The British movie Slumdog Millionaire has spawned a brave new adventure – slum tourism. Expedia, a Washington-based company, is promoting the slums of Mumbai as the hottest tourism destination this spring and summer.
The global online tourism vendor has unveiled an Oscar holiday destination package that promises to show you every sick surprise that a slum can spring at jaded tourists. Walk through the smelly streets, avoid falling into the rotting sewage, and take home an experience that’ll make you feel good about your suburban digs.
According to Expedia sources, post Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai now tops the chart of global tourist destinations made popular by the Oscars.
Expedia isn’t the only one cashing in on the slums. The movie has boosted business for Reality Tours and Travel, which is co-owned by Chris Way, a Brit who lives in Mumbai, one of the world’s wealthiest cities and the engine of India’s turbo-charged economy.
Way estimates sales are up 25 per cent since Slumdog Millionaire’s release. He admits publicity surrounding the film has played a big role.
Reality Tours and Travel’s website tells you what to expect once you are out of the aseptic environment of your hotel room and the privileged neighborhoods.
“On the long tour you travel in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. We…head to the shanty town, passing areas of interest en route such as a boys′ shelter, Kamathipura (red light area) and a big open air laundry. The guide explains about these places and other issues facing the less privileged members of Indian society. It is quite an adventure to pass through the narrow alleys, and you will almost certainly lose your sense of direction!”
There’s more. “With the very high density of population and the limited infrastructure and sanitation facilities, there are areas which are quite dirty and smelly. We ask you to wear covered shoes.”
So how ethical is the world’s latest sunrise industry? “If one goes as a spectator, it's little different than a visit to the zoo," says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of EthicalTraveler.org.
"Part of the key is interaction," adds Greenwald. "Do visitors get to speak with these individuals, and gain a sense of their lives? … If not, this is the modern equivalent of watching people suffer in public coliseums."
Many agree. "Slumdog Millionaire is just every scrap of dirt picked up from every corner and piled up together. The film serves up India as the accidental millionaire, which in fact happens to be a slumdog," says management consultant and film producer Arindam Chaudhuri on his blog.
Indeed, Chaudhuri and others say the film descends into a well-worn stereotype. India, despite its powerhouse economy, larger than life entertainment industry, and its massive engineering and scientific sector, is still being portrayed as a land of misery by (in this case) British filmmakers.
Says Alice Mills of The Times, London: "It is a vile film. As it revels in the violence, degradation and horror, the film invites you, the westerner, to enjoy it, too. Will they find it such fun in Mumbai?"
Slumdog Millionaire doesn't even reflect reality. The scenes of police torture and starving children beaten and blinded are hardly the stuff of Dharavi, the Mumbai shantytown featured in the movie.
India’s liberal democracy gives its underclass many rights that the poor in the West simply don’t have. Chiefly, India doesn’t warehouse its poor in concrete row housing; the poor are not out of sight or out of mind.
Even as you read this, the country is in the midst of a massive gentrification exercise that is unparalleled in human history. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, over 1000 new mobile phone connections would have been sold all over India. That’s 15 million mobile connections in January this year.
According to a TIME magazine report, India had 22.5 per cent of world GDP in the year 1600. And then the colonizers arrived.
This is Lord Macaulay's address to the British Parliament on February 2nd, 1835: “I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage.”
“Therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”
After more than a hundred years of economic exploitation by Britain, that GDP figure was down to 0.5 per cent in the year 1947. So you could call India’s resurgence as a rightsizing of the world economic order.
Even Pentagon hawks agree that the former Cold War adversary will in 20 years time be one of the two superpowers and is therefore fit to be befriended. It is this side of the country that Slumdog Millionaire belittles.
Earlier this month, speaking at a conference in London’s St James Palace, Prince Charles said Dharavi offers a better model than does western architecture for ways to house a booming urban population in the developing world.
Indeed, the poverty in Dharavi is of a different character. Here poor children can be seen playing, attending school, not begging.
India’s democracy also allows the likes of David Boyle (the indie film producer, who has struck pay dirt with Slumgdog) to capture the squalor on celluloid. It’s not that the Chinese and North Koreans don’t have slums, but the chances of landing in a communist prison can deter the most committed director or journalist from filming them.
Yes, supporters of the movie accuse Indians who slam Slumdog of reacting like the Victorians first did to Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and professor at Columbia Journalism School, says: “India is too great a country to have its reputation made or broken by a single movie and Indians everywhere should have thicker skins. Heck, I was ready to protest within the first few minutes of the movie, too. After all, the main torturer in the film is a constable named Sreenivas!”
But what riles Indians is that the film is being pitched by Boyle and his British friends as a feel-good film.
Here is the British Board of Film Classification’s summary of the film: "Strong violence is seen in a scene where a group of Muslims are attacked and killed in the street – together with general chaos and beatings, there are some stronger and more explicit moments, such as the deliberate setting of a man on fire... We also later see strong violence that includes a knife held to a woman's throat as she's forcibly snatched off the street, an impressionistic blinding of a young beggar boy, and torture by electricity in a police station. The BBFC has placed this work in the COMEDY genre."
It’s no wonder Indians don’t get the joke.