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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

SIFF Review: The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical

Last Sunday, I took my son Jaxon, aged 11, to see The Sound of Mumbai, which is screening at SIFF in their Films4Families section. Jaxon is on the Films4Families jury this year, which means that for the first time, he’s being asked to view movies as more than just pure entertainment. The Sound of Mumbai was his first real experience with a documentary (other than March of the Penguins, and I’m not sure how much he remembers of that), and I was curious to see how he’d respond to it.

“Is this a real story or a made up story?” he whispered about 20 minutes in, as on the screen we saw the deplorable conditions in which the cheerful main subject lives.

After the screening, we talked about the film, which tells the tale of a group of slum kids from Mumbai recruited for a special concert to perform songs from The Sound of Music. Ostensibly, the goal is to provide very poor children from poverty-stricken families, who live in some of the worst conditions in the world, with an opportunity to perform in a concert in Mumbai’s National Centre of the Performing Arts. This is a world that is almost completely inaccessible to slum kids; performing in concerts in fancy halls is pretty much exclusively the purview of the children of the upper castes.

The children of such privilege are represented here by Kimberly, a self-assured young lady of 10 who demonstrates her black-belt karate skills, shows off her excellent report card, works on her homework on her own computer in a nicely appointed bedroom, and talks blithely about how she will be a doctor or an engineer one day, but how she also loves singing and performing. She tells us loftily how the Performing Arts Centre where the show is to be performed is like a second home to her singing group, because they perform there so often.

Meanwhile, on the “reality of life in the slums of Mumbai” side of the equation, we have charming, gregarious Ashish, a bright boy who makes up for what he lacks in vocal technique — private voice lessons being somewhat in short supply in the slums — with a relentlessly positive attitude. Each morning, he encourages himself in a small mirror, “I am not self-conscious. I am a confident boy!” while sheepishly acknowledging his self-doubt. And a lot is resting on his slim shoulders. Ashish’s family — parents and two older brothers — are depending upon the gift of this chance for Ashish to perform to get someone with money to take notice and sponsor him in a proper education. He is their best hope out of poverty in generations. No pressure, kid.

The question is, whether it’s actually a good thing for these children to be recruited for this program. If the point was, say, to match talented, smart kids from the slums with sponsors willing to pay for their education, I could maybe see a benefit to them. But to pull these kids out of the world in which they live; show them things they will likely never have; put pressure on them to perform at a level they’ve never been expected to achieve before; build up their hopes — and their families’ hopes — that this might be the golden ticket that will rescue them from a level of poverty that you and I — and, I daresay, the obviously well-educated, well-off, and at times irritatingly self-satisfied founder of the orchestra, who organized the concert — can scarcely imagine.

More humane to me was the Austrian conductor who was charged with teaching the children to perform. His teariness at the end, as the concert concludes and he prepares to return home to Austria — leaving the children to return to the slums in which they live — is genuine and heart-wrenching.

As is listening to the parents of one of the young girls in the performance group calmly discussing how an American couple had offered to buy their daughter, but they had refused because America was too far away — leaving the impression that, for the right price, they might have entertained an offer closer to home. And that is heartbreaking not just because the parents would consider selling their daughter for adoption, but because they see their position in life as so hopeless that selling their daughter to strangers offers her better odds on getting out of extreme poverty than whatever they can hope to offer her.

Meditate on that for a minute, while you think about your own life of relative comfort. It’s a good thing this film has a lot of charm in it — the delighted giggles of a group of little girls endlessly entertained by flushing the toilet, the delight on the children’s faces when they sing, the fear on the parents faces, when they are bused in to attend the concert and have to interact with people higher on the social ladder than themselves — and their pride when they hear their children lift their voices in song.

And, most of all, it has Ashish, tasked with a difficult spotlight solo, who you can’t help but like so darn much you want the film to end with information on how you can donate to his education fund and get him out of the slums so that he might achieve all in life that he’s capable of. Because I bet you, if they made it easy for people to donate, as they’re riding high on the positive feelings the film evokes as it soars to its pinnacle, holds you there … then dips down gracefully into a warm, sad little coda to wrap it all up … they could surely secure enough funds to help pay for the education of these kids and give them a shot at a better life.

If that kind of good came of the concert, then it would have value beyond just providing a night for well-heeled arts patrons to give themselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back for daring to allow slum kids to sing in their hallowed marble hall.

5 Responses to “SIFF Review: The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical”

  1. Jon Johnson says:

    A wonderful review. Saw it last night at NYC doc Fest. Apparently, the director has established a foundation whereby Ashish and his classmates will be funded through college based on donations from viewers of the film. Thought you might be interested in passing that along. I believe it will be on HBO the 23rd of Nov. Ashish is doing well in school but has a difficult living situation according to the director. I would be interested in what your son thought of the film.

  2. F.P. says:

    One can donate by going to the film’s website:

  3. Alex says:

    I enjoyed this film but was disappointed with the ending… They performed & then nothing. These children should have been told it is only a performance. They expected more & got nothing but the performance. I agree with your comments why expose them to a life that is unattainable & unrealistic. Only the people who made this film benefited on the expense if the children’s dreams…

  4. Lynette says:

    This film inspired me so much that I am arranging a screening fundraiser to raise some of the money needed to send Ashish and his friends to University. Well done to the Director (Sarah McCarthy) for making this film and well done to her for setting up the charity to have the REAL impact required to enable these children fulfill their dreams. Bravo Sarah McCarthy!

  5. Barry Whaites says:

    I agree with many of the comments about raising the children’s hopes unrealistically. I lived in India for 2 years – but I am sure many will be shocked at the living conditions in the slum.
    I was disappointed that more of the performance was shown, and if this could lead to a tour of the choir – singing with local symphony orchestras.

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