The media portrayal of poverty in the slums of Bombay and the surrounding red-light districts (a euphemism for illegal prostitution and sexual slavery) was brilliantly conveyed in the two movies- Slum Dog Millionaire and Salaam Bombay (released 10-15 years ago). Particularly the former probably did more in a matter of months to direct public focus to childhoods spent in urban poverty than the long years of work and money spent by UNICEF in media campaigns.
The success was, of course, in a large measure due to the throbbing realism behind it. The children were really part of the deprived, desperate, and heart-breaking context; it was not sophisticated acting and direction alone, it was the realization of people that this was our world and we contributed to making it so sad. The global recognition came in the form of awards from all possible sources for the directors and producers.
For the children who were actors in the movies - both movies - established trusts, one in Mumbai called the Salam Balak (child) and the other for the Slum Children. The first one excluded the main actor as he was 14 and the other one is still figuring out if the children get a home or two homes, while they continue to live in the same humble circumstances. I have not read anything from the government about education and schooling, nor admissions to any of the many higher education institutes in the country.
Regardless, people whose main job is to make movies do us a courtesy in the field of social development when they chose topics that are able to highlight urban poverty and its most vulnerable victims, the children in poor families, encompassing most of Millennium Development Goals.
The things that were really MIA were the follow ups from those around them. While a Ms. Universe is able to raise a whole lot of interest in social issues, these kids in the limelight, Azhar Ismail and Rubina Ali and Shafiq Sayyed, were not part of any anti-poverty media campaign and did not become the face of any health or urban sanitation. This is primarily because unlike the movies, which must connect with public to make their work successful, the media campaign of the development agencies continues to follow some dated motto and models. In synthetic environments, full of jargon from global development, with very little local context, the media campaigns are as contrived as they are confusing.
The government that announces scheme after scheme of child development, named after some political ambition or the other, is not able to facilitate a scheme driven by these children and their personalized expressions and experiences of poverty. The need of the hour is a media that facilitates the connection between mainstream realism and maintains its continued presence in the public conscious. Unfortunately, the global conception of what is successful media remains static in our field. And the social conscious of mainstream media has its own limitations: it lasts until the last award for good movie making!
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Shweta does research on women and children and works in Loyola University Chicago. She is also the primary editor of the Zine Ewomen Indian Subcontinent.