When we talk of ‘Indian Slums and Slumdog Millionaire’, I think it is best to begin with the title of the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, and see whether it connects with the Indian slum experience.
Firstly, what attitude do most Indians who live in reasonable comfort have towards those who live in slums?
I think there is a lot of posturing on this matter. Indians are as class-conscious as anybody else, and those of us who are better off tend to look down on people who live in slums; but when it comes to expressing our opinion in a public forum, we all know how to make the right noises. We are the world’s largest democracy, after all!
The situation gets sensitive when a person we perceive to be an ‘outsider’ allegedly uses a term for an Indian slum-dweller that we consider to be derogatory.
The irony is that, if we were really so concerned about the dignity of our slum-dwellers, we should not have had half as many slums as we do. In Mumbai alone, going by 2009 figures, a whopping fifty-five per cent of residents inhabit the slums. At twenty-two per cent the figure for the whole of urban India is somewhat better, but not satisfactory enough not to cause concern.
Then there is the explanation—take it or leave it—of the movie director himself, who insisted that the word was meant to be a combination of the words ‘slum’ and ‘underdog’.
We pass on to the question of whether it is credible that a young Indian slum-dweller should win a major and nationally televised quiz contest? Putting aside the coincidental nature of the hero Jamal’s correct answers, here is another telling statistic: about seventy-two per cent of Mumbai’s slum population is literate!
Is the vibrancy of India’s slums as it has been projected in the movie mythical?
By all accounts, including Dominique Lapierre’s in the bestselling The City of Joy, India’s slums are very lively places, but not all the economic activities that go on there are necessarily underhand, as one might suppose from seeing the movie. The depiction of the underworld has always had more market value than scenes of honest living, and commercial film-makers never fail to cash in on this fact. Rackets like bottling tap water and passing them off as ‘mineral’ are, of course, not uncommon, but there is the other side as well. For instance, Dharavi, where much of Slumdog Millionaire was shot, is one of the largest leather producers in the world.
The majority of India’s slum dwellers are employed, have reasonable purchasing capacity, and form a part of the country’s informal economy, which takes credit for ninety-one per cent of the jobs created in India.
Slums breed crime and the likes of Maman, the Slumdog Millionaire gangster who uses a so-called orphanage as a front for roping in street children and training them for beggary, do have real-life counterparts in India’s slums.
A mainstream movie will inevitably have dramatic exaggerations, and Slumdog Millionaire is no exception; it has a fairy tale ambience, and the slums are just a colourful backdrop against which the rags- to-riches story unfolds. Most people would agree that, by and large, it has succeeded in capturing the spirit of Indian slums. It would be unfair, however to expect from it a documentary-like portrayal of India’s slum conditions.