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.
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”.
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.
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.