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 EthicalTraveler.org, 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.
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