By now, everyone has either seen, or at least heard of, the movie Slumdog Millionaire. One of the biggest movies of the year, it swept both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. For good reason - it’s affecting without being affected, gives us great multi-dimensional characters, has phenomenal cinematography with brilliant India as its backdrop.
This tale of life and love in the slums of Mumbai alternates between heartbreak and triumph. The story follows two brothers who live in an underworld of abject poverty, far removed from the country’s glitzy upper class or technology and business boom. Their lives become even more brutal after they are orphaned. Following them throughout their childhood and into early adulthood - along with their friend Latika - we see them fight against exploiters, brothel owners, child abusers, and even each other, in their struggle to survive.
Slumdog Millionaire is a fictional movie ending with a bizarre twist of fate. However, the reality of the story is that for millions of children in India, the life portrayed in the movie continues beyond the rags-to-riches ending of the film. Today there are 25 million Indian children living without parents, on the streets or in orphanages or other institutional homes – some good, and some bad or corrupt like that portrayed in the movie. Many of these children become victims of trafficking, prostitution and child labor. Slumdog Millionaire shows us a side of India, and a way of life, that hundreds of thousands of children in Mumbai alone struggle to survive every day.
If the movie’s producers ever needed someone to back up this truth, Shelley Seale is their woman. Seale has written a narrative non-fiction book that follows the lives of just such children. The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India depicts her journey into orphanages and through the streets and slums of India where millions of kids live without families.
During the research and writing of the book, Seale spent time in the infamous Dharavi slum of Mumbai, where many of the scenes for Slumdog Millionaire were shot. Although more than a million people live on its five hundred acres that were once swampland, surrounded by luxury high-rise condominiums, Dharavi surprised Seale.
“Dharavi was not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto,” says Seale. “It looked and felt much more like a village, not a place right in the middle of the huge, sprawling city of Mumbai. Women made papadam and men made clay pots. Industry and entrepreneurship abounded as I wandered through Dharavi; very few people were idle.”
One of Dharavi’s largest industries is recycling. Eighty percent of the waste from Mumbai’s nineteen million citizens is recycled there, employing almost ten thousand people including children. These small workers collect and haul plastic, glass, cardboard, wire hangers, pens, batteries, computer parts, soap – virtually anything that can be turned into something new with useful life. Nothing is considered garbage. The revenue this generates is staggering – economists estimate it to be a nearly $1.5 billion a year business.
But the huge industry exacts its toll on Dharavi. Industrial waste and sludge from batteries or car parts are washed off from the recyclable items and into the streets and drains, mixing with human waste and discards from the butchering done at the chicken and mutton stalls.
“To me, this place dispelled the myth that poverty is due to laziness,” says Seale. “I had rarely seen people work so hard in all my life, up to eighteen hours or more each day in demanding physical labor with an unresting pace that few westerners matched. The residents here seemed to have no privacy, no moments of solitude or sanctuary. They lived virtually on top of one another.”
The actors who play the characters at their youngest ages in Slumdog Millionaire are themselves Hindi-speaking street kids, discovered by casting director Loveleen Tandan. During the three years of writing The Weight of Silence, Seale has befriended and told the stories of many of such children – and has born witness to their struggles first hand. At a children’s home in Orissa, the orphanage director was driving one of the boys to school late one day, on his ancient little motor scooter, when they passed a school bus full of kids.
The kids began jeering and laughing at the boy through the bus windows, yelling the epithet from the movie: “Slum dog! Slum dog!”
Slumdog Millionaire has met with some controversy in India, mostly from those who protest the use of the derogatory term slumdog, or those who feel the film is exploitative of India’s poverty. But while these problems are far from the only side of India, they do exist – although often a blind eye is turned to them. This fact is what caused Seale to subtitle her book Invisible Children of India.
A.R. Rahman, composer of the film’s soundtrack, says, “If SM projects India as a third world dirty underbelly nation and causes pain and disgust…let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.” Santosh Desai, journalist for The Times of India, writes that “the slum is not the other India and Dharavi is not an aberration. We need to own it, change it, admire it and hate it. We don’t need to ignore it.”
With The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, Seale is doing her part to make sure these children are ignored no longer.