Dispatch February 2009

Real People, Not Slumdogs

Just hours after Slumdog Millionaire picked up its eighth Oscar, our correspondent visited the Mumbai neighborhood depicted in the film and gauged reactions

Photos of Dharavi, Mumbai, by Jarrett Wrisley

The people of Dharavi, the Mumbai slum that starred in a certain Oscar-winning film, do not want your sympathy. Nor your pity, or even your charity. What they do want, according to the people I spoke with there today, is simply your respect.

This neighborhood, which is squeezed between the Western and Central railways in Mumbai, is home to well over half a million people (estimates range from 600,000 to over 1,000,000 residents). It’s a remarkable feat of unplanned growth—consisting of tin shacks and dirt tracks, mosques and temples and tunnels, all leading to much more of the same. It’s also an industrious neighborhood, a teeming, friendly place where some people barely subsist but most lead spare but dignified lives.

I visited Dharavi a few hours after Slumdog Millionaire took home eight Oscars. English director Danny Boyle shot several scenes here, and a handful of the actors were plucked from the notorious slum. There have been reports of unrest over the film’s portrayal of life in Dharavi, but the people I spoke with seemed to take issue not with the movie’s content but with its unflattering title.

Tushar Lokhande, a clean cut, twenty-five-year-old I encountered loitering in the shade with his friends, offered his view of the Slumdog problem: “What people don’t realize is that people who live in Dharavi are still real people. I work at Star TV, you know. But Mumbai has a land problem, and many people with real jobs can’t afford real houses. We don’t want people to think we live like dogs.” 

Monday marked Mahashivaratri, a Hindu holiday, so the streets were full of kids whacking balls with cricket bats, and families heading to the temple to pray. Marayan Reddy, a forty-eight-year-old laborer and father of two, insisted that I accompany him to his local temple so he could show me the devout side of Dharavi. About the film, he said, “I have not seen it, but I understand that it shows our neighborhood from one side. We have families, we have jobs, we actually raise kids. I don’t have time to watch films anyways—I wake up at 4:30 each morning and go to work.”

Behind him, his friend Kumar Cheddy piped up to disagree. “Danny Boyle is a great filmmaker, and Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent film. If it was just called Slum Millionaire it would be better, but I think it is good for India because it shows the world some of our true spirit. It is real.”

After wandering around in the thick heat, where flies hovered lazily, as if from invisible strings, I needed to cool off. I ducked into Tushar Arts, one of the few shops here that offers some protection from the dust and heat of the street. Dushar sells a Technicolor array of religious items. Crucifixes hang beside busts of Krishna, and images of the Buddha gaze peacefully at Koranic verse. The shopkeeper, Kruna, who had seen Slumdog two days before, thought the film lacked that essential element of Bollywood cinema—escapism. “It seemed too real, too dirty. When I went I didn’t think that I was just going to see a movie about life here. That’s not very exciting to us.”

Throughout the chaos of another day in Dharavi, everyone I met was welcoming.  People seemed genuinely happy to see a foreigner wandering through their neighborhood—something one doesn’t always encounter in Mumbai. As I was looking for a cab to leave, I struck up a conversation with a Muslim driver named Muhammad Shafiq, who had recently returned to his old home after working in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. “You are lucky,” he said, his dark eyes twinkling. “Ten years ago you better not have come here. There were no real roads, and it was very dangerous. But it gets better and better.”

I asked him about the film.

“I’ve seen it twice, and I’ll see it again, I think,” he said proudly. “I wish it was called something different—a dog in India is like your pig in the West—but it does have a very hopeful ending.”

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Jarrett Wrisley is an American writer based in Bangkok. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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