I wrote a post recently opining that “Slumdog Millionaire” lacked a sense of the community in the Mumbai slum of Dharavi. One rugged individual prevails and gets the money and the girl– a feelgood plot. The use of real slum childrenâ€“scores of them in extra parts–and the casual violence against them made me worry that the movie had raised the bar. You might remember a TV movie from 1974 called Born Innocent. The script writers had come up with a novel form of violence and got 15-year-old Linda (Exorcist) Blair to star. Within weeks, some children acted out the assault scene for real on a smaller child. That’s one consequence of dramatized violence; it can lead to ”copycat” crimes.
In any form of art, what is perceived depends on the viewer and the context. “Slumdog” was a validation for many, enjoyed by many, won Oscars and may, I hope, empower the people of Dharavi. The director, Danny Boyle, was interviewed on NPR. He sounded very proud that he had paid all the children the standard rate in Britain, not India. He had arranged for education and a trust fund for the child stars. But it’s not enough.
The disparity, the power imbalance, the need and the rage are forces much bigger than a movie crew with good intentions. The system is designed to ensure that the rich will get the millions, and the slumdogs will stay in the slums. How else would it be possible to keep so many in such desperation for so long? The child actors will not be saved by a trip to Disneyland and a little cash. Their situation now would be difficult for an adult, never mind a small child. From destitution, to Hollywood, then back to the slums–
Azhar, 10, spent the weekend vomiting and has developed a temperature of 103 degrees since returning home last week after travelling to the Oscars with co-star Rubina Ali, 9.
He has been prescribed antibiotics by doctors, who said he is suffering from fever and exhaustion, but his condition has continued to worsen.
Azhar’s neighbours have also rallied round to build an 8ft by 5ft metal structure for him to sleep under out of the sun.
The families of the two child stars have said their children are not readjusting to life back in the slums after five days of glitz and glamour in Los Angeles.
“I cannot believe these kids have just been left like this after being taken to Hollywood. It is bound to affect them psychologically,” said social worker Sanjay Bhatia, who works in the slum.
There’s no question that the children need protection– someone who will stay and advocate for them until they are old enough to make their own way in life. They might need that well past the age of 18. Linda Blair, who had none of the culture shock and way more privilege than the Dharavi children, struggled with drugs and was lured into exploitation films before finding a stable adult life. The former child star is a sad Hollywood cliche. Was anyone thinking of that when they recruited these very young, very poor children?
Calling India — these kids need help on the ground, their parents are not up to the task. It’s a superhuman task. There’s no normal for them to go back to now, they need a trustworthy and skilled social work team to arrange for them and their families to have a safe place to live and a plan that works. They were chosen for the movie because they were sweet, and fearless and bright. With some good people to help them make the best of their fame they may be writing their own scrip in a few years, and that would be the one I’d want to watch.