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Slumdog Millionaire: What's Everyone So Upset About?

Last month, Nick Blake traveled to Mumbai to find out why the Oscar-winning movie was stirring up so much trouble.

Laura and I arrived in Mumbai for the Indian release of Slumdog Millionaire, in late January, after traveling the country for three months on honeymoon. The film had already garnered considerable critical and popular acclaim in the West; it won four Golden Globes, with Indian composer A.R. Rahman winning Best Original Score. On January 22, the same day as its Indian release, Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. A Briton, Danny Boyle, had directed the film and the West embraced it as a feel-good paean to a changing India, a place of poverty, opportunity and unrelenting optimism.

Slumdog Millionaire’s Mumbai premiere was a major industry event. The Times of India called the film a “heartwarming stayin' alive saga.” But despite months of televised interviews and massive poster campaigns the reception on the subcontinent was mixed. The night of the premiere, several dozen people rallied outside the Mumbai home of Anil Kapoor, a star of the film. The protesters included slum children not unlike those depicted in the movie, one of whom clutched a puppy. “I am not a slumdog,” a sign read. “I am the future of India.”

More protests took place across the country, with demonstrators in the city of Patna battling police and trashing a cinema. Western news reports raised question about how well Slumdog Millionaire’s child actors – who were actual slum children – were paid. For all its hype, the film saw a relatively anemic performance at the Indian box office.

Indians and Westerners had very different takes on this rags-to-raja fairy tale. While many locals objected to the film’s depiction of Mumbai as impoverished and brutal, the chief complaint was with the title. “Slumdog” is a made-up word, and one anti-poverty activist even sued Rahman and Kapoor for defaming Mumbai’s poor. A lawyer for the case told Reuters, "The title of the movie could have been anything like ‘Slumboy,’ but ‘Slumdog’ is indeed humiliating and an insult to the people living in slum areas.”

 

ON SUNDAY MORNING, January 25th, my wife and I rose early for a tour of Dharavi, considered Asia's largest slum and the setting for Slumdog Millionaire. Our guide, Girish, was with Reality Tours and Travel, a group that works with residents and organizations in the area. Reality Tours aims to dispel common assumptions about slums – Slumdog Millionaire recently prompted an increase in business – and Girish didn’t waste any time.

"Does anyone know what a slum is?" he asked.. There were four of us: a guy from Toronto, an American living in Dubai, Laura, and me. Nobody answered. "A slum is anything built on government-owned land without permission," Girish continued. "No matter what kind of building it is. Later in the tour we'll see some high-rise apartments and you'll say, 'What is this? I thought we were going to see a slum.' But it is. Everything you'll see over the next two hours will be part of Dharavi."

He led us out of the metro station and into a wide street. Children approached us, eager to say hello and practice their English, as did friendly residents and businessmen who, if we were not on a tour, might have happily invited us to stick around for some chai and conversation. It reminded me of the Taj Ganj area of Agra or the crumbling Chinatown ruins of Kolkata, where we had traveled earlier, but the difference with Dharavi was that the people were squatting on government-owned land. Some had been doing so for many generations.

Here was not all poverty and squalor. Girish lead us through a sophisticated warren of industries, shop owners, video game parlors, restaurants, cafes and movie theaters. Some $650 million goes through Dharavi each year, mostly from plastic and cardboard recycling, leather tanning, bakeries, and pottery. The slum is simultaneously a landing pad for rural migrants to Mumbai and a launching pad for the upwardly mobile, drawing entrepreneurs and people looking for work alike. Many Dharavi residents send their children to good schools, paying as much as Rs 1,000,000 per year (approximately US $20,000). Space is at a premium and rents range between Rs 500 – 1,000 per month (approximately US $10 - $20) for an apartment with electricity and 3 hours of running water.

We met one former Reality Tour employee named Devendra who recently took a position at JP Morgan. He still lives in Dharavi with his parents and three sisters in a 200 sq ft apartment with marble floors and decorative tiles. An enormous fridge dominated one side of the room while a wide screen TV resided opposite. He is part of a large section of Dharavi residents on their way out. Devendra plans to relocate his family into one of the nicer suburbs.

"Here in Dharavi we don't say poverty," Girish said matter-of-factly. "A better word is community."

After chai we visited Krishna, one of Reality Tours’ co-founders. He was waiting for us at a community centre that Reality Tours supports, a multi-story Soviet-style behemoth near several other high-rises. "When I moved to Mumbai from Heranjalu in Karnataka I was working as a waiter in Colaba," Krishna explained. "I was thinking Dharavi was a dirty place, full of lazy people. I didn't know anything about what the slum was really like. So when [Reality Tours co-founder] Chris told me he wanted to do tours here I thought he was crazy. We've been working here for three years now and it is not at all what we think. The people here are very smart and hardworking."

I had to ask. "And have you seen Slumdog Millionaire?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "I am showing Slumdog Millionaire to some of my students. Some parts they like, like when the children run across the rooftops. But there was one line where the police say, 'Slumdogs are barking.' The children say, 'Why do they say that? Why do they call us dogs?'" Krishna grew visibly agitated. "At the beginning they jump in shit. Nowhere in India do they have [bathrooms like] that. Maybe only in the hill stations. Why do they show this?"

 

MUCH OF THE DEPICTION of slum life in Slumdog Millionaire is the result of the imagination of well-heeled Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A, the book upon which the movie is based. Swarup told UK’s The Guardian that he had little firsthand experience of his subject. “I don't know if it's true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it's useful to my story."

Unfortunately, even urban myths have roots in reality. Mafia-controlled gangs of children do roam streets and railways, and there is a very real practice of mutilation. Indian journalists have caught doctors on video being paid to remove limbs. Other gang-related tactics include burning flesh with acid. With disturbing frequency homeless children arrive in major cities and are taken in by kind strangers only to find themselves drugged, awaking to a violent disfigurement. We saw our fair share of such victims on trains across the country. On a visit to Haji Ali’s Mosque in Mumbai a band of mutilated adults lay along the causeway, singing prayers to Allah for spare change.

Then there is the case of professional beggars. Mumbai can likely claim the most successful, some of whom are estimated to be worth over Rs 300,000,000 (approx $6,000,000 USD) with houses in posh neighborhoods. The beggars of Varanasi can save a sizeable sum as well. During our stay in the hippy-artist mecca we befriended a street vendor across from our hotel along Assi Ghat.

"I want to get a bag of rice to travel with to distribute to beggars," I told our friend one day.

He gave me a funny look. "No, no," he said. "Don't bother, they won't be interested. Indians give rice for religious reasons. Then the beggars sell the rice back to the merchants, who sell the rice again to Indians when they come to town on pilgrimage. The beggars only want your money."

"So what do you do about beggars?" I asked.

He shrugged. "If you really want to help, just give to one person. This is what I do. There are too many to help them all, but maybe you can help one. Some time ago I was giving money to an older woman. I knew she really needed the help. I gave money for some time and then she trusted me. So she came to me and asked me to open a bank account for her. I was so surprised! This is a beggar woman. I asked her how much she had. '200,000 rupees,' she said. I didn't believe. 'Why not give up begging?' I asked. How much money does one need? And she told me all about her son and how he has drinking problems and beats her, and if he knew about the money he would take it all. That's why she wanted me to open the bank account for her, and not her son."

"What did you do?"

"I went to the bank and opened an account with her," he said as though it were the logical conclusion. "Now she comes to me with money and together we go to the bank to deposit it."

 

LAURA AND I caught Slumdog Millionaire in the evening after our Dharavi tour. An usher pointed us to our seats – we had picked up the last tickets available. Two Americans in the row ahead of us kept sitting in the wrong seats, and the usher corrected them three times before the lights went out and the curtains rose. Instructions lit up the screen, telling us, in case of a bombing or other emergency, to help the injured and calmly leave the theatre. No one seemed the least fazed. An approval ticket from the Indian government flashed onto the screen, followed by a flapping CGI flag. The audience rose with a rush and burst into song – after three months of travel it was my first time hearing Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem. Indians take their theater seriously.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the film follows a young slum-dweller named Jamal who finds himself being tortured under suspicion that he cheated during his unlikely rise on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It’s a love story, but there are funny parts, and the children steal the show, until they grow up and the story suddenly becomes darker. The audience quieted then, nervous to the end, when a dance number began at the credits. The theater collectively sighed. Finally.

It was too much monotonous tension, too much violence, too much uncertainty. Bollywood films make sense in India: the masala mix of action-drama-rom-com that pack life’s emotional gamut into two hours, all delivered with a dose of family values and religious sensibilities. Bollywood trailers had played during the intermission, and in comparison, their flash and local familiarity made an otherwise-gripping Western Cinderella story seem dull. A lot of Indians loved the movie, but Slumdog Millionaire was just not an Indian film.

After the movie the audience poured out of Regal Cinema onto Colaba Causeway. Children, parents, grandparents; Mumbaikars and foreigners. We were swept up with the wave from the air-conditioned lobby into the humid Mumbai night. Some friends from the UK met us outside and we grabbed a late night dinner at Veg Hummus House across the street.

An ad for Slumdog Millionaire appeared on the television above. Our friends had seen it the day before, so we got to talking. We agreed The movie was worth a watch. But ten Oscar nominations?

"I don't get why everyone's so upset about the word ‘slumdog,'" Laura said. "It's not just slum dwellers who are called that. At the very beginning the kids calls the cops 'dogs.' So what's the big deal?"

 

ACCORDING TO Time Out Mumbai's Anuvab Pal, “slumdog” shares something with chicken tikka masala and curry with lager: it is a British invention. The word doesn't appear in Q&A, the book upon which the movie is based. When Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy adapted Vikas Swarup's novel, they gave it a major overhaul to streamline a story full of subplots. Perhaps the biggest change is the addition of “slumdog,” a word that resonates very differently in India. In the West, we use “dog” as a pejorative term – “bitch” comes to mind – and our dogs suffer their share of abuse and neglect, but they’re also objects of near-reverence. Dogs are man's best friend, fussed-over substitute children. Determined, ambitious people are dogged. You root for the underdog. “Slumdog,” then, is a mixture of humiliation and aspiration. For a Western audience, Boyle and Beaufoy nailed it.

Although the subcontinent is hugely diverse, its sensibilities towards dogs do differ from the West’s. Plenty of wealthy families and the aspirational middle class have prim and pampered pets, but most of India’s dogs live on the streets – there are an estimated 70,000 stray dogs in Mumbai alone. The Hindi word for dog, “kutta,” is a common insult, while India’s Muslims, in line with Islamic tradition, often consider dogs unclean. Indian English includes many of the West’s negative canine idioms – going to the dogs, running dogs. And a Hindi proverb states, “The washerman’s dog is neither of the house nor the dock” – it is no one’s, rootless, unloved.

For three months I watched children chase the animals with rocks, whip them with sticks, and still the mangy wretches would whimper back. Camping in the desert in Rajasthan, we woke one morning to find a feral dog curled up at our feet. He ran along our camel convoy that day, chasing away the very gazelle and peacocks we were riding out to see. To my mind he meant well. But our guides were not so patient. When we dismounted for lunch on the second day, one scooped up a handful of stones and hurled them at the dog, driving him away over a dune. When our canine friend reappeared later in the afternoon, the guide leapt off his camel and chased him off again. This time, the dog didn't return.

Another night in Kerala Laura and I were set upon by a pack of dogs near a public park. They jumped at me, nipping at my heels and arms. I tried kicking and shooing them away. Laura ran around clapping at them. The dogs just circled around and re-attacked.

They thought I was holding food. The wild dogs of India really are the country’s true, literal, slumdogs. Maybe, then, we can’t blame the proud schoolchildren of Dharavi for getting upset when their old colonial rulers call them not just slum-dwellers, but slumdogs; not just beggars, but beasts.