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Dharavi: The real-life Slumdog Millionaire

Aris Chatzistefanou
“K” magazine, February 2009

At the entrance of the house a big swastika with a “WELCOME” sign next to it awaits. The gammadion cross is the symbol of god Brahma that supposedly brings good luck to Hindus. To me, it conveys an entirely different message: Welcome to hell.

We are at the heart of Dharavi, the largest slum of Asia. Somewhere here, among the trash and the dead animals, is the place where the kids that stared in Slumdog Millionaire used to play and dream. According to the script of the movie, one of those children would claim the price of the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”.

It might be the place that best conveys how the collective subconscious pictures hell. Flames rise high in the air from self-made ovens, foundries and furnaces. The dense smoke and the environmental pollution of Bombay combined, create a horrible landscape. In some cases the visibility range won’t exceed 5 meters. Thin women balance baskets on their heads and children are playing around their feet. Their figures appear frightening behind the dark cloud of smoke that surrounds them. Can anyone really escape this place, even by plain luck, like the hero of the movie did? On first sight that would seem like an impossible scenario, that could only take place in a Hollywood (or Bollywood) movie. At least 6 out of 10 people who live under those conditions appear to be having the same opinion. The Indian Dream confined those 8 million souls into a mere 6% of the total city area.

We cross the tiny alleyways formed by the self-made constructions of iron plate and plastic. This slum alone (one of the 700 slums of Bombay) is crowded by one million people, with no access to running water and with outdoor toilets used by thousands. The scene reminds me of the historical descriptions of the medieval cities across Europe. But Dharavi is not a far-cry from the past. It is a vision of the future. By 2030, two billion people are expected to be living in similar slums. They will still be called favelas at Rio de Janeiro, gesekondus at Istanbul and necropolises at Cairo.

However destitution doesn’t translate to moral poverty. My guide, a member of a non-governmental organization who took up the task of leading me through the narrow alleyways warned me not to take any pictures. “They are not zoo animals” he told me. “And they are also not beggars” he added, in fear that I would try to bribe them for some photos. It is true that most slums of Mumbai are not cities of beggars. But they might be something even worse – centers of production.

Far away from the lights of Bollywood’s industry or the developing silicon valleys of India, slums process the waste of all that explosive growth. The annual turnover of the labor performed at Dharavi exceeds one billion dollars. Here is where all the trash of the Bombay economic miracle ends up. Thousands of people whose job is to separate animal waste; which will become fodder or fertilizer, from plastic and metal; which will be sold to big industries for recycling. Inside every warehouse that we pass through, tenths of workers perform repetitive tasks. Some of them sort out plastic according to color and quality. Others sew or iron clothes that could even end up at the most expansive shops of the Indian metropolis. Bombay, lost between the cooperative skyscrapers and the modern restaurants, hides some of the planet’s greatest sweatshops – industries that don’t pay by the hour but by the amount of sweat the workers sweat.

We are now driving towards Dhobi Ghat, perhaps the world’s largest outdoor laundry. At the heart of Bombay, hundreds of workers wash tons of clothes in potholes filled with water and detergent. The bedclothes of big city hotels and brand new jeans of well-known clothing brands end up here so they can be stonewashed before being sent to markets abroad. Someone is ironing newly washed clothes with a charcoal iron. A child, who could never answer any of the “Millionaire’s” questions, is squishing the water out of bed sheets before leaving them to dry.

The view from the flyover bridge above Dhobi Ghat is breathtaking: The world’s largest laundry dries over an area as wide as the eye can see. I crowd myself between the tourists that come in special groups to witness this great spectacle of poverty. The greatest surprise came when I decided to leave. A nine or ten year old boy attempts to sell me Freakonomics, a book about the world economy that became a best seller in London due to its simplistic analysis. He sees me waver so he decides to use his trump card. He pulls a photocopy of Allan Greenspan’s, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, book out of his back. I wonder if I could ever be able to explain to this little street peddler that this certain man and his interest policies are greatly responsible for the economic speculation worldwide and the rise of food prices and poverty across India. Instead, I confirm the post-colonial tourist stereotype by engaging into a vicious bargain about the book’s price. I don’t care about the money. I just want to find out what’s the cheapest price you can buy the neoliberal guru in the poor neighborhoods of Bombay. We finally agree on 2 Euros, which sounds good enough. I pay the original price and leave.

On the road back i record scenes which i later identify in Slumdog Milionaire. Thousands of people sleep on and around the railway tracks; the last remaining free space left behind by the continuous urban construction. Thousands of deaths by train accidents take place each year at Bombay alone. Hundreds of other people get crushed by cars in their attempt to cross the roads that cut through the terrain. Bombay, Ptolemy’s ancient Heptanesia, which ended up being called Mumbai by Indian nationalists, is not a good place to live if you are not a millionaire.

Our tour continues at the red light district, another familiar scene from the movie. The area was built during British colonialism as a place of sexual relief for British soldiers. After the independence, the prostitutes and their protectors occupied the old British apartments and keep on practicing the world’s oldest profession. Today the area is controlled by the mafia that also controls the majority of production in the slums. For many people, life starts and ends on a district similar to this, whether it’s called Dharavi, Dhobi or simply…..red light district. A life that’s far away from western movie halls, and strangely even farther away from the rich neighborhoods of Bombay.

At the city’s international airport, moments before I board, I watch the tourists do some last minute shopping. Probably they will also compare their experiences with the Slumdog Millionaire scenes. For now they buy Bollywood movie DVDs and Indian music CDs ranging from traditional Sitar sounds to modern pop.

Those Untouched by the Crisis

“Don’t search for a deeper meaning. It’s just poverty porn” was the comment of an Indian critic after the premier of the movie Slumdog Millionaire” and many of his colleagues at the West rushed to agree. Millions of people sitting on their armchairs, stuffed with huge buckets of popcorn and soft drinks, watched the movie that Financial Times compared to a “colorful carnival”. And what better period to watch this carnival of poverty than today, an age of economic crisis where Hollywood acts as a painkiller against the collective agony of an entire society – exactly how it did after the crash of 1929.

Washington Post describes the movie as the ultimate portrait of the modern globalised India and notes that Charles Dickens’ tales about the first years of the industrial revolution were also carnivals of poverty.

It might appear weird that, as Los Angeles Times pointed out, the detached viewer of this carnival of poverty can not only be found within the Western society but also within the Indian metropolis.

It’s not certain whether the residents of Juhu, the most expansive part of Bombay, can point out the exact location of the Dharavi slum on the map – even though they live a few kilometers away from it.

The kids of wealthy Indian families that visit the open zoos at the outskirts of the slums don’t know that their homeless fellow citizens find shelter among the trees and are sometimes eaten to alive by wild animals that roam the parks.

Dharavi is a world equally foreign both to these kids and the average Los Angeles residents (who, in turn, are also unaware of the living conditions in the ghettos of black and Hispanic minorities).

It would only be natural that a country as divided as India would react to the movie in a variety of ways. For big news agencies like Times of India Slumdog Millionaire was a pleasant surprise. “An Indian story fascinates worldwide” writes the English language newspaper Hindustan Times. But for the middle and lower classes, the word slumdog alone, which was used by the British conquerors, was enough to cause an upheaval.

A great portion of India felt that the West still looks at the country through the same eyes that Rudyard Kipling did; The eyes of a colonialist and a racist, the eyes of a man who lives at Bombay but wants to have nothing to do with the locals.

In reality the well-paid movie critics of India have nothing to be jealous of their western colleagues. They all watched a fascinating film about a country…far away.


Translation: Panos Chatzistefanou

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