Monday, February 23, 2009

Can Slumdog's Success Improve Lives of Poor Children?

Not only has the low-budget movie "Slumdog Millionaire" drawn big crowds in the West and taken in more than $ 100m at the box office, the movie has won eight Oscars last night, including the Academy awards for the Best Picture and the Best Director. The Best Music and Best Song awards went to India's musician A.R. Rahman, known as the Mozart of Madras. Rahman enthralled his celebrity audience at Kodak theater as well as the international viewers with his live performance of the popular songs "O Saya" and "Jai Ho" from Slumdog.

Half the world away in the early morning hours in Mumbai, the Garib Nagar crowd was particularly excited because several children from the area, including Rubina Ali, 9, and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, 10, starred in "Slumdog Millionaire," playing the roles of "young Latika" and "young Salim" respectively. "Woo-hoo!" they screamed, alternately chanting, cheering and bursting into singing "Jai Ho" the theme song of the film, according to ABC News.

After the well-deserved success of the well-made Slumdog movie, will the lives of poor children in Mumbai improve? Can this extraordinary focus on child poverty translate in to positive actions to reduce poverty around the world? These are the most important questions on the minds of many after the euphoria in Los Angeles.

Decried by many as "racist poverty porn" and condemned by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachan in his blog for showing India as "a third world dirty under belly developing nation (sic)", the movie Slumdog Millionaire has been greeted by howls of protests in India. But it has been widely acclaimed in the West. It is sparking international interest in the vast slums of Mumbai. With the box office success of the film, there have been charges of child exploitation against Slumdog producer and director which have been denied by Danny Boyle. “The actors were paid very well. We have not released any figures — either what they were paid or what they will receive when they complete their education — because it would make them vulnerable to certain elements, because they are quite large sums of money.”

Reports suggest the stars are entitled to a trust fund if they have remained in education for a certain length of time. The production company wanted to make sure the child actors would benefit from a decent education as well as the money, he said.

Slumdog was not the only Academy Award contender focusing on poverty, squalor and its effects in India. Another documentary "The Final Inch" -- also nominated for an Academy Award -- takes a real-life look at India's slums. The film explores the final battle against polio, a largely forgotten disease that continues to ravage the world's poorest areas -- areas that the Hollywood feature so graphically depicts.

Poverty tours in India, Brazil and South Africa are not an entirely new phenomenon. Favela tours in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil and South African shanty town tours have attracted tourists for years. It is primarily the popular Slumdog Millionaire, nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture award, that is translating to more rubberneckers in the Mumbai, India, slum where it was filmed — and is re-igniting a debate over the ethics of "poverty tourism", according to USA Today. Chris Way, the co-founder of Reality Tours that operates the poverty tour of the Mumbai slum, estimates that sales are up by about 25% since Slumdog Millionaire's release. Though he credits some of the increase to a gradual rebound in tourism after terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed more than 170 people in November, publicity surrounding the film has played a big role.

The tours have come under criticism for exploiting poverty. But Way defends his tours as a way to help the poor in Mumbai. In India, "a lot of people think the movie is 'poverty porn,' " says Way, a Brit who has lived in Mumbai since 2004. But any criticism of his tours "comes from misunderstanding what we are trying to do … break down the negative image of slums, (and) highlight the industry and sense of community." Reality Tours charges $10 or $20 a person, depending on length of the tour, and pledges to donate 80% of after-tax profits to local charities. Though the business hasn't yet cleared a profit, it paid for a community center.

Child poverty is not unique to India. MSNBC recently reported that the worsening economy in Pakistan is especially taking its toll on children and some are being abandoned by their parents. The report highlighted the case of three mothers who could not afford to feed their children. "The three women came together to my center," Bilquis Edhi of Edhi Center said. "They asked me to please take their children; they could no longer feed them."

"The mothers were sobbing as they tried to leave the children and the children were crying clinging to their mothers," Edhi said. "It was heart wrenching to watch."

While the news of abandoned or begging children offers only a small anecdotal evidence of the sorry state of Pakistani children, the official data paints an equally grim picture. Ranked at 136 on a list of 177 countries, Pakistan's human development ranking remains very low. Particularly alarming is the low primary school enrollment for girls which stands at about 30% in rural areas, where the majority of Pakistanis live. In fact, the South Asia average of primary school enrollment is pulled down by Pakistan, the only country in all of Asia and the Pacific with the lowest primary enrollment rate of 68 per cent in 2005. This is 12 percentage points lower than that of Maldives, which, at 80 per cent, has the second lowest rate in Asia and the Pacific. Low primary enrollment rate and poor health of children in Pakistan raise serious concerns about the future of the nation in terms of the continuing impact of low human development on its economic, social and political well-being.

According to Asia Children's Rights report, about 8 million Pakistani children, or 40 percent of the total population of children under the age of 5, suffer from malnutrition. About 63 percent of children between 6 months and 3 years have stunted growth and 42 percent are anemic or underweight. Poor nutrition leaves these children vulnerable to diseases. Pakistan is among the few countries of the world where Polio is still endemic. Poor conditions extend to the education sector as well. Over 23 million children in Pakistan have never been to school. The International Labor Organization data shows 3.3 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14 years in Pakistan, are forced to work rather than attend school. A quarter of a million of them work as domestic servants. The most recent United Nations Human Development Report indicates that the youth literacy rate in Pakistan is an abysmal 58 percent, among the lowest in the world. Sexual abuse is another problem. Homelessness of children is quite common. Over 10,000 children below the age of 15 live on the streets and sidewalks of Karachi alone. Many of them are forced to beg for survival. Most of these children say they left home because of domestic violence and family financial problems, according to Edhi Foundation which cares for some of them. According to a report by Amnesty International, there are more than 4,500 juvenile prisoners in Pakistani jails and 66 percent of them are being tried. Juvenile detainees are kept with adults, leaving them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.

I hope that the growing interest in Mumbai slums goes beyond a temporary fad and a fleeting voyeuristic exercise. This extraordinary interest should translate into action to help the people of the slums escape the abject poverty and squalor that define them and their daily existence. Jeff Greenwald, executive director of, put it well when he spoke with USA Today. "If one takes such a tour out of a genuine desire to learn and a passion for social justice, the experience can be valuable, eye-opening, even life-changing. If one goes as a spectator, it's little different than a visit to the zoo," he said.

This opportunity of global interest in child poverty should not be wasted. Instead, it should spur the Slumdog director to set up a foundation with some of the proceeds from the film to champion the cause of poor children with UNICEF in South Asia and the rest of the world.

A recent issue of San Jose Mercury News has a pictorial about grinding poverty in India done by John Boudreau and Dai Sugano. This heartbreaking pictorial illustrates the extent of the problem that India faces, a problem that could potentially be very destabilizing and put the entire society at the risk of widespread chaos and violence.

Here's a video clip from the Mercury News story:

Here's a video clip on world poverty:

Slumdog child actors at the Oscars:

Please make your contribution to the Hunger Project or Hidaya Foundation or Edhi Foundation or UNICEF to help alleviate child hunger and poverty in South Asia.

Related Links:

Mumbai's Slumdog Millionaire

Poverty Tours in India, Brazil and South Africa

South Asia's War on Hunger Takes Back Seat

Bollywood and Hollywood Mix Up Combos

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Pakistani Children's Plight

Poverty in Pakistan


Riaz Haq said...

Here's some good news for two Slumdog child actors as reported by the BBC:

Two child actors from the film Slumdog Millionaire will be moved from slums to new houses by Indian authorities.

Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, who played young versions of two main characters, were discovered by casting agents in Mumbai's Garib Nagar slum.

There was an outcry when it was found they were still living there after the success of the Oscar-winning film.

An official said the children had "brought laurels to the country" and deserved to be rewarded.

Local housing association chairman Amarjeet Singh Manhas added: "Since the children have made the nation proud, they must be given free houses.

"The chief minister of the state has approved this."

Riaz Haq said...

Education can help lift people out of poverty.

Many of the parents of the poor children (either) can not (or do not feel the need) to send their children to schools. The children either work or beg for food. It's important for the governments as well as non-govt organizations in poor nations to provide the very basic incentives and opportunities to bring such children to schools. A few years ago during my visit to India, I heard of a government program that gave the parents a couple of kilos of wheat flour that increased primary school enrollment in UP. There is a need to have more such programs to create a brighter future for poor children, their parents and the nations in South Asia.

blask said...

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Riaz Haq said...

Here's a news story about a slumdog child actor's situation from BBC today:

The Mumbai slum home of one of the child stars of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire has been demolished by city authorities.

Reports say that police smacked the boy, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, with a bamboo stick before ordering him out.

The authorities claim he and other families were squatting on land that was owned by the government.

He played a younger version of one of the main characters in the film, which scooped eight Oscars.

"We are homeless, we have nowhere to go," Azharuddin said after the demolition.

The family lived in a temporary makeshift shelter made up of plastic sheets over bamboo sticks, in a slum near Bandra East in Mumbai.

He said he had been fast asleep when the demolition squad came and asked them to leave, later tearing down the entire row of tents pitched on the land.

The family claim they had not been informed about the planned demolition.

Municipal official, Uma Shankar Mistry, who was present during the demolition, told the BBC that the authorities only razed temporary and illegal homes which had recently been erected next to the slum.

He said the houses were in an area that was meant for a public garden.

Housing promise

The mother of the child actor said that she did not know what would happen to her family now and that the help promised by local authorities and by the film's makers had not materialised.

"Our house has been broken down by officials. We have not been given any alternate accommodation. Earlier the authorities had said they would give us a house. But I don't think that will happen any more," Shamim Ismail told the BBC.

The families of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and co-star Rubina Ali, who played a younger version of the film's female lead, had been promised new accommodation by a local housing authority.

But a decision about whether or not this will go ahead is still pending.

Film director Danny Boyle has strongly denied charges of exploitation.

The film's makers have set up funds to pay for their education and they have been enrolled in school for the first time.

They also recently announced that they will donate £500,000 to a charity which will help children living in the slums of Mumbai.

The film has made more than $200m (£140m) in box office takings around the world.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Daily Mail report today about the continuing misfortunes of Slumndog child star Rubina Ali:

She's the child star of one of last year's highest grossing movies, but Rubina Ali has been left homeless for the second time in a year.

The Slumdog Millionaire actress, 10, and her family had to sleep in the open air after their home in India was demolished to make way for a new railway line.

This comes despite the promise of a new luxury apartment paid for by a trust fund set up by the hit film's director Danny Boyle.

Read more:

Riaz Haq said...

ere's a BBC report of an unfortunate fire at the home Slumdog child star Rubia Ali:

The child actress lost most of her awards in the raging fire in Mumbai

Indian child actress Rubina Ali, who acted in Slumdog Millionaire, says she has lost precious souvenirs of the 2008 Oscar-winning film in a fire.

The blaze late on Friday ravaged her home and scores of others in the Garib Nagar slum, near Mumbai's Bandra Railway Station.

Nobody was killed in the fire but 21 people were injured and more than 2,000 were left homeless, police say.

Rubina's father said he and his family had had to run from their home.

They had been watching television when they heard shouts of a fire and ran out of their tin-roofed shanty, he told the Associated Press news agency by telephone.

"We just grabbed what we could and dashed out," Rafiq Ali said.

"The fire spread so fast we couldn't get back in."

Rubina said she had lost all her awards and her collection of newspaper clippings and photographs from the success of the 2008 film.

"It's all gone, even my best clothes, everything," she told AP.

She added that the family had yet to move into a new apartment paid for by a trust set up by the film's director, Danny Boyle.

Rubina was eight when she played the role of the young Latika in Boyle's film, and her journey from the slum to the Oscar stage made international headlines

Riaz Haq said...

Here's Aaakar Patel on Punjabis and Urdu-speakers of Bollywood:

The dominant communities of Bollywood are two: the Urdu-speakers of North India and, above all, the Punjabis from in and around Lahore. They rule Bollywood and always have. To see why this is unusual, imagine a Pakistan film industry set in Karachi but with no Pashtuns or Mohajirs or Sindhis. Instead the actors are all Tamilian and the directors all Bengalis. Imagine also that all Pakistan responds to their Tamil superstars as the nation's biggest heroes. That is how unusual the composition of Bollywood is.

A quick demonstration. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are the three current superstars. All three are Urdu-speakers. In the second rung we have Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shahid Kapoor and Ajay Devgan. Of these, Hrithik, Ajay and Akshay are Punjabi while Saif is Urdu-speaking. Shahid Kapoor, as his name suggests, is half-Punjabi and half-Urdu-speaking.

Behind the camera, the big names are Punjabi: Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra of Lahore.

The Kapoor clan of Lyallpur is the greatest family in acting, not just in Bollywood but anywhere in the world. It has produced four generations of superstars: Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi, their children Rishi and Randhir, and the current generation of Ranbir, Kareena and Karisma.

Bollywood is a Punjabi industry. We have Dev Anand of Lahore, Balraj Sahni of Rawalpindi, Rajendra Kumar of Sialkot, IS Johar of Chakwal, Jeetendra, Premnath, Prem Chopra, Anil Kapoor and Dharmendra who are all Punjabis. Sunil Dutt of Jhelum, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Suresh Oberoi of Quetta, and all their star kids are Punjabis. Composer Roshan (father of Rakesh and grandfather of Hrithik) was from Gujranwala.

What explains this dominance of Punjabis in Bollywood? The answer is their culture. Much of India's television content showcases the culture of conservative Gujarati business families. Similarly, Bollywood is put together around the extroverted culture and rituals of Punjabis.

The sangeet and mehndi of Punjabi weddings are as alien to the Gujarati in Surat as they are to the Mohajir in Karachi. And yet Bollywood's Punjabi culture has successfully penetrated both. Bhangra has become the standard Indian wedding dance. Writer Santosh Desai explained the popularity of bhangra by observing that it was the only form of Indian dance where the armpit was exposed. Indians are naturally modest, and the Punjabi's culture best represents our expressions of fun and wantonness.

Even artsy Indian cinema is made by the people we call Punjus - Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair.

Another stream of Bollywood is also connected to Lahore, in this case intellectually, and that is the progressives. Sajjad Zaheer (father of Nadira Babbar), Jan Nisar Akhtar (father of lyricist Javed and grandfather of actor/director Farhan and director Zoya), Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana), Majrooh Sultanpuri and so many others have a deep link to that city.