Nominated for 10 Oscars and a best-picture favorite heading into Sunday’s Academy Awards, the popular Slumdog Millionaire is translating to more rubberneckers in the Mumbai, India, slum where it was filmed — and is re-igniting a debate over the ethics of “poverty tourism.”
British director Danny Boyle’s feel-good flick follows an orphan who grows up in Dharavi, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods, and who finds improbable success on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
The movie’s recent premiere in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) sparked complaints among some of Dharavi’s estimated 1 million residents, who live and work in an area smaller than New York’s Central Park. But it also has boosted business for Reality Tours and Travel, which leads eight to 15 tourists a day on guided tours of the slum.
Reality Tours co-founder Chris Way estimates that sales are up by about 25% since Slumdog Millionaire’s release. Though he credits some of the increase to a gradual rebound in tourism after terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed more than 170 people in November, publicity surrounding the film has played a big role.
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In India, “a lot of people think the movie is ‘poverty porn,’ ” says Way, a Brit who has lived in Mumbai since 2004. But any criticism of his tours “comes from misunderstanding what we are trying to do … break down the negative image of slums, (and) highlight the industry and sense of community.” Reality Tours charges $10 or $20 a person, depending on length of the tour, and pledges to donate 80% of after-tax profits to local charities. Though the business hasn’t yet cleared a profit, it paid for a community center.
Mumbai is one of several destinations to offer “poorism” options. In New Delhi, the non-profit Salaam Baalak Trust, spearheaded by Salaam Bombay! filmmaker Mira Nair, leads tours focusing on children living in and near the city’s train station. Other forays take visitors to slums in Rio,Nairobi and Johannesburg. In New Orleans, companies offered post-Katrina tours that included the hard-hit Ninth Ward.
“If one takes such a tour out of a genuine desire to learn and a passion for social justice, the experience can be valuable, eye-opening, even life-changing. If one goes as a spectator, it’s little different than a visit to the zoo,” says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of EthicalTraveler.org.
“Part of the key is interaction,” he adds. “Do visitors get to speak with these individuals, and gain a sense of their lives? … If not, this is the modern equivalent of watching people suffer in public coliseums.”