Mumbai’s slums charm tourists more than Australia’s sweeping scenery


Have film juries and tourists been charmed more by the lure of Mumbai’s slums than Australia’s scenic vista?

Slumdog Millionaire, a feel-good movie made in India for a modest US$14 million by British producers, tells the story of a boy from the slums of Mumbai who becomes a quiz show millionaire.

The Australian-made film Australia depicts the saga of an English woman who goes to Australia during the colonial era to claim her inheritance. The film has reportedly cost almost US$100 million to make. The Australian government also pitched in the cost, hoping that the film would promote Australia tourism.

But while Australia is marketed as a film to “motivate people, lure tourists to Australia,” and a dismal failure at the box-office as well as with film juries, Slumdog Millionaire’s tale of squalor and depravity has now won four Golden Globes and is in contention for best film and best director at the upcoming Oscar Awards.

Despite hopes by Tourism Australia managing director Geoff Buckley, the movie Australia “resonates in terms of the way we want to sell Australia.” He further acknowledged that the movie has yet to fire the world’s imagination like Slumdog Millionaire has done.

The squalor, sprawling shantytowns of Mumbai where much of the film was made, has now become the latest tourist destination in India, much to the chagrin of the authorities.

More and more foreign tourists have now expressed interest to see for themselves and go on a slum tour, or “poverty tourism.”

Marketed as “the biggest slum tour in Asia” since 2006 by tour operator Dharavi, the tour takes tourists away from the tourist areas of the city to Mumbai’s “open drains, tin-roofed shacks and capillary-like alleyways” where most of the film was made.

Despite being derided and damned by no less than the country’s tourism minister, it has received the blessings of the local police and residents. “80 percent of profits are donated to local charities,” claim the tour operator.

However, latest media reports claim a slum-dwellers’ welfare group has now decided to sue the runaway hit film’s composer, A R Rahman and one of its stars, actor Anil Kapoor, for “depicting slum-dwellers in a bad light and violating their human rights. The British Raj described Indians as dogs.”

The film, which has charmed audiences around the world, is an affront to the dignity of India’s many slum-dwellers, claims the suit. “The movie is derogatory. We prefer Bollywood and stories about rich guys, with songs and dances – not the grim reality of daily life like that depicted in the film. Anyway, the ticket price is too steep.”

Pleased that his book has now been translated into 37 languages, author Vikas Swarup said he thought it might only appeal to Indians. “I wrote to prove to myself I could write a book. A film can’t go into details that a book does. The film is about life. The hero is the ultimate underdog who beats the odds. It’s a story of triumph.”

The release of its Indian version, Slumdog Crorepati, has been received with indifference, however. “We don’t even talk about it,” said Shabana Shaikh who lives in Nehru Nagar shantytown, north of Mumbai. “The film was made about the people of Mumbai’s slums, but not made for us.”