poor who surround us. In the India of today, any mention of poverty is seen as being faintly treacherous.” But, he continues, “the slum is not the other India and Dharavi is not an aberration. We need to own it, change it, admire it and hate it. We don’t need to ignore it.”
During my years writing The Weight of Silence, I have born witness to the reality of these struggles. At a children’s home in Orissa, the orphanage director told me about a day he was driving one of the boys to school late, on his ancient little motor scooter, when they passed a school bus full of kids. The kids began jeering and laughing at the boy through the bus windows, yelling the epithet from the movie: “Slum dog! Slum dog!”
Although many have decried the voyeurism and exploitation that often goes with films that depict poverty, and the subsequent rise in “slum tourism,” it should perhaps be wondered not why the film industry chooses to show us poverty but, rather, why it does so rarely. In an affluent world, is poverty one of the last truly exotic experiences?
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Austin Texas, but she vagabonds in any part of the world whenever possible. Shelley is the Sustainable Travel Columnist at The Examiner, and has written for National Geographic, Washington Magazine, Transitions Abroad, The Austin Business Journal, The Seattle Times and Andrew Harper Traveler Magazine among others. You can read more about her book, The Weight of Silence, and updates about the children at http://weightofsilence.wordpress.com.