Nice Movie To See, but Do I Want to Go There?

Mumbai Stop Light
Mumbai Stop Light

(If you are curious about that book mentioned in the first paragraph. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juniot Diaz,  is about the Dominican Republic.)

I recently finished a wonderful book that killed any desire I might have had to go to the place featured, and then I saw the Academy Award winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire,  which definitely did not make me want to visit Mumbai.  I began to think about the anti-travel movie. And the don’t-go-there book.

Is there such a thing? Although I have not read the book that Slumdog was based on, I have read comments that say it portrays Mumbai as even grittier than the movie. Does this make me want to travel there?

Controversy still rages (on Twitter for instance) about the depiction of Mumbai in the Academy-award winning picture.  Most Indians whose comments I have read are not happy. One said on Twitter, “Would you like it if America were portrayed by a movie that showed only the slums of New York?” Uh, well, there have been quite a few movies that do not show America in the best light. But perhaps because movies set in India are rarer in the United States, the impact of Slumdog has been greater. American movies, set in America, are widely viewed around the world, the good, the bad and…all that.

But back to the question of whether Slumdog Millionaire might make people actually want to go to Mumbai. I began to hear another discussion which caught me by surprise.  Slum tours, it seems, are newly chic. Some call this kind of tourism ‘Poorism.’

Do the profit-making companies that lead these tours actually give back to the communities as they claim? What motivates people to go on such tours? Is it voyeurism? Isn’t all travel ultimately voyeurism? Do the slum tourists come away changed in any way? Will they be more sensitive and generous in the future? Will the inhabitants of the slums learn how to make a legitimate buck off the tourists, or will the bad guys among them simply hone their pickpocket skills?

Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, discussed the tours in a 2008 New York Times article. You can learn more about one of the tour companies that he discusses, Reality Tours, at their web site.

For now, I only know that for me, I am not interested in visiting a place to look at the lives of the poorest, and I am wary of traveling where I fear that I will be isolated in expensive resorts or hotels from the regular street life because it is unsafe, unhealthy or simply unsavory.  Call me unadventurous, but that’s my thought.

I am sure of one thing…the people who run tours in the slums of Mumbai are going to do a lot more business because of Slumdog Millionaire. As to the two main questions here–whether I am totally missing the point of Mumbai, and whether slum tourism has a place– I have an open mind. So educate me. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Oh, I mentioned a book up there in the first paragraph. I’ll get around to that soon.

See the posts that followed this one when Monica Bhide replied with her take on Mumbai in two parts.

Photograph by Mike Powell, Flickr, Creative Commons license.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

19 thoughts on “Nice Movie To See, but Do I Want to Go There?

  1. This is a very interesting and insightful post. Many thoughtful questions raised – and ones worth considering. There is a very fine line between visitors to another country conducting voyeuristic, exploitative “tours” and those who are truly trying to learn about the people and the culture behind the things that movies such as Slumdog Millionaire depicted.

    In 2007, I visited the very Mumbai slum, Dharavi, that is featured in Slumdog Millionaire. You can read my post about it here:

    What I found surprised me – and I was so thankful that I had gone. I have never seen people work so hard in all my life – and it was not a slum in the way I had imagined – not a ghetto.

    I also wrote another post about Slumdog Millionaire and the controversy raised:

    I think that as long as people are actively having these conversations and thoughtfully trying to understand each other, then none of this can be a bad thing. And, as for whether we want to visit a place like or not – the poverty and suffering is still there, whether we choose to look or not.

  2. Would you not watch a movie just because it shows something in a bad light? That it’s sad? Even though its part of the truth? So do you not watch most documentaries about Africa? Would you not go on a safari in Africa just because it might take you through some poor villages?
    People need to see all parts of the picture. I don’t think the movie or the book was a way to promote tourism in India. It was just a glimpse of ONE part of Indian life, and for that it did a remarkable job.

  3. Tours were arranged for the slums of London in the 1840’s. From the voyeur and exploiter, “slumming” became a pastime for “higher class” gawkers in horse-drawn omnibuses. Prostitution, including children, exerted its own source of commerce between haves and have-nots. Gin and tincture of opium allowed brief escape from misfortune. “The harlot’s cry from street to street / Shall weave old England’s winding-sheet.” — Blake

  4. I havent seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire yet but yes, I say visiting slums is good only if positive contribution towards the growth of the slum people is one of the motto.

  5. Pamposh: I am sorry I didn’t read your post before I wrote my original post. However, I think it is important to note, as you did in your blog, that the book the movie was based on was written by an Indian. Yes, it is a contrived story, but it is the most MOVIE movie that I’ve seen in a long time. Very theatrical in the way it moved, and despite the sad parts, I kind of liked the Bollywood happy ending. However, I didn’t write a review, I just stuck to my job here which is talking about how movies/books influence travel.

  6. As an Indian I’m a bit sad that such a mediocre film about India won the Oscar. Not because it depicts India in a bad light, but because it’s so out of touch with reality and so unoriginal.

    One of the basic premises of the film is really unbelievable if you know India, and the rest is incredibly cliched. Not necessarily wrong, but certainly cliched. For more on this, see this post on my blog:

    As for the music awards… A A Rahman himself has composed music much more beautiful and much more inspiring than this (for example, for the films Bombay, Dil Se, and Roja). And Gulzar has written much, much better lyrics for Dil Se, for example.

    On the plus side, all the kids acted really, really well and the camerawork was excellent.

  7. Tours attempt to give us a glimpse of how other people live, and they always raise ethical questions that aren’t easily answered. Is it right to gawk at Hollywood homes? Would you take a self-directed slum tour right here at home? You can argue that the wealthy can use their money to buy them privacy — you’re only going to glimpse the front of a compound — that the poor cannot, and that a slum tour therefore always has an element of exploitation. I personally would feel very uncomfortable simply traipsing through someone’s front yard. I like the idea of tours giving back some money to slums, and/or requiring some cost to the visitor. I also like the idea that slum tours could actually present more entrepreneurial opportunities for their residents.

  8. So I’m not really answering the question you posed, but a different one: how would we feel if movies only depicted the slums of America? I actually think they do, in a way. That’s why people think it’s so “dangerous” to go to NY or LA–all the drive by shootings, muggings, murders, etc.

    As for slum tourism, I did go to Bethlehem (in the west bank) once, and it was not exactly high society there. But I did get a lot out of the trip and learned a lot. I don’t think I would go to Mumbai because a journalist friend (who traveled there a lot as a reporter) once told me that you can’t get out of the place without a major case of the runs. Movies aside, I didn’t find that description very enticing.

  9. I’ve spent a lot of time in India and a little bit of time in Mumbai over the years, and the thing about places like India is that poverty and wealth are so close to each other so much of the time. You don’t really need to go on a slum tour to see the way the poor live–it’s all around you. It can be upsetting, certainly, but it’s everywhere, and unless you’re on a tour staying only in 5 star hotels, you can’t avoid a wider view of the multiplicity of life in India.

    As for Mumbai, I went the first time after I’d been living in Delhi for 9 months, and I was amazed at how hip and cool Mumbai was after stuffy Delhi. It’s all a matter of perspective, as with so many things.

  10. Ah, yes, a difficult question. But those are the ones worth thinking about, no? As long as we travel we will continue to think about inequalities and contrasts in cultures, and perhaps that, rather than painting beautiful pictures, is what some books and movies add to the travel experience–food for thought.

  11. You raise a good point. I could barely stand to watch “Slumdog Millionaire,” though I know it was a good film. It doesn’t make me want to take a tour through the slums of India.

    It is true, though, that any time we travel in the Third World we run up against the issue of how to deal with the poor people who live there. Should you give to the beggers who beset you in some places? Donate to causes that help people? Is your footprint as a tourist helping or hurting the locals? It’s a difficult question.


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