Anja Merret
Anja Merret

Film studios exploit child actors in Slumdog Millionaire

So here’s the scoop. Slumdog Millionaire is a movie about kids growing up in a slum in India and how one of them makes it against all odds in an Indian equivalent of Who wants to be a Millionaire reality TV quiz show.

The film has taken just over $89-million in North America by February 18 2009. In the UK where the film has been very successful and set box office records. the takings from January 9 2009 to 13 February 2009 have been £19-million.

It seems that the film will collect a few Oscars this week-end by celebrating the peek the viewer can take into the harrowing lives of people living in slums in India. I watched it the other day and there were times when I left the room because the scenes were so bad. But then I’ve never been good at watching people suffer, even in movies.

The story goes something like this. We see two small brothers living and having some fun while growing up in a slumland in Mumbai. Although the kids have their laughs, their living conditions are anything but funny. During a faction fight by religious zealots the boys’ mother gets killed and the two children are left to fend for themselves. A little girl attaches herself to them to make it three and they often describe themselves as the three musketeers.

We see how these three are abused by adults and how they in turn cheat and lie their way trying to make a living. As they grow up it only gets worse for them as they try and survive by giving up their self-esteem to work for people who treat them like dogs.

There is a romantic bittersweet ending with one of the young adults sacrificing his life so that the other two may live their lives in supposed happiness. Oh well. So much for fake endings. However, the portrayal of the lives the children lead is a reflection of true life.

So where is the irony in this story? Well, what in fact has happened in real life is that the child actors who portrayed the main characters at the beginning of the film are in reality living in slums. Still.

In other words, in real life these children are again exploited, this time by a combination of Bollywood and Hollywood. The Western film going public rewards the film studios and movie producers with huge returns on their film with a minuscule amount trickling through to the very people representing the slum dwellers, the child actors.

The children who acted in the film are real slumdogs and to this day are still living in horrific conditions with shacks as their homes and open areas for their latrines. Sure, there is now a school they can attend, which the film company kindly sponsored.

Spoiler alert
It’s exploitation isn’t it? The film truly reflects the difference between the haves and the the have nots. And in fact the film, the making of it, and the indecent amounts of money it has made for its producers and backers is exactly a reflection of real life.

See the BBC’s short documentary on the child actors. It’s beyond shocking. Regrettably this fact of life will not be “celebrated” at the Oscars where the kids playing the characters will be flown in, dressed up and put on view. Exploitation? You think?

  • Jon

    So, how much should a film-maker risking his own money to pay children with no acting credentials, then?

    And if the film were to flop and lose money?

  • craig

    gee thanks for the spoiler alert after the spoiler :-(

  • Phillipa Lipinsky

    It is disgusting that the film has generated so much revenue and yet the kids are still poor. I work for an NGO here in South Africa (we are based in Khayelitsha) and we have filmmakers from wealthy western country coming here to do documentaries about poor people who live in shacks. They take those films ang go screen them at sophisticated film festivals, getting all sorts of acclaim, and the children get nothing.
    It is sad but these people have a responsibility to uplift these communities

  • Luigi

    Please post spoiler mornings when you’re giving away the plot of a movie that isn’t showing in this country yet!!!!!!!

    Dammnit, I now know how the film ends without seeing it. :( This is incredibly poor form.

  • MrFoom

    You misrepresent the facts. It is not just a new school they get to attend, there is also a trust fund that’s been put in place for when the children graduate from the school.

    The filmmakers also said they wondered about using slum children, but then they thought that not using them would be a far worse kind of discrimination.

  • Winkie

    I’d suggest you find out the truth about what the film-makers did for the kids before rushing to judgement on the basis of one documentary. Every single time people make films in a poor community, using locals, they get this kind of accusation – see what happened after Tsotsi, in SA.
    My understanding is that the film-makers tried really hard to help these kids make a rtansition from poor to something better. A new school, a monthly stipend to the parents, a trust fund and ad hoc hand-outs like money sent to buy an apartment when the one family home was razed by the city (note that the film-makers sent the money, but the family is living in a lean-to to this day, and have not told them what happened to the money).
    So easy to take a stab at genuinely well-meaning people, isn’t it? Would these kids be better off if they’d used child-actors from the developed world and left them where they were? Save your indignation for the real exploiters – like Coca Cola.

  • http://http/ Anja

    @MrFoom Good news that there is a trust for them. Let’s hope they manage to live that long what with the open sewerage pit behind their shack.

    I also need to correct the fact that the film was produced by British film makers and not Hollywood.

  • brent

    At least the flim makers did something, if the trendy elite spent more time DOING and less sniping at everyone else (those plebs not at their elevated plane) perhaps the worlds slum dwellers whould have a better chance of defeating their terrible povety spiral.


  • brent

    At least the flim makers did something, if the trendy elite spent more time DOING and less sniping at everyone else (at those plebs not at their elevated plane) perhaps the worlds slum dwellers whould have a better chance of defeating their terrible povety spiral.