Tuesday, January 20, 2009

India VI: Slumdogs

There was nothing the most beautiful woman I've ever seen (no exaggeration) wanted to do more Saturday night than see Slumdog Millionaire with me. In case you haven't noticed — and judging by the page views you haven't — I've just recently returned from a trip to India, including a few days in Mumbai where the movie takes place. Well, I was dying to see it with her, too. It's been out for a couple of months, but the Golden Globes have rekindled interest and the theater was packed. And rightly so. It's a great movie. Go see it.

Sometimes the wretchedness depicted in a movie doesn't seem plausible. People couldn't be that poor, that miserable, that abused. The police couldn't be that corrupt and uncaring. Life couldn't be that unfair. Was this movie a fair and accurate description of real life in India? I can't say for sure. I was only there for a short while and almost certainly didn't see the worst. But based on what I did see it was certainly a plausible one.
In the movie: A small boy jumps into a pile of human waste and pushes through a crowd to get his favorite movie star's autograph.

What I saw: Shit everywhere. Of every kind. Kids running through the streets barefoot, getting it all over them. People squatting on the side of the road — sorry, ain't no anti-bacterial hand soap and running hot water nearby to wash those hands — make sure you eat with your left . . . Slums so vast and crowded that there's no way any sort of proper sewage could possibly do the job. Huts in the countryside literally made of cow-shit.

OK, so I didn't see anyone actually covered head to foot in excrement, but other than that . . .

In the movie: A gangster enslaves orphans, trains them to sing, and blinds them. Why blind them? So that when they spend the rest of their childhood (who knows what happens after) singing on a corner for handouts they'll get more sympathy from passers-by, and therefore more money for their masters.

What I saw: Beggars with mutilated feet and children on the sidewalk holding deformed babies. Eleven years ago after visiting the Taj Mahal, our guide took us to a shop where you could buy jewelry boxes and stuff like that made of marble and inlaid stone reminiscent of the Taj. We got a tour of the factory where the owner pointed to a handful of boys sitting against the wall putting tiny pieces of stone decorations into the marble. He told us they'd work here like this until they were in their teens at which time their fingers would no longer be delicate enough to handle the intricate work. Child labor for sure. Forced child labor? Sure looked like it. And what happens after?

OK, so I never witnessed anything quite as horrifying as in the movie, but is it out there? People seem to think so . . .

In the movie: Slum children playing cricket (or some game with a ball and a stick) on the airport runway, dodging planes and being chased by police.

What I saw: During the descent into the domestic airport in Mumbai you fly very low over what seems like an endless stretch of tin shacks — until all of a sudden you're right over the runway. The shacks literally press right up against the airport fence.

OK, so our plane didn't actually run over any kids, but the runway was certainly the biggest playing field around.

But I'm making the movie — and the country for that matter — sound terribly depressing. Sure, it is at times, but it's got an exciting plot, with some brilliant performances from the young actors and a pretty compelling love story. This guy's in love with this girl, she clearly wants to be with him, but she's with someone else and not nearly as happy as she'd be with him. Sounds like a million other Hollywood stories, but in this one I find myself really rooting for the guy. It also helps that she's stunningly beautiful. I can't tell you here how it ends . . .

India is an amazing place and has much to offer. Its economy is growing fast and it's made remarkable progress. A century ago, historian Sir Martin Gilbert estimates that about half a million people a year died of the plague — it's certainly come a long way from that, although Usha and Zubin Ronowat might dispute how far it's really progressed. It's a dynamic place and the streets feel more alive than anywhere I've been. But still, to me, the single most defining aspects of India are the overpowering smell and the vast, crushing, unparalleled poverty that affects hundreds of millions in the city slums and countryside. You get used to the smell after a couple of days. You really do. I think your nose just gets tired. But you never quite get used to the poverty . . .

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A Seinfeld clip and a Major League reference all in one blog post...strong work.

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