with intense concentration, barely moving from his cross-legged position on the floor, 12-year-old Vijay Kumar, a ragpicker around Old Delhi railway station, grinned: “I really enjoyed it. It shows my life, the way children like me eat and sleep together, how we live.”
As the backlash against the film rises to an angry roar, I had asked Vijay and a dozen other destitute boys — with the permission of the charity Butterflies, which provides them with a night shelter — to give me their reaction to a film that claims to capture their joys and sorrows.
Adult opinions on the film are known but what would the boys make of it? Would it be a big bore? Was it phoney? Had Danny Boyle captured their lives faithfully? Would they want to switch it off halfway through?
Before sitting down on the mat to watch it on DVD, they filled me in with their stories. All were distressingly similar.
Ranging from eight to 14 years, the boys had fled from rural poverty in families where there wasn’t enough food to go around or to escape alcoholic fathers, violent stepfathers or vicious stepmothers. For a part of the day, they study, thanks to Butterflies’ education programme. After lunch, they work, sifting through rubbish, serving tea in dhabas, or selling bangles or snacks on pushcarts. In the evening, they come to the night shelter where they get a hot meal and a safe place to sleep.
They had heard about Slumdog because it was a film about people ‘like them’. Their verdict on the movie was that it was ‘great’. The message they drew from the film was one of hope. As they raised their hands to give their opinions and jostled for my attention, 10-year-old Sudeep said: “It shows that if we study hard and work hard, then we too can become millionaires.” When he saw the scepticism on my face, Sudeep, who works carrying lamps in wedding processions at night, nodded vigorously and insisted. “Yes, yes, we can, if not millionaires, we can at least become lakhpatis.”
What discerning critics they turned out to be. They caught every nuance, understood every twist in the plot and were perfectly happy with the absence of dishum-dishum or song-and-dance routines. If the film was phenomenally popular in the West — they had heard of the Oscar nominations — it must be because those people had never experienced poverty and so it was absorbing for them to see something so different, one 14-year-old told me.
If Jamal Malik could lift himself up out of poverty, they too could become engineers, doctors, and policemen. “If you try hard enough and someone helps you or guides you, you don’t have to stay poor,” said Dugesh, 11, who has not seen his family in Chhattisgarh for three years. Asked if the film was ‘true’, they exclaimed ‘Yes!’.
That’s what slums are like, that’s how the police harass us, that’s how some boys get into crime or glue-sniffing, that’s how middlemen approach us and ask us to entice children to be sold to gangs, that’s how we share our food and help one another. On the love story, they were reticent. They had preferred, naturally enough, the early part of the film that features Jamal, Salim and Latika when they were young.
While the boys said they adored Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, they instantly perceived the differences between Bollywood and Slumdog Millionaire. Hindi films, Akash said, were always about the rich, never the poor.
And in a remark that could have come from American film critic Pauline Kael, Akash explained how he found Slumdog
different. “The other films I’ve seen were timepass. This one made me think.”
Then it was time to switch back to Tom and Jerry.
(Amrit Dhillon is a Delhi-based freelance journalist)