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?