[BEN PIVEN was a 2007-2008 Fulbright scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where he conducted research on the convergence of caste and class in Dharavi, as well as in many other slums and private sector workplaces (read his Fulbright report). He is now a new media student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (his e-mail is BenPiven/gmail).]
Aside from the usual criticisms about "Slumdog Millionaire"--regarding its essential truthfulness, or whether the title demeans its subjects--some Mumbai-centric commentators have accused the film of unfair characterization of the Indian slum in general, and Dharavi in particular.
Dharavi is often touted as Asia's largest slum. Yet the recent quibble by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava in Saturday's New York Times (and on their blog) is that Dharavi deserves better than to be classified as a slum. They stress the productivity, efficiency, and vitality of Dharavi as traits of a true neighborhood, and not of a mere slum.
"The imagery represents what most middle-class residents of Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend of its squalor has taken root because few Mumbaikers have ever been there," opine Echanove and Srivastava. "Its depiction as a slum does little justice to the reality of Dharavi."
While hinting at substantive principles, their key objection is based on a semantic observation about the quintessential slum. Moreover, they use the politically explosive pretext of word choice as their entry point into slum dweller advocacy. Indeed, this film provides a convenient cross-cultural forum for all parties to chime in about their causes. But this semantic argument--while extolling certain undeniably redeeming aspects of slums--ultimately ignores the crude and complex reality of slum conditions that I observed firsthand.
As a Fulbright scholar in India last year, I conducted fieldwork in Dharavi on caste and class issues. Then, when I viewed "Slumdog Millionaire" in Manhattan on November 24th--just two days before a series of terror attacks rocked India's largest megalopolis--I was emotionally transported back to the colorful chaos of Mumbai. I was struck by the film's remarkable fusion of the postmodern sensibility of Boyle's "Trainspotting" with a larger-than-life Bollywood version of "Ragged Dick," Horatio Alger's famous children's novel about a shoeshine boy in New York City.
Slumdog has put the underbelly of Mumbai on the map, much like "City of God" did for Rio and "The Wire" did for Baltimore. Middle-class viewers the world over harbor newfound respect for downtrodden urban areas, through a glorification of the peril and exoticism of largely unfamiliar subaltern cultures.
Ultimately, many of Slumdog's critics are angry that the film demeans indigent Indians and that "poverty porn" does a disservice to their cause, even while calling much-needed attention to relatively unfamiliar issues. Boyle certainly did not make a documentary, but it seems wrong to ignore the film's gritty resemblance to reality.
Many of "Slumdog Millionaire's" sequences were filmed in Dharavi's back alleys, amidst jam-packed huts and bustling enterprises. While the film does not explicitly address Dharavi, there is a logical connection between Jamal Malik's home and the abode of at least 750,000 Mumbaikers and their 12,000 industrial workshops, which have an estimated annual turnover of $650 million, according to a BBC profile. Echanove and Srivastava's assert that Dharavi is undervalued by middle class people who unfairly appraise the high-density area and its busy residents.
Their main idea is that Dharavi's five-parcel redevelopment must take into account the needs of the diverse people who toil and sleep there--and not just the appetites of developers. Many Mumbaikers dislike the term "revitalize," since the city's slums are already plenty lively. But the plan would surely turn the informally planned urban zone into a more regulated and affluent neighborhood, which would subject its recycling, food processing, and metalwork businesses to environmental, labor, and tax codes.
Many Dharavi residents fear that if development proceeds as planned, thousands of small businesses who thrive in the current setup will be squeezed out.
Dharavi's advocates also say that the term "slum" does not encompass the
systemic logic of Dharavi's commercial flows and manufacturing
fecundity. Moreover, the opponents of
large-scale gentrification, such as Jockin Arputham's National Slum Dwellers Federation, believe that residents are
entitled to greater input in the development process.
Arputham enjoys an antagonistic relationship with Mukesh Mehta, the main proponent of the Dharavi plan and former mansion developer in Long Island, N.Y. The Mehta plan seeks to fix what he once referred to as a wretched "black hole" in the center of an otherwise business-class city. Although Dharavi contains a variety of building types, it epitomizes "slum"--for good or for ill. Moreover, irrespective of ambitious development plans, slums are a permanent feature of the Mumbai cityscape.
Dharavi, and slums in general, should not be viewed as an overall liability to India's development, even if they are often public health and sanitation nightmares--something the Times op-ed glosses over. However, the piece does successfully pinpoint why Dharavi is a tremendous asset: "Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency."
The economic manpower and cultural essence of Mumbai reside in her masses of people who exist cradle-to-grave in this informal sector. Well over 50 percent of Mumbai's residents live in slums, and this percentage cannot decrease so long as rural migrants continue flocking to their congested city of dreams.
Coveted for its convenient location, the heart-shaped slum could fall prey to successive waves of urban renewal. But, it is crucial not to reduce urban development to a simple dichotomy. There are innumerable benefits and drawbacks--for all Mumbaikers--of so-called slum rehabilitation.
Despite much ambivalence about "Slumdog Millionaire's" merits, this much is true: we're now talking in real terms about political and socio-economic progress in Mumbai, and specifically in a neighborhood that has been ignored for too long.
The poignant final scene of Slumdog depicts a jovial Bollywood dance to "Jai Ho" on the platforms at Mumbai's Victoria Terminus. After the triumphant number's completion, the dancers-cum-passengers board the northbound trains, which presumably will transport them to rustic Dharavi dwellings, as well as upmarket Andheri bungalows. On Monday, three million commuters did their daily dance at Victoria Terminus--and then jubilantly carried home 8 Academy Awards.
--by Ben Piven
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