Slumdog Millionaire's 'poverty porn'

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As Slumdog Millionaire wends its way to the Oscars, it is reopening controversies about movies and their financial responsibility to the people that they portray. Focusing on a young Indian street urchin who uses a television show to pursue his beloved, the film was partially shot in the slums of Mumbai, India, and used many local citizens both as actors and as support staff for the production.

While the film is unflinching in its portrayal of urban poverty, director Danny Boyle also was careful to acknowledge the excitement and vitality of the ghetto, a decision that has led some critics to accuse him of producing "poverty porn." While often harsh in its portrayal of Mumbai, the film has also boosted tourism to the city. In fact, Reality Tours and Travel, a company that leads travelers around the Mumbai slums, has experienced a 25% increase in business since the movie's release.

In a broader context, Slumdog Millionaire has also ignited the controversy surrounding "poverty tourism," or "poorism." Although paid tours of slums have existed at least since the nineteenth century, there is a growing belief that this form of observation, which some liken to voyeurism, is damaging to citizens of the ghetto. At their best, slum tours can increase awareness of the problems faced by underprivileged areas; at their worst, these tours function like zoos, making the inhabitants feel exploited and insulted.

There is a similar concern about the economic effects of the movie. Although it is still in release, the film has already grossed over $150 million worldwide, more than ten times its original cost. An Oscar win, which seems a distinct possibility, could further boost revenues, as could DVD and cable profits. As yet, there is no word on whether or not portions of the movie's profits will be reinvested into Mumbai's slums. On the other hand, at least one canny young con artist has already used his association with Mumbai to develop a "Slums of India" foundation.

On another note, as Boyle's film has raised awareness of slum life, it may have also raised the expectations of its young cast. On Friday, the Associated Press ran a photo of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, a local Mumbai actor who plays the protagonist's brother Salim. Reclining in the makeshift tent that he calls home, the young boy, who portrays the protagonist's brother Salim, was preparing for his first trip on an airplane. His destination? The Academy Awards in Hollywood, California.
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