Rhys Blakely | February 24, 2009
A group of Mumbai's poorest youth gives Danny Boyle's contentious film the thumbs-up.
IN a dilapidated tin shack next to one of Mumbai's busiest train lines, 30 street children have agreed to see a film of which they have never heard but that claims to depict their world: Slumdog Millionaire.
The younger ones, ages six and seven, sit cross-legged on the concrete floor of the day shelter near Chowpatty beach in the south of the city. Barefoot in their filthy vests and shorts, they pick their noses, hold their mouths wide open and goggle at the television screen. The older boys -- the eldest is 17 -- clap their hands and laugh uproariously during the comic scenes.
Everyone falls into hysterics when the young hero of the film, Jamal Malik, plunges into a pit of sewage on his way to collect the autograph of his hero, the veteran Bollywood heart-throb Amitabh Bachchan. There is a collective gasp when the film's villainous Fagin character, a man who enslaves street children to beg for him, drugs one child with chloroform to have a henchman burn out his eyes with boiling oil.
Once the final credits have rolled, I ask who enjoyed the film. Thirty hands shoot up. Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning film may have won a powerful cohort of enemies in India and overseas, but among these real-life "slumdogs" the director has become a hero.
"The film is true to life," says Rupesh, who claims to be 17 but looks several years younger. With his shirt rakishly unbuttoned almost to the navel and his hair carefully coiffed, he is the group's self-appointed leader. "We like it better than the usual Bollywood movies," he says. "It gives an accurate picture of the world, of our kind of life."
Rupesh is well placed to comment. At nine he ran away from a broken home in the city of Nagpur in central India. He lives on Chowpatty beach, a stretch of sand that runaway children from across the subcontinent somehow hear about as a place where it is possible to scratch out a living. He helps run a rickety Ferris wheel on the shores of the Arabian Sea and sleeps under a scrap of tarpaulin on "the dirty side of the beach".
His is not a job for the faint-hearted: he is employed to leap on to the rusty steel Ferris wheel at its apex, which is almost 8m from the ground. He then swings down, grasping the ride's frame and using his weight to send it spinning. It's a wonder he hasn't been maimed by the heavy wheel as it spins furiously, laden with queasy-looking passengers. The job is as precarious financially as physically: Rupesh earns about 100 rupees ($3) on a good day, but after the terrorist attacks on the city in November last year he went for almost two weeks without a wage when south Mumbai became a ghost town.
"It's difficult but somehow we survive," Rupesh says, with an air of resignation. "It is not as if we really have a lot of choice."
One of the main reservations this young audience has about the film's accuracy concerns its depiction of the gang master who rounds up children to set them begging and mutilates them to make a bigger profit.
"It doesn't happen like that," says Vipin, who claims to be 14. "Most of the beggars stay with their families. Their mothers and fathers are in charge."
The children say that nobody in their neighbourhood has been mutilated deliberately, similar to the fictional youngster who isblinded in Slumdog, but they believe thatsuch atrocities do happen elsewhere inMumbai.
Among Chowpatty's child beggars, the physical scars are more subtle but no less invidious than those depicted in the film: the small babies who are carried alongside busy roads by young girl beggars (a practice alluded to in Slumdog) quickly develop acute respiratory problems and many are malnourished. Ailments such as scabies, tuberculosis and rickets are common. Health workers who deal with street families regularly see babies whose skulls have not formed properly because of calcium deficiencies.
Virtually everyone in the audience has been chased and beaten by the police, the scenario that forms the backdrop to the film's opening credits. Asked if they find the film insulting, the children reply with a bemused "no". It shows real things, they reiterate: poverty, prostitution, murder, theft, blackmail, religious violence, the exploitation of the weak. It's good for outsiders to see how they exist.
This endorsement appears to undermine the criticism that Slumdog has attracted in India and in the West. India's English-language media, for the most part, has embraced the film and celebrated its successes, but there have been high-profile backlashes against its depiction of India's urban poor. Last month, Bachchan, the Bollywood star, took a swipe at the portrayal of the country as a "Third World, dirty, underbelly developing nation", a characterisation he says has caused "pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots". Elsewhere, some newspaper columnists have branded the film voyeuristic "poverty porn".
The discomfort surrounding what was billed as a feelgood film increased when the parents of the two child actors who played Jamal and Salim as infants complained that their sons were paid a pittance, suggesting they were somehow duped by the filmmakers. The allegation has been denied by Boyle, who has paid for the children to go to school and says they will receive a significant lump sum when they are old enough to spend it wisely.
Meanwhile, in the northern state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions, a slum-dweller has taken the Indian stars of the film to court, alleging that Slumdog's graphic portrayal of Mumbai shanty towns has offended millions of his peers. Tateshwar Vishwakarma, a social activist, later organised a protest that resulted in a mob ransacking a cinema showing the film in Patna, the capital of Bihar.
His biggest complaint is the use of the term slumdog. "Referring to people living in slums as dogs is a violation of human rights," he has alleged. There have also been a few rather thinly attended social demonstrations in Mumbai's slums.
More than half of Mumbai's population of about 18 million resides in the city's shanty towns. Not all are impoverished. Many, especially in the long-established "registered slums", have homes that they consider comfortable, with running water, electricity and satellite TV, and work in white-collar jobs. Moreover, in Mumbai it is doubtful that the word slum carries the pejorative connotation assigned to it by some characters in the film.
One of the most eloquent defences of Slumdog was given by Irrfan Khan, the actor who plays the chief cop who interrogates Jamal in the film. Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, the screenwriter who coined the term slumdog, did not create the story, he observed; they worked from an Indian source. The original story, Q&A, was written by Vikas Swarup, a first-time novelist who has a day job as an Indian diplomat. "India is a poor country," Khan says. "It's time we faced up to this."
Arguably, what Beaufoy did was to anchor the film more firmly in the real Mumbai. In Swarup's novel the hero is called Ram Mohammad Thomas, a name that is part Hindu, part Muslim and part Christian, which makes the protagonist a kind of abstract Indian Everyman. By contrast, in the film he is definitely a Muslim who is orphaned by a baying Hindu mob in a riot that recollects those that erupted in late 1992 and early 1993 in Mumbai, in which about 900 people died.
The filmmakers' decision to make Swarup's story more feasible may explain the dominant reaction to Slumdog on India's streets: indifference. A telling indicator of the Indian public's muted appetite for the film is that you cannot buy pirated copies of the Hindi-dubbed version on India's streets.
The Hindi-language version was specially produced to appeal to the country's mass market, but the bootleggers say there is no demand for it. It seems that India's cinema-besotted population cannot bear too much reality and are certainly not willing to pay to see it when they are confronted with it on the streets every day.
According to our real street reviewers, though, it's the Indian cinema-going public that is missing out.
"This is a film that is close to my heart," says Rupesh, a sentiment shared by his peers.
"It shows that somebody from the streets can achieve anything, that we can fight oppression," 16-year-old Jeetu adds. "When it wins awards, the victory is ours, too."