Controversial movie inspires more ‘slum tours’ of Mumbai

I’ve never really understood how movies inspire people to travel, but for better or worse, they do seem to — consider what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand or what Australia is supposed to do for Australian tourism.

Both of those cases probably fall in the “better” category. Vagabonds might not be the target audience, but if it gets a few people out on the foreign roads, that’s generally a good thing.

But there’s also the more disturbing scenario, such as the film Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s film about an orphaned street child in Mumbai who overcomes hardship, wins a fortune on a game show and gets the girl of his dreams. The film recently picked up ten Oscar nods and has proved a hit with western audiences.

I haven’t seen the film, so I withhold judgment (though I will say it sounds pretty cliche), but the Telegraph reports that Millionaire is inspiring an uptake in westerners who want to join one of Mumbai’s already-controversial “slum tours.”

Couple that with a film that Indian’s have called “a white man’s imagined India,” adding that it’s “not quite snake charmers, but it’s close ,” and you might begin to see why many Indians are a bit upset about Millionaire.

But as with thorny travel questions — like, should you go to Burma? — the reality is never as cut-and-dried as we’d like it to be. Your first instinct is probably to see the slum tours as exploitive and a “very bad thing.”

But the Telegraph’s Nigel Richardson actually went on a slum tour and reports:

A television programme damned them as “poverty tourism” and a government tourism minister threatened to have them shut down, although they are run perfectly legally, with the blessing of the local police as well as residents.

But they are conducted with exemplary sensitivity, and the cooperation of the residents, and 80 per cent of profits are donated to local charities. Most importantly, they certainly did not feel exploitative to me. In fact I found touring a place like Dharavi to be an education.

It’s hard to outright condemn the film, the slum tours it might be inspiring or the people going to either. After all, the idea of seeing the slums of Mumbai isn’t in itself a bad thing, it all depends on the context in which it’s presented. If Richardson’s portrayal reflects the typical slum tour, then perhaps they aren’t as bad as I’ve been imagining them.

I’m curious how Vagablogging readers feel about slum tours and other controversial travel ideas — is it exploitive? And if it is exploitive, is it possibly still worth it if the tours inspires participants to help, or at least opens their eyes? Or is it simply too ethically murky to judge?

[via World Hum, photo by Wen-Yan King, Flickr]

Posted by | Comments (7)  | January 27, 2009
Category: General

7 Responses to “Controversial movie inspires more ‘slum tours’ of Mumbai”

  1. Eva Says:

    As far as the movie itself goes, I think there’s nothing to condemn. It’s based a) on an Indian novel, and b) on the reality of Mumbai’s slums (minus the winning-a-fortune part). Nobody is going to be thrilled to see their country’s darkest side being shown off worldwide — I think the Indian response has as much to do with discomfort as any genuine sense that this is a misrepresentation.

    You should see it, Scott. It is fabulous and anything but cliched.

  2. Angela Says:

    I have images of tourist guides with bullhorns announcing, “And on your left you can see an authentic Indian child with flies in his eyes! Yes, before you today is a real-life street child!”

    On the one hand, it seems a little creepy to go somewhere to stare at the poor people. On the other, as you mentioned, maybe it will open people’s eyes to what true poverty is. There is also the probability of tourists spending money in these areas, which when coupled with the donation to local charities will most likely benefit the area.

  3. Lauren Says:

    Slum Dog is a great film and imagine criticism it’s receiving about highlighting rags to riches is mostly likely because Indians are feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable to see the negative or difficult side of their homeland shown for all to see.

    I’ve taken a township tour in South Africa and I felt it was purely educational. It was lead by a local guy who grow up in the township and is now raising his own family there. I was shocked to discover not many South Africans ever come on a township tour for various reasons. Typically, it’s because they’re terrified and worried for their safety and years under a apartheid government doesn’t help. However, being lead by a guide is safe and in my experience residents of the township didn’t mind us there.

    It’s easy to judge a “poverty tour” without actually experiencing one but ironically slum tours can be very educational and may be the very way to start change, if only locals were willing to see how others in their own country lived.

  4. Going Local Travel » Slumdogging it: will a movie boost India’s ’slum tourism’? Says:

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