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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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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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