It was the Oscar winning movie that couldn’t help but make the world fall in love. Given the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi was naturally my first foray into the vast slum life of this grand city. Even though I had already been working with slum kids at the Akanksha Centers, I thought it was important to explore their lives in the slum itself, to see firsthand where they came from and to understand their worlds. The Dharavi slum remains the largest slum in Asia, and with over 1 million people clustered in 1 square mile, it is the only slum that you can see from the moon. There are numerous tourist agencies that operate there and offer guided walks through the area. The tour guides explain that their mission is to show visitors that the slum is not filled with a lazy and apathetic people, but rather a hard-working community that collaborates to live another day. There are over 10,000 different industries in the slum, from the traditional pottery and textile industries to an increasingly large recycling industry that processes recyclable waste from other parts of Mumbai. Dharavi exports goods around the world, with the total turnover estimated to be around 650 million US Dollars per year. The men in the slums work 10 hour days, melting aluminum and plastic, without even masks to protect against the fumes. The women wash empty kerosene cans in boiling hot water from dawn until dusk, without gloves to shield them from burn. And they do this for a mere 150 to 200 rupees a day. To give you a first-hand sense of the disparity in Bombay, I was at a friend’s birthday party on Marine Drive where her Indian boyfriend bought the table a 21,000 rupee bottle of champagne. The bill for 6, which he covered, was over 100,000 rupees. In 2 hours. Sans food. Most people wouldn’t see that amount in their lives.
Many of the young girls and boys of the slum seemed dressed as if prepared for their starring role in Bollywood, with the girls in glittery costume jewelry feeling like Ashwairya Rai and the boys in plastic sunglasses like Salman Khan. These slum children grew up on Bollywood, and while originally I had explored the positive impacts that the music and cinema had on their lives, a social worker offered me a different point of view. He explained to me that as many movies glorify the villain, depicting him as a cool, young stud that gets the girls and makes the money through his manipulative ways, many slum kids try to emulate that stereotype. In fact, crime in the slums actually correlates with the current releases and their glorification of the Bollywood villain. The boys want to be the next tough hero that makes it big, no matter the means. Another interesting observation was how Bollywood affects the treatment of women in these communities. In movies, “no” often means “yes,” as male relentlessly pursues female even as she rejects his advances. In the movie, she really does like him, but her reticent nature bars her from accepting his love. He never gives up however and uses every means possible to win over his lady – and the triumph is eventually his. While movies the world over often glorify the villain and depict the romantic chase, their impact on slum children seem more potent as Bollywood is of one the few things the children are exposed to outside of the slum. In a way, it constitutes their only world outside of the community.
The interesting thing about Dharavi is how self-contained it is. You could be my age, 25, and not ever have left the confines of the slum, because, well, you just don’t need to. As we walked past the different industries, barbershops, food stores, and goats, we finally arrived at the residences, a maze of narrow walkways with open drains and exposed wires. Here, entire families of 4, 5, 6, or more, live in one room, containing a bed, basic cooking utensils and surprisingly, a television, with some old bootleg copies of Bollywood stashed to the side. Walking past the rooms, one can hear popular Bollywood tunes playing from an old cassette player or radio and see children dancing to the songs. I was surprised to learn that Dharavi is actually supposed to be one of the nicer slums in Mumbai, as the government ensures basic electricity and sets up municipal schools, however dire the quality. Our last stop at the slum was to the slum cinema, where tickets cost 10 rupees– a mere 22 cents. I knew it wouldn’t be luxurious, but I was at least expecting some kind of theatre. The “cinema” was actually a room, with a tiny television displaying a bootleg copy of a Bollywood movie. There were no seats, and the people lay sans blankets on the hard floor. It was packed however, and the people crowded together to experience one of the few escapes available in an otherwise trying world.
Within the grand city of Mumbai, there exists a not so tiny society of people that work together to get by. They hold their families close and their loyalties closer, for what they don’t have in wealth, they make up in spirit, and its not possessions but pride that makes them heroes.