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"Slumdog" could bring fortune

Scott Jagow Feb 23, 2009

It’ll be fascinating to see where this Best Picture Oscar takes Mumbai — India’s largest city and financial capital. At the very least, the success of Slumdog Millionaire will provide a short-term tourism boost. Expedia is already promoting an Oscar vacation package to Mumbai and Dharavi, the massive slum depicted in the film. But wait, there’s more.

(Children in Mumbai celebrate the Slumdog victory)

In a recent speech, India’s Home Minister P Chidambaram said the movie should inspire banks to make loans to budding entrepreneurs in slums:

“A slum like Dharavi in Mumbai is humming with business ideas and innovations and we have to reach to such people also.”

The way the slum is depicted in the film isn’t – surprise, surprise – 100% accurate, but probably captures the essence of it. Here’s a compelling first-person account published yesterday in the Canadian magazine Maisonneuve. The writer and his wife recently took a tour of Dharavi with Reality Tours and Travel. The company aims to dispel myths about slums, like perhaps the ones depicted in the movie.

A slum, the tour guide begins, “is anything built on government-owned land without permission.” That includes, for example, high-rise apartment buildings. The tour guide also points out that slumdog is a made-up word and isn’t used in India. At the film’s premiere in Mumbai, there was this sign:

“I am not a slumdog. I am the future of India.”

One aspect of the movie that does seem to be accurate is begging as a career. From the same article:

Then there is the case of professional beggars. Mumbai can likely claim the most successful, some of whom are estimated to be worth over Rs 300,000,000 (approx $6,000,000 USD) with houses in posh neighborhoods.

Could be something of an urban myth, but if it’s anywhere close to the truth, it’s astounding. Then again, if you’ve spent any time in cities like Mumbai, you know how aggressive and unrelenting the begging can be. I’m sure there are begging syndicates, and I’m sure they make a killing.

But let’s hope begging is not the future for Mumbai. It sounds like a city with great potential, a city of great opportunity. A brighter future also sounds a ways off. The terrorist attacks in November were a setback. But perhaps this Academy Award will bring something positive.

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