Slum Dog Millionaire, a fictional movie about a boy from Mumbai’s slums who miraculously makes it big on India’s version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," was revered by Western critics and reviled by most Indian viewers. Why the divide? To get to the heart of it, I realized actually going to Mumbai (India) seemed my best option.
This task was not as daunting as it at first seemed. I have acquaintances in Mumbai and am in town for someone’s wedding. Luckily, I also know a few of the local languages despite living abroad most of my life. The place I’m living in is your typical “third-world” story: large condos surrounded by shanty-like settlements. I am the condo dweller, so the sight of slums right outside my window had been a real test on my privilege and my sense of guilt. Well, that was until I actually talked to someone who lived there.
One of our in-house helps lives in a shanty settlement across the hill. When we eventually got into conversation about life there, she quite frankly told me that she would live nowhere else. “If I am late from work, my neighbours bring my children dinner and make sure they are taken care of without me needing to ask… I have friends there and people I can rely on. Why would I want to move? I think the communities we have there are much stronger than you would even have here.”
She was right. Almost every person I have met who lives in a slum and works nearby have never seemed fundamentally unhappy. Sure, they look stressed from time to time, but not depressed. I am blessed with a close family, but when it comes to a greater sense of community, my privilege seems to have gotten me nowhere. Across the Atlantic we talk about living in a post-industrialist or post-capitalist society where we have reclaimed community. We spend countless hours quoting Berry, Schumaker, and Illich. But here in a modest slum, which may be blindly slated for redevelopment one day, we find people working in community and living it. I think there is a lesson to be learned here.
These discoveries reminded me of a conversation Jane Jacobs had with one of her planner friends. Her friend was talking about a social housing project that would “uplift” the then-impoverished Boston West End. Jacobs was against it, and quoted the supportive community lifestyle there, the proliferation of sustainable enterprises, and even the low incidence of crime (lowest in Boston). Her planner friend agreed with her and said he could not explain why this was so. Regardless, he promptly said redevelopment was needed as the area was poor. Jacobs later said her friend was stuck believing in a narrative, one he was conditioned to think was authoritative and real.
This is probably the same reason why many Indians did not like Slum Dog Millionaire. For privileged and cosmopolitan Indians, the film reinforces third-world shaming, which portrays them as deserving of pity and "developing." For others, it is a fundamentally undignified dog-eat-dog portrayal of Mumbai’s slum-residents and slum-life. Cities like Mumbai have neighbourhoods with a powerful sense of community. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we should look to them as we plan our cities for the post-industrial age.
Have you heard positive views on slums? Are there any slums where you live? What can we learn from the lifestyles of people who live with less privilege?
Credits: Images by Chandranil Das Gupta. Data linked to sources.