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Slumdog Millionaire, Poverty and the Hard Truth

Jennie Kermode with Eye For Film just wrote an excellent article about the issues surrounding Slumdog Millionaire – the lessons of the movie, the fate of the actual child actors, and the life portrayed in the film that is the hard reality of millions of other children in India, often unseen.

Jennie contacted me to ask for some information about my experiences and reaction to the film, and has quoted me in the article. She says, “After watching Slumdog Millionaire, many viewers will feel they’ve gained an insight into this difficult life. Perhaps as a consequence, donations to charities working in this area have increased, yet there have also been accusations of exploitation concerning the film’s child stars.

But these are just two children, and whilst western eyes may be wide with horror at the thought of the bright young stars having to face poverty, millions of others are forgotten.

‘Currently 25 million Indian children there live without homes or families of their own,’ says author Shelley Seale. ‘They live in orphanages, slums, railway stations or on the streets. Yes, that’s 25 million – equivalent to the population of the entire state of Texas. They are highly vulnerable to abuse, harassment, HIV/AIDS, and being trafficked into child labor if they’re lucky – brothels if they’re not.’

Seale has spent three years travelling around India to research her book, The Weight Of Silence, which explores the lives of children like these. Stating that Slumdog Millionaire portrayed their situation ‘all too well’, she says ‘like everyone, I loved the magical, feel-good ending. But I also hope desperately that we will not forget that there is no such fairytale ending for millions of Indian children in similar circumstances. For them, such dreams will remain only that.’

So what can be done to help the situation? The makers of Slumdog Millionaire have donated $1m to charities tackling child poverty in India, and the money should go a long way. But by presenting audiences with fairytale solutions, do films like this encourage them to believe that poverty isn’t really so bad, so that even if they donate in the short term they’ll stop worrying about it in the long term? Some critics have suggested that Hollywood exploits poverty to profit from viewers who may be motivated by social conscience or by voyeurism.”

Jennie goes on to ask one of the most uncomfortable questions I have ever encountered: “In an affluent world, is poverty one of the last truly exotic experiences?

Read the entire article here, and decide for yourself.

And please – don’t forget those millions of children.

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Voluntary Traveler Q&A with Shelley – Sat. May 16th!

The Invisible Children of India, Q&A Discussion with Shelley Seale

Read the Q&A discussion transcript

Saturday May 16th
10:00am – 4:00pm

The Voluntary Traveler Book Project is proudly presenting an online discussion with Shelley Seale, author of the upcoming book, ‘The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India’ (June 15, 2009). Shelley is an active freelance writer, avid vagabond and serial volunteer. Please feel free to drop by the group early, read Shelley’s bio and post your questions, thoughts and ideas.

This is a special chance for our group to gather personal insight from an expert in a topic much in today’s headlines – think Slumdog Millionaire. Please make her feel welcome and make the most out of this special occasion.

About The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India:

Amidst the growing prosperity of India, there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up. They are everywhere. They fill the streets, the railway stations, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India is a non-fiction narrative by Shelley Seale that gives a strong and hopeful voice to its most vulnerable citizens.

About The Voluntary Traveler:

The Voluntary Traveler is a travel anthology penned by writers from all over the world. Focused on inspiring volunteer vacations and/or encouraging adventure-minded people to see volunteer work as a part of ones longer journey, the book will also include a volunteer guide section, listing charities needing volunteer assistance, plus organizations that coordinate service orientated travel.

The Voluntary Traveler is being published by Dog’s Eye View Media. The book’s creator and content editor, author Nola Lee Kelsey, has a goal of producing a title that helps people see the best aspects of making a positive impact through “voluntourism” and dispels the perception of volunteer vacations as a sacrifice. We focus on the good, the amusing, the mind-expanding and the adventurous facets of this type of travel.

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Slumdog Millionaire – The story Hollywood left behind

By now, everyone had either seen, or at least heard of, the movie Slumdog Millionaire. One of the biggest movies of the year, it swept both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. For good reason – it’s affecting without being affected, gives us great multi-dimensional characters, has 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 continues beyond 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 that portrayed in the movie. Many of these children become victims of trafficking, prostitution and child labor. 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.

If the movie’s producers ever needed someone to back up this truth, Shelley Seale is their woman. Seale has written a narrative non-fiction book that follows the lives of just such children. The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India depicts her journey into orphanages and through the streets and slums of India where millions of kids live without families.

During the research and writing of the book, Seale spent 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 Seale.

4594.jpg“Dharavi was not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto,” says Seale. “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.

One of Dharavi’s largest industries is recycling. Eighty percent of the waste from Mumbai’s nineteen million citizens is recycled there, employing almost ten thousand people including children. These small workers collect and haul plastic, glass, cardboard, wire hangers, pens, batteries, computer parts, soap – virtually anything that can be turned into something new with useful life. Nothing is considered garbage. The revenue this generates is staggering – economists estimate it to be a nearly $1.5 billion a year business.

But the huge industry exacts its toll on Dharavi. Industrial waste and sludge from batteries or car parts are washed off from the recyclable items and into the streets and drains, mixing with human waste and discards from the butchering done at the chicken and mutton stalls.

“To me, this place dispelled the myth that poverty is due to laziness,” says Seale. “I had rarely seen people work so hard in all my life, up to eighteen hours or more each day in demanding physical labor with an unresting pace that few westerners matched. The residents here 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, discovered by casting director Loveleen Tandan. During the three years of writing The Weight of Silence, Seale has befriended and told the stories of many of such children – and has born witness to their struggles first hand. At a children’s home in Orissa, the orphanage director was driving one of the boys to school late one day, on his ancient little motor scooter, when they passed a school bus full of kids.

slumdogThe kids began jeering and laughing at the boy through the bus windows, yelling the epithet from the movie: “Slum dog! Slum dog!”

Slumdog Millionaire has met with some controversy in India, mostly from those who protest the use of the derogatory term slumdog, or those who feel the film is exploitative of India’s poverty. But while these problems are far from the only side of India, they do exist – although often a blind eye is turned to them. This fact is what caused Seale to subtitle her book Invisible Children of India.

A.R. Rahman, composer of the film’s soundtrack, says, “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, writes 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.

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Slumdog Millionaire: A Voice for Children

If you have not yet seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you’ve surely heard of it. One of the biggest movies of the year, it just swept the Golden Globes and looks poised to do the same at the Oscars. For good reason – it’s affecting without being affected, gives us great multi-dimensional characters, has phenomenal cinematography with brilliant India as its backdrop, along with a beautiful musical score. In addition, it has three of the most natural, appealing child actors to be seen on the big screen in a long time. If you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to see it. I promise it’ll take you an hour after the ending to wipe the smile off your face.

This tale of life and love in the slums of Mumbai alternates between heartbreak and triumph. The story follows two brothers who live in abject poverty, whose lives are made even more difficult 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.

I spent a day as an “Un-Tourist” in these very slums of Mumbai – a place called Dharavi. I went with Deepa Krishnan, owner of tour operator Mumbai Magic. Immersing yourself in the real lives of ordinary people in a place traveled to is a unique experience, and one that can truly bring the spirit and culture of a place alive to the traveler.

Slumdog Millionaire captures this brilliantly and is a fantastic movie, that caused me at times to want to applaud and at times to cringe and shut my eyes. Despite its upbeat ending and “rags to riches” Hollywood/Bollywood mechanism, Slumdog Millionaire shows us a side of India, and a way of life, that millions of children struggle to survive every day. Orphaning, abandonment, homelessness, begging, working, being exploited and abused…this is real, daily life for hundreds of thousands of children in Mumbai alone.

The actors who play the characters at their youngest ages are themselves Hindi-speaking street kids, discovered by casting director Loveleen Tandan. This fact reminded me of the 1988 movie Salaam Bombay, a movie by Mira Nair that was also about street kids in Mumbai, and which featured a cast of actual street children. Nair went on to start a foundation, the Salaam Baalak Trust, with proceeds from the film, and today SBT assists thousands of street children in Mumbai and Delhi. I interviewed Nair’s mother, Praveen, in my book The Weight of Silence; Praveen started SBT with her daughter Mira.

Salaam Bombay has a grittier, more realistic feel without the rags-to-riches ending. While I love the Slumdog Millionaire movie, while watching it there did resonate in me a sense of reinforcement of just such fantasies that lead kids into street life in Mumbai all the time. While traveling India and researching for my book, I interviewed many social workers and child advocates who told me that thousands of children run away from home and catch a train to “Bombay” with fantasies of the movies or making it big in the glamorous city filling their head. Sadly, most of them fall prey to just such exploiters as those found in both these movies: traffickers, begging rings, brothel owners or factory recruiters. Many of them remain living in the railway stations in which they arrive, begging or scratching out a living by sorting through trash for recycling or other dangerous endeavors. You can read my story here about my day spent with just such railway boys in Mumbai.

The lesson I would like to leave about this movie is: please see it. Enjoy it. Revel with these kids when luck comes their way. But please, please – don’t forget the millions of others whose lives continue in poverty, abuse and despair.

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