From City of God to Slumdog Millionaire: Filming ‘underbelly’ of nations…

From 'Slumdog Millionaire'

From 'Slumdog Millionaire'

“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

In his long years of journalism in India, my friend Darryl D’Monte had faced all sorts of questions and situations. But this was one question that stunned and left him speechless for a while.

A visiting Canadian TV crew made this request in the 1970s, when Darryl was resident editor of The Times of
. He was giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. The crew had heard of the deliberate maiming of street children, before being employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, increasing the daily collection for gangsters operating them from behind the scenes.

Darryl wasn’t willing to be associated with this ‘staging’. “Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” was the film crew’s cynical answer.

Now, fast forward 30 years to the present. At one point in the British-Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire, we see a young girl being blinded by a gangster who shelters and feeds a small army of children — all unleashed on Mumbai on a daily basis to tug at the heart strings of its teeming millions.

The film’s protagonist Jamal escapes the same fate by making a mad dash for freedom with his brother, Salim. But years later, they cross the gangster’s path again, with devastating results – for him.

Look what I've started...

Vikas Swarup: Look what I've started...

Set and filmed in India, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young uneducated man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian TV’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and does so well to reach the final question that the game show host and the police suspect him of cheating.

Some Indians feel their country’s ugly underbelly has been magnified by locating and filming part of the story in the slums of Mumbai. But director Danny Boyle, who sees his film as a Dickensian tale, says he shot in real, gritty locations “to show the beauty and ugliness and sheer unpredictability” of the city.

Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who wrote the 2005 novel Q and A on which the movie is based, has a similar view. “This isn’t social critique,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It’s a novel written by someone who uses what he finds to tell a story. I don’t have firsthand experience of betting on cricket or rape or murder. I don’t know if it’s true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.”

To me, Slumdog Millionaire feels like a cross between the acclaimed Brazilian slum movie City of God (Portuguese name: Cidade de Deus, 2002) and Quiz Show, the 1994 American historical drama film about TV quiz scandals in the 1950s.

City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

City of God is a Brazilian crime drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, released in its home country in 2002 and worldwide in 2003. It was adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins.

The film’s depiction of narcotic drug rings, hold-ups, street violence and police corruption may not have been what the upper middle class Brazilians wanted to showcase to the rest of the world, but the film’s stark if grisly authenticity resonated with movie audiences around the world. Most of the actors were residents of favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, such as Vidigal and the Cidade de Deus itself. City of God became one of the highest-grossing foreign films released in the United States up to that time.

The makers of Slumdog Millionaire adopted a similar approach. Its co-director Loveleen Tandan says she likes to get as close to reality as possible. This drove her to the slums of East Bandra to look for young children who resembled the protagonists in the story.

As she recalled in a recent interview with Tehelka: “I was very keen to get real slum kids, which is why I convinced them (producers) to do one-third of the scenes in Hindi. I made a scratch tape with real street kids. The team was surprised that Hindi actually made it brighter and more alive.”

Indeed, Slumdog doesn’t feel like a ‘foreign film’ despite it having a fair number of English subtitles, which only enhance the overall cinematic experience.

But how realistic should films try to become, before the local realities are distorted or local sensibilities are affected? Where does documentary end and drama begin? These questions will continue to be debated across India and elsewhere while Slumdog enthralls millions on its first theatrical release.

Feature film makers can exercise their creative license far more than factual film makers. I doubt if the creators of authentic, close-to-the-ground movies like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire set out with any specific social agenda. They are in the business of entertainment, and just happen to find plenty of drama in real life in places like urban slums. We might argue that in the right hands, dramatised movies can draw mass attention to development issues and challenges far more effectively than the often dull and dreary documentaries.

Eyes wide open

Kalpana Sharma: Eyes wide open

“If through (the movie) the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, sanitation or electricity, what is the problem?” asks another Indian friend and long-time Mumbai resident Kalpana Sharma.

In a perceptive essay titled Shantytowns of the Mind, written in The Indian Express in early January 2009 before she saw the film, Kalpana flagged important concerns: “Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.”

Kalpana speaks with authority, and not just because she lives in the megacity of Mumbai (population: 13 million and rising) which, she points out, is half made up of slums. In 2000, she wrote a book titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. Far from being a cold, clinical analysis of facts, figures and trends, it’s a book about the extraordinary people who live there, “many of whom have defied fate and an unhelpful State to prosper through a mix of backbreaking work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity”.

Kalpana ends her essays with these words: “In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.

Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.”

Read Shantytowns of the Mind by Kalpana Sharma, Indian Express, 14 January 2009

India rising...but not for all slumdogs?

India rising...but not for all slumdogs?


12 Responses to “From City of God to Slumdog Millionaire: Filming ‘underbelly’ of nations…”


    Nalaka: I had no idea at all that this was going on anywhere on planet earth. The deliberate maiming of street children, before being employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, increasing the daily collection for gangsters operating them from behind the scenes.
    This is the sickest most upseting event I am aware of ever hearing in my 58 years of life. The very idea makes me just feel ill to the core of my being. Have I been so blinded. I have been all over the world…India…Sri Lanka …Australia…Europe…Africa…but never ever have I even thought when I saw a child begging on a street anywhere that this was done to them on purpose. I now must immedeiately see the movie Slumdog. Just the thought of this issue has shaken me so bdaly I can hardly type on my key board.
    But I thank you Nalaka for opening my eyes. We must know the evil man has done to stop it.
    David Damario

  2. Ayesha Says:

    I live in Chennai which is one oif India’s largest metros. Every big city has an underbelly, underworld and subculture. That is part of the urban reality. I see lots of beggars including begging children. I have heard that some are ‘owned’ and managed by gangs who collect funds but have no evidence. The bigger problem is widespread poverty. When tha5t is reduced, the street children, beggars, child labour and other symptoms will go down and one day disappear.

  3. Khushi Kabir Says:

    As always Kalpana’s insights are right on track. I just saw the film last week and was surprised as to what all this controversy was about. How is it we are not aware of the type, level or depth of exploitation and controls that exist in any unequal society, be they in a majority or minority world? Levels and types of degradation may differ, but they exist whether in the inner cities or within the reservations in the US, in Australia, in Europe with itinerants, or the favelas or slums of Asia. If this film really gets us to start looking at our own societies, and jerk us into doing something even as safe as writing or researching the situation, finding out what really happens around us and what we have never questioned, the film will have achieved something I am not sure it really set out to do so.

  4. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Thanks to David, Ayesha and Kushi for their comments, which reminds us that each one of us reacts to this film differently. But it has got us talking about bigger issues, and that’s a good thing: moving images moving people!

    There’s already plenty of information and insights on urban poverty. For example, State of the World Cities 2008/2009 Report, released by UN-Habitat some months ago, said one out of every three people living in cities of the developing world lives in a slum. It also pointed out that not all slum dwellers suffer the same degree or magnitude of deprivation, nor are all slums the same. More at:

    There are communication gaps that prevent this kind of analysis from reaching out far and wide – the UN reports are typically produced in clinical, sometimes sanitised language (all data, no passion!), and UN agencies only or mostly engage the broadsheet newspapers and their broadcast equivalent. A case of elite speaking among themselves, when much of the world is tabloid (or compact, if you like).

    That’s why it’s so important to have the entertainment industry doing some of their story-telling in situations full of development and/or humanitarian issues that need greater attention and discussion. The development community and social activists now need to continue from where Slumdog left off, to both sustain the discussions and to advocate change.

    As they say in the story-telling business: To be continued….

  5. Sandra Says:

    I see nothing wrong in showing the underbelly of nations or cities as long as it is authentic and sincere. For so long Bollywood has done very nicely showing off the belly-buttons of gyrating women. It’s about time the world saw a bit of the same city’s (Mumbai’s) underbelly!

  6. Jamie Says:

    In what year did they start filing this movie. All I can say is that it breaks my heart to know people live like that. I eat good, I live in a beautiful home, I have a Swimming pool for my Grand Children to enjoy. Then there is Slumdog Millionaire, I’m so lucky to have what I have, but us in the US live large, Who cares what we throw away, Lets have a big dinner throw it away no use in keeping left over. We would die without Cell Phones, Cable T.V, Internet, 5 Star Restaurants, What have we become when we let children live the way they do. sad very sad.


    Over the last decade I have been fairly accurate most of the time about picking the Best Picture of the year at the Oscars. I was sure Milk would win and it would be a political choice. Anyone that has seen Slumdog knows it was the best picture…but Milk was an American production and had political power. I said in my last statement that Slumdog would not win…yet it was the best picture by far.
    I have never been so happy as to be wrong….
    Dave Damario Canada

  8. Ayesha Says:

    As an Indian, I’m delighted that Slumdog won 8 Oscars! Some spoilsport Indians pick faults with the movie, but the fact remains that the movie has drawn attention to urban poverty issuyes that middle class Indians would ignore, and the development agencies miss because they are so tightly focused on poverty being a rural phenomenon.

    One Indian who has reacted with moderation and reason is Sudip Mazumdar, who has just written an op ed essay in Newsweek on 21 Feb 2009 which is sincere and moving:

    Man Bites ‘Slumdog’
    Don’t let the movie mislead you: there are no fairy-tale endings for most of India’s street kids. I was one of them myself…by Sudip Mazumdar

  9. Steve Says:

    I just watched Slumdog last night. I thought that it was a brilliant movie.

    I was born in India but came to the US when I was 6 years old. I can’t understand why anyone in India would appose this movie. There are American movies depicting crime, poverty, and drug culture in the US. We don’t try to hide the truth. Unless a culture embraces the truth, they will never take the steps to fix the problems.

    Children should never have to suffer, anywhere on this plant. This is such a shame and sin for the entire human race.

  10. Journal | Andyland Says:

    […] is a great article that talks about using those less fortunate to turn a […]

  11. antrikshjain Says:

    this picture has make the fun of poverty

  12. When Worlds Collide #21: Walking in Rio with Three Friendly Ghosts… | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    […] housing is not regulated and social indicators are below average. A decade ago, the Brazilian movie City of God(Cidade de Deus, 2002) offered us a glimpse of hard life in the favelas: narcotic drug rings, […]

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