DELHI — When the cast of the faux-Bollywood hit "Slumdog Millionaire" hits the
red carpet for the Oscars Feb. 22, the film's Indian distributors will have one eye on another contest underway in India, which serves as the movie's backdrop. This one will take place Feb. 25 in Mumbai's Andheri Sessions Court, where Slumdog faces charges that it is offensive.
But try telling that to some of India's real street kids — like 13-year-old Faisal, who lives in a group home for wayward boys near the New Delhi railway station — and you quickly find out that there's more hype than substance to the charges.
"It's a nice film," Faisal told me after I took him and three other "slumdogs" to see the movie. "Some of the things it shows are right, some things are wrong. It's a movie."
(Click here for a look at "slum tours" — which allow you to spend time with Delhi's railway children — at the New Delhi railway station)
As the Andheri court case suggests, Slumdog's optimistic love story has been surprisingly controversial here, where many see it as yet more evidence that the West continues to view India as a land of filth and poverty and incomprehensible religious violence.
But that's not how real street kids see it. At a seedy theater on the outskirts of Old Delhi where director Danny Boyle's Bollywood tribute was showing in Hindi, the four former street kids, now in their teens, laughed with glee when the young Jamal jumped into the open latrine so he wouldn't miss his chance to get an autograph from film star Amitabh Bachchan.
From the grin on his face, it was clear beyond doubt that 17-year-old Sanjay's favorite part of the movie was the sequence shot in and around the Taj Mahal, where Jamal and Salim earn an excellent living as guides, scamming tourists with ludicrous made-up tales about the tomb's historical origins. "There were some funny dialogues," he sheepishly explained later. It was obviously a familiar scenario.
The Andheri case is only one among several that have sought to censor the India-inspired Oscar candidate — which is up for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.
In addition to the case lodged against the film's title in Andheri, a Bihar slum-dwellers' organization has filed a defamation case against composer A.R. Rahman and star Anil Kapoor in Patna.
Meanwhile, a Gujarat-based non-governmental organization has filed for a stay on the film's release due to its title.
"We have raised a question whether we Indians are dogs," said advocate Meena Jagtap, who is a founding member of the organization. Still another group, the right-wing Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, has petitioned the Indian censor board to ban the film because of its depiction of a pogrom against Muslims by followers of the Hindu god Ram.
But for Faisal and Sanjay — along with 19-year-old Brijesh and 17-year-old Iqbal, my other two guests — "Slumdog Millionaire" depicts a fantasy version of a very real chance to escape dead-end lives of petty crime and mind-numbing jobs. Today, Brijesh and Faisal earn pocket money as tour guides for foreign tourists interested in understanding New Delhi's crowded slums. Far from considering "Slumdog Millionaire" an affront, they're pleased with its simultaneously gritty and glamorous depiction of kids like themselves.
It's easy to see why. As Dickensian as it must seem to movie audiences in the West, the hardscrabble existence that "Slumdog Millionaire" depicts is eerily familiar to these kids.
Brijesh, for example, ran away from his aunt's house when he was just 9 years old. "They used me like a slave," he says. He hopped a passenger train without knowing where it was headed, slept all night seated on the toilet with the bathroom door locked because he didn't have a ticket, and finally jumped off again in the grim industrial town of Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh. "I was crying under a railway bridge because I was hungry, and this boy came along and asked me if I had run away."
A fellow runaway, the boy taught Brijesh how to earn a living by collecting empty water bottles, refilling them from the railway station's bathroom tap and selling them on the platform for half the price of genuine purified water.
"After one year, I was sniffing glue and smoking cigarettes, and I'd been sent to prison," he says — referring to a juvenile detention center. "The first time, I was locked up for 14 days. The next time, it was 42 days." In India, this meant spending all day locked in a small room with 25 other boys.
Today Brijesh and company aren't exactly millionaires.
But in a sense, they have hit the jackpot — perhaps ironically — due to another film about Indian street kids, called "Salaam Bombay," that also drew criticism when it was released. All four boys were "rescued" from Delhi's streets by a non-governmental organization called the Salaam Balak Trust, which was started by director Mira Nair after she made "Salaam Bombay." The former street kids got counseling, protection and a place to live. And a chance at a better life. Brijesh, for instance, has finished high school and is now studying for a college degree in tourism. And Faisal has already acted in a feature film — a fact that became screamingly obvious when I asked him how "Slumdog" differed from a Bollywood movie.
"An Indian director would only use two or three cameras, at most," he says authoritatively. "Danny Boyle used at least four or five."
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