Posted by: John Elliott | February 23, 2009

Slumdog’s eight Oscars are a win in India’s success story

Flying into Mumbai, many visitors’ first view of India is of a mass of corrugated-roofed slums on the approach to the airport. For decades that has been seen as an example of the miserable and hopeless side of Indian life – the grinding poverty and class and caste-riven society that defies success and keeps perhaps two-thirds of the population poor.

But this has always been an inaccurate image because Dharavi, one of two slums near the airport, is Asia’s largest and has grown over 60 years into a vast centre of entrepreneurial success with some 600,000 people in 500 acres.

Now Dharavi has become India’s latest hit with the film Slumdog Millionaire sweeping the Oscars this morning (India time), winning eight awards including the prize for best picture about a poor Indian boy who defies poverty and corruption to compete on a TV game show for money and love. The film is not specifically about Dharavi, though the place provides the location for many of the scenes.
Watching the Oscars on tv in the Garibnagar slum where two child actors in the film live - pic from AFP

Watching the Oscars on tv in the Garibnagar slum where two child actors in the film live - pic from AFP


As I write, reporters and commentators on every India tv news channel are tumbling over themselves in an ecstasy of superlatives as they try to match the success with words. Television sets are on all over India, including in Dharavi and Garibnagar (see pic), whipping up a mood of national celebration that is usually reserved for cricket victories against Pakistan

Inevitably the tv commentators have gone overboard, claiming the film puts India’s Bollywood film industry on the map when in fact it is a British film (a nice post-colonial contribution to India’s success!).

That is a point made by Indian film people such as Amitabh Bachchan, India’s top film actor – that the West only rewards stories about India’s poor when a film is made by the West. Whether that is true or not, the combination of Indian and British talent has brilliantly brought to international focus the massive sense of self-confidence and hope that forms the basis for the India’s growing international importance and success.

As A.R.Rahman, the Indian composer, who won two Oscars for the best score and for his hit song Jai Ho, said after receiving his award, Slumdog is all about “optimism and the power of hope in our lives”.

And that is the mood of Dharavi and of India’s millions of budding success stories. I visited Dharavi in 2005 and reported how alleyways a few feet wide lead to bakeries, metal workshops, and sheds that recycle discarded plastic goods ranging from medical syringes to telephones. Pottery kilns burn wood and other polluting garbage including tyres. Lorries crammed with buffalo, goat and other skins collected from abattoirs push through narrow lanes to grimy tanneries.

Workers – including under-age children – spray-paint, cut, and press strips and sheets of leather and vinyl that eventually finish up as cheap wallets and bags plus, in some cases, up-market luggage (often fake international brands) that are exported all over the world. Families live in over-crowded lofts over the tiny workshops, and few workers earn more than $2-$4 a day.

Success and Protest - slum children protest at the film's title - pic from

Success and Protest - slum children protest at the film's title - pic from

Much of this is not a pretty sight, and much in the film is more ugly than happy, but then so is the life of the poor.

Perhaps inevitably, Slumdog has been widely criticised in India because the flip side of all the success is a national unwillingness to accept anything that is even slightly negative or critical (as I have often discovered on this blog). So both the words slum and dog have been attacked, as has the portrayal of the uglier side of Indian life.

But that is now being overtaken and India is in party mood. Rajeev Sethi, a leading promoter of India’s arts and artists, once said to me (talking about modern Indian art) that “every successful economy needs a tangible celebration”.

Today Slumdog, and its story of India’s poor children, is the tangible celebration.


  1. I can see Jewish women, Parsi women, Christian women and basically every other religion except Islamic women wearing Sari’s, and you will have to show me Muslim womenfolk and communities which wear garments, where it is possible for their skin to be exposed, for me to believe the depiction was realistic.

    It is a generalisation that can be made, largely because their holy book commands it. There may be exceptions to the rule, but it is more likely to be wealthy intellectuals that question the teachings rather than poor slum dwellers.

    There are multiple alternatives to Sari’s for Muslim women who do not wish to wear the full garb. I say what I say because I live in a Muslim dominated city, and there is not a chance that Muslim women here would wear anything to suggest that their religion could be construed as being Hindu. It would be quarter being given to the opposing team, and that is not ideologically tolerable.

    As a rule you can generalise, there will be sectarian behaviour in India, it is one of many things you can generalise here. Any suggestion to the contrary in Dharavi is not the India I am familiar with.

  2. I disagree with Sharatq’s point. In my experience, women all over India, be they Hindus, Muslims, Christians, or Jews, wear saris as a pan-Indian garment. In the slums of Mumbai many local Hindus and Muslims are often indistinguishable, with both communities dressed in nine yard saris, khand blouses and even bindis. I know lots of society women in Pakistan who wear saris. While burquas are (increasingly) the norm in traditional conservatives Muslim localities, generalizations don’t ever work in India in that sense.

  3. I have to agree with everything Nick has said, and make a further point, which I think is important, and not pedantic.

    Did anyone notice, that the protagonist of SDM is supposed to be Muslim, yet his mother wears Sari’s and was wearing one when she was murdered in communal violence.

    Now I am all for suspending belief, but I cannot stomach the idea of a Muslim woman wearing an outfit where it is remotely possible that the slightest bit of skin, other than on the face, could be exposed in India, or in any other country that is still developing where there is a large Muslim population.

    I actually spent much of the film trying to work out the characters religion because of what the mother was wearing, despite the Muslim name. I only became certain when I saw the brother praying to Allah.

    I am sure that in some parts of India it may even be the case, that Muslim women wear sari’s (though someone will have to show me) but that was a faux pas, and I am not sure given the number of Indians working on the production, how they could make a mistake like that.

    In India religion is fundamental and as divisive as caste and wealth, people do business, make judgements on people’s credit worthiness develop economic and political philosophy and engage in violence based on religion.

    As an Indian, If I worked on that movie, I would be a little embarrassed, either because I made the mistake by overlooking it. Or, as I suspect the the case may be, allowed Mr. Boyle to take that liberty, because he assumed that it would not be picked up on, simply because when he made it, he did not expect the success and the size of the audience it would have, and it was easier to depict the mother that way.

    I mean I really spent most of the movie asking the question is this kid Hindu or Muslim, because where I live in India, that is the question that everyone asks, although it is done silently when they meet someone new, because as bad as it sounds, the answer to that question determines pretty much everything.

  4. i would like to first congratulate slumdog on its success and its re-examination of indian slums. Before india’s econonmic revolution there was an excuse for slums but know there is no reason except for indifference, insensitivity and selfishness on the part of we indians. I used to attend religios discourses at a very well recognized, affluent ashram in powai, who’s temple overlooked slums. With all of the money that flowed into the ashram not one rupee was ever spent on helping out their needful neighbours. This is indian spirituality. Thank you Danny Boyle for exposing the complex, violent problems of the slums and lets all try to put forth effort to be equal in our vision and make india a nation of NO ONE IN NEED. If it means we have to cut down on a five star meal ourselves or for the religious leaders to stop pandering to wealth and power but to very true need.

  5. I enjoyed the film and had no problem with its setting being Dharavi. I think a lot of the anger and the allegations of it being orientalist stem from two problematic assumptions in much of the rhetoric around the film. The first is the assumption (and perhaps fact) that for many in the U.S (especially) this is their first acquaintance with India. So immediately for them this was ‘the definitive film about India’, which it isn’t and anyway Boyle never claimed it was. The second problematic statement I’ve seen in the Dutch media, for instance, is the automatic comparison with the bulk of Hindi films, which are viewed unfavourably. In Dutch theatres the posters call it Danny Boyle’s Bollywood film. So Dutch critics have been saying, ‘it’s more realistic than what indians produce themselves.” This shows ignorance of much of our cinema. Both these assumptions/statements place an unnecessary burden on the film and make Indians defensive.

    Now, if this rhetorical baggage was absent and if Slumdog were viewed simply as a great film that clearly was made in a climate that seems to crave it, people would relish it for just that.

    I enjoyed the film. As for why City of God never raised anyone’s hackles, perhaps that’s because it was made by a Brazilian?

    Check out the NYT on 21/2. There’s an article in there by Rahul Srivastava about how people protested to the use of the word ‘slum’ rather than ‘dog’ because , as John pointed out, Dharavi is not a slum but a “user-generated,” post-industrial space!

  6. I genuinely thought it a brilliant film and who cares whether it is UK or India. Danny Boyle and his group certainly didn’t notice this. What brought them together was the making of the film and the hope and love it shared. Its the film which is important and I hope it opens the eyes of all the Indians who would like to hide behind their rose petal glasses.

    The song “Jai Ho” perhaps will make it what the world needs – a uninversal song.

  7. […] Attended by 10,000 or more people over five days, the festival (which ended on January 25) was open to anyone and has now become a significant event on the international literary calendar. It drew names such as ……..Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who wrote the book Q&A that has become the award-winning and Oscar-nominated Slumdog Millionaire film. […]

  8. A fact worth noting about Danny Boyle (the director of Slumdog) is that he certainly isn’t giving India a uniquely rough ride with the side of life he is portaying in India. The film that brought him into the limelight way back in 1996 was Trainspotting – a film about the drug addicted end of society in Edinburgh.

    Something worth considering is that cheery, fun films about the postive side of life don’t generally get nominated for, or win, Oscars. The list is long, but a case in point is The Reader, for which Kate Winslet won her Oscar, is a film about a woman (Kate) who has a sexual affair with a 15 year old boy and then goes on trial for war crimes because of her actions in a German concentration camp…nice.

    The complainers need to get over it and enjoy the film for what it is…a story well written, told, directed and acted with a fantastic soundtrack.

    ps. I didn’t hear Brazil complaining about “City of God” getting nominated for 4 Oscars back in 2002 (a film about the slums of Rio).

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