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Post-Slumdog Millionaire in Light of Slum Children of India

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Recently, I watched the much-talked about film Slumdog Millionaire at home as its DVD was released here in India where I currently reside. Though I was skeptical about whether I could enjoy the film as much as I did the novel, "Q&A," from which the movie was adapted, I was turned on the moment the movie started, drawn to the fast-paced story, charmed by the performance of the young actors, and swept away into the bustling and vivid plots all the way to the end.

When the end-credits started rolling with the Bollywood prototype dance number, my mind was finally pulled back to the comfortable living room in New Delhi. As for me, viewing Slumdog Millionaire was a totally different experience from reading the novel. While the film inherits the core storyline of the novel, it forgoes all the rich life stories of other characters that the protagonist encounters. By simplifying the story and strictly focusing on the life of protagonist against the backdrop of the meticulous projection of Mumbai slums, however, the film gives me the feel and sense of what it is like to be an urban orphan. Then, I rethought a number of debates that the film has provoked, including its portrayal of the urban poor.

Regardless of a range of critics, there is no doubt that the slum children of Mumbai, who are left behind in the fringe of the nation's economic development, finally received the attention that they deserve both in and out of the country thanks to the phenomenal global success of the movie. Then, I thought it is a "feel-good movie" at my own discretion.


The background and synopsis of the movie

Slumdog Millionaire, which won 8 Oscars including the best picture, the best direction, and the best adapted screenplay, is a film directed by British Danny Boyle. The script is adapted from the novel "Q&A" (2005) by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup. The shooting takes place in India and all the major cast members, except Dev Patel who plays grownup Jamal, are Indians, including real slum children, and thus about a quarter of the film is spoken in Hindi.

The plot of the film is simple: it is a rags-to-riches-story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old chai-wallah (tea servant) from the slum of Mumbai. He appears in the Indian version of popular TV show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," hoping to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Latika. Jamal is a question away to win out the show. Suspected of cheating due to his uneducated background, however, he is taken by the police and tortured. To prove his innocence, he tells the police why he knows an answer to each question while the plot goes back and forth between the TV game show and his different flashbacks during which he finds a clue to an answer.


Authenticity of the movie: predicament of slum children

While the ethics and the way of depicting urban poverty has been one of the most heated controversies (e.g., glamorizing the poor, poverty porn, slum voyeurism), there are hardly any arguments about the film's accuracy in projecting the inhumane conditions of slum kids' lives.

The available data and the comments by a number of NGOs working for marginalized children accord with the dire poverty portrayed in the movie: World Development Report 2009 by World Bank states that Mumbai is the most crowded metropolis of the world, in which 54% of Mumbai's 16 million people live in slums and another quarter in degraded apartments; ILO India's Child Labour Facts and Figures, an analysis of census 2001, estimates the number of nation's working children to be 12.6 million; Study on Child Abuse 2007 INDIA (http://www.wcd.nic.in/childabuse.pdf) by Ministry of Women and Child Development alarms that child abuse of all forms, such as physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect, is a startling everyday reality of Indian children.

In response to the film's success, the India director of NGO Save the Children comments, "In cities across India, children work in terrible conditions for a pittance, are subject to violence and abuse or captured by organized crime rackets who make them beg for money on the streets." Another NGO, Railway Children notes, "We interact with the Jamals and Salims (Salim is Jamal's older brother) of this world on a daily basis."

The authenticity of the movie is also confirmed by the actual slum or street children of some Indian metropolises, such as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi, who attended the special film viewing arranged for them. The children say that their reality is just like the depicted lives of Jamal, Salim and Latika, or worse. A street boy said in an interview with the Telegraph, UK, "We earn, we eat. That's all."


Implications of the Slumdog Millionaire's success

Although the portrayal of the lives in urban slums is the complementary nature of the film, this fairy tale of an orphan from the slum ends up raising unprecedented global awareness on the issue of poverty far better than the documentary films or the articles that we read in the newspaper.

While the movie earned high acclaim in the West, its reception here in India, where poverty is a part of everyday reality, was mixed. Most notably, famous Indian movie star, Amitabh Bachan, from whom the youngest Jamal desperately seeks an autography, posted his comments in his blog, condemning the foreign film "projecting India as Third World dirty underbelly developing nation." Having ignited a storm of reactions, he later said the blog posting was not his opinion but only intended to invite debate. Still, his sentiments resonate with those of many Indian middlebrows.

The major backlash against the film cites the use of the coined term "slumdog" by the slum dwellers, the welfare and compensation of the child actors, the anti-Hindu sentiments depicted on screen, an unrealistic setting of grownup Jamal speaking fluent English, and a happy-ending which wouldn't happen in the real world.

Whatever the debates, including liking or disliking of the film, I see them as a healthy sign, as opposed to people's indifference to the film about their nation or issues posed in the film. In Standpoint magazine of UK, (http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/890/full), Kalpana Sharma, Indian journalist and author of "Rediscovering Dharavi", a study of Mumbai's largest slum where Jamal grows up, points out that many elite Indians are deeply ignorant of the slums and their inhabitants, and comments "they are the ones who need to see this film. Many people have no idea where their servants live or their driver comes from a slum every day." Not surprisingly, she finds that people who have some experience of the slums tend to be less offended by the film than those who have never entered one. I assume that the stirred discussion on the film forces some middle-class Indians who prefer not to be associated with the poor to recognize the poverty as "our issue" not "their issue."

While it is beyond the scope of the film to find a solution to the egregious circumstances of slum kids, positive initiatives have already been taken in a bid to improve their lives by the film team as well as the people who got inspired by the film.

Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor, who played TV game show host, donated his entire fees from the film to Plan-India, an NGO working for impoverished children, where he has been serving as a patron and Goodwill Ambassador since 2006. Subsequently, the cast and the team of Slumdog Millionaire announced a donation of £500,000 to the same NGO, which will be used for its program in a slum community of Mumbai, enabling it to directly reach 2,000 families and 5,000 children. Furthermore, Shemeroo Entertainment, the distributor of its home video in India, also tied up with Plan-India so that part of the proceeds from the sales of its home video will be donated for its program.

Rubina (the youngest Latika) and Azharuddin (the youngest Salim) from the slum, the two of the young stars, are now in school for the first time. Boyle and Christian Colson, the producer, also set up a trust fund for them, which will be released only if they continue to enroll in school until 18. Though their future largely rests on their parents, they are given an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

At the national level, according to an article of the Hindustan Times, Prime Minister Singh, who congratulated the film team praising it has done "India proud" upon winning multiple Oscars, has ordered an investigation into the child beggar mafia operating in Mumbai after a British man sent him a clipping of a report, "Real Slumdog Millionaires: Mafia Gangs Crippling Children For Profit." (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1127056/The-real-Slumdog-Millionaires-Behind-cinema-fantasy-mafia-gangs-deliberately-crippling-children-profit.html) As Vikas Swarup comments, it is unknown "if it's true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the street. It may be an urban myth." Hopefully, the worldwide apprehension together with the investigation by the government will bring those who commit atrocities to justice, should this myth turn out to be true.

Equally noteworthy, individuals now increasingly assume proactive roles; a number of NGOs that work for underprivileged children of India, such as ActionAid, Save the Children and SOS Children's Villages, confirm increasing amounts of donations coming to their organizations after the film's victory.

Considering the extent of poverty and the size of the urban poor, everything would remain the same for many slum dwellers albeit the movie's success. Yet, compared to the pre-Slumdog Millionaire days, now more people have a better understanding of the gravity of poverty, which is taking its toll on children, thereby triggering them to take action that can yield lasting impacts on their lives.


Slumdog Millionaire DVD as a piece of my unforgettable India

Apart from the film's contribution to social justice, the movie is worth watching. My favorites are the young actors' poignant performance. I heard that Rubina and Azharuddin want to go into acting. I look forward to hearing some good news on them ten years down the road.

Also, I am attached to the film, because in some ways, this is the India that I come to know over the past two years. Despite some drawbacks, such as occasional power-cut and plumbing problems, I live comfortably here in Delhi, having access to all sorts of services and amenities. Nonetheless, once I am outside, I see poverty and garbage everywhere. I see children in dirty clothes, begging, rag picking, selling knick-knacks or romping on the street, at the market or near slums. I smell sweat, filth, urine, masala or mixture of whatever there may be. I also see a number of construction sites where men as well as women with sari working in dust under the scorching hot weather, though the majority of who will have no access to the sites once completed.

In the newspaper, I read about the violence against women (e.g., suicide related to dowry, rape), the mistreatments of the lower class or caste, or child abuse almost everyday. I hear bits and pieces of heart-wrenching stories, as drastic as the ones seen in the movies, from the people that I get to know, such as mothers at a charity kindergarten, auto-rickshaw men, peons at the shops, drivers and domestic helps, some of whom have become indispensable in my life here.

On all accounts, then, my Slumdog Millionaire DVD is a piece of India that I always remember: the contrast of the rich and the poor, death and life, garbage and flowers, all side by side. Also, it is a reminder of the uneasy reality which drives me to do something. Likewise, I hope that the current global attention to poverty will not dwindle, but keep up the momentum, because if the level of aspirations to end child poverty persists, we can bring a genuine change in the lives of many children and their future.
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