Slumdogs who seek success

The hit film <i>Slumdog Millionaire</i> attempts to depict children in an Indian shanty town. So what do the real-life inhabitants make of it?
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The Independent Culture

Arvind Kumar nodded in satisfaction. "I like it," he said. "I like the kids in the film. I can identify with them. This is how we used to play, running through the streets like naughty children." Slumdog Millionaire – set and filmed in the shanties of Mumbai and winner of four Golden Globes, a slew of Bafta nominations and tipped for the Oscars – is not released until next week in India but it has already made its impact in many different ways. The movie industry has celebrated the success of its homegrown talent associated with the film, in particular the composer A R Rahman and Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor. It has also triggered comments from some, most notably India's most famous movie star, A B Bachchan, that a movie that exposes the underbelly of a country which had started to enjoy being told it was "shining", is not a positive thing.

And for youngsters such as 14-year-old Arvind, who have seen the trailers and know the rags-to-riches tale of its main character, it has given them pause for thought. Could there be an easy escape from the grinding poverty of their daily lives or do such fantastic things only happen in the movies?

Slumdog, directed by Danny Boyle, is based on the 2005 novel Q&A by the Indian diplomat and author Vikas Swarup. The fast-paced film tells the story of 18-year-old Jamal Malik (played by British actor Dev Patel), a chai-wallah at a Mumbai call centre who somehow wins big on Kaun Banega Crorepati?, India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the film's heart is the community in which Jamal lives, a broken, filthy slum of narrow lanes, unpaved alleys and tiny, crowded homes. An estimated 60 per cent of Mumbai's population live in such areas, the largest of which is Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. Anyone flying into Mumbai is greeted by the sight of the blue, plastic-roofed shanties of Dharavi, where perhaps more than a million people are squeezed together, seemingly poised to subsume the glittering airport. In one image, the new India and the old India merge.

There is no shortage of slums in India, where up to 800 million of its population of 1.1 billion survive on less than $2 a day. Arvind's father owns a junk shop in a poor neighbourhood of Delhi called Govindpuri. In the past few years, Govindpuri has undergone a slow transformation: more homes are now brick rather than shanty, some roads are paved and the taps now work, at least in theory, twice a day. For some hours, there is also electricity from a meter, rather than stolen from a power cable, as was previously the case. Goats and cows wander along the noisy, rubbish-strewn streets, alive with barber-shops, vegetable-sellers and labourers.

The teenager spends his spare time joking with friends outside Gita Music Palace, a second-floor shop whose owner had agreed to let them use his DVD player to watch a pirate copy of the film, which is on sale in some shops for 30 rupees (42p). We clambered up the ladder to the store, Arvind in a bright orange jacket and juggling two mobile phones (one of which was broken). As the movie's dramatic opening scenes began, Arvind explained that he wanted to either join the army or else work for an airline. He studied hard at his mathematics and English classes at school, but he did not always attend those lessons he did not like.

Although the youngster enjoyed the film, he did not believe such good luck would happen to him. "Why would anyone give you all that money just to answer a few questions? It's not real," he said in disbelief. "You have to toil to get money. I don't believe this. I think it's just show business." But his neighbour, Rubina Jaffaraddin, also 14, said she wanted to watch more. "I don't like other films but this is made in a place where we live."

For children such as Rubina and Arvind, life in a slum – in Delhi the term used is jhuggi jhopadi which translates roughly as "shack area" – is not just about enduring hardship but about fighting limitation. They might go to school but only for as long as their parents can afford to send them, and they can try to get a job but only if one is available. One of the teenagers' friends, Sony, was already betrothed; in two years she will go and live with the husband found for her by her family. Their lives are largely dictated by circumstances beyond their control.

A short way away, Pramod Kumar and his friend Metab Alam Siddiqui, were also dreaming of better things. They too were aware of the Slumdog movie and of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? At the small, narrow house in which 20-year-old Pramod lives with his parents and five brothers, it has been a tradition to gather around the TV and watch the show every week night.

Pramod was studying part-time and working for a newspaper distributor. Metab was studying computers full-time at a nearby university. For both their families, finding the means to allow them to study, to give them a chance to escape, had been a struggle. "I really regret that I am not able to provide a better education for our children," sighed Metab's mother, Murshida Begum. "All you can do is to work hard so that you can get out of it."

The two young men agreed to watch the start of Slumdog. Both testified to the authenticity of the scenes, the urban landscape, the poverty. "The main motivation is to work hard to escape all this," said Metab, in his family's small home shared by his parents, four brothers and two sisters. "If an escape is possible, you have to change your lifestyle. If you stay in this space, physical and mental, then it's impossible."

Slumdog is fictional, but India has enjoyed similar true success stories. India's Business Standard recently reported on a flurry of genuine TV quiz-show winners. Vishal Netke, a rickshaw driver won one million rupees (£14,000) on a show called 10 Steps. "I, a rickshaw driver, beat an IT engineer and answered question after question correctly," he said. Ghanshyam Baman, a road-sweeper, was also on the show. He did not win a prize but enjoyed his own miracle when he was handed 150,000 rupees (£2,100) for being a contestant. The money was enough to pay off his debts. "I had people banging at my door," he said. "I even tried to kill myself."

Bollywood is better known for its escapist fantasies, often shot in glamorous locations overseas, but most in the industry have leapt on the success of Slumdog. The distributors believe that when it opens next Friday in 300 cinemas it will be a hit. Another film that looked at India's poverty, Madhur Bhandarkar's Traffic Signal, which told of the lives of the beggars and prostitutes who live around a traffic stop, won the best director prize at the 2007 National Film Awards. And yet there are voices against it. But the movie star Amitabh Bachchan said in his blog: "If Slumdog Millionaire projects India as a Third World, dirty-underbelly, developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. It's just that the Slumdog Millionaire idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Golden Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not."

The problem may be, not whether the film is realistic or not, but that it has taken a foreigner to force some middle-class movie-going Indians to look at the poverty that persists here. Yet writing in the Indian Express, author Kalpana Sharma said that films such as City of God (set in Rio de Janeiro) and Tsotsi (set in Soweto) had forced other audiences to look at the reality of the situation in their countries. She added: "So what about our slums? Is it a bad thing that they are now the subject of films that go on to win awards? Perhaps not. Is there only one way of looking at the life of those who live in these wretched conditions? Or is it possible to show the worst but also appreciate the difference, the grit. If an 'outsider' like Boyle depicts this difference, should we celebrate or be critical?"