The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical [subtitled in part]

The Sound of Mumbai. A Musical

The Sound of Mumbai is a documentary, just over an hour long, about poor children from a ghetto school in Mumbai (Bombay) who are given an opportunity to sing songs from The Sound of Music with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra in an elite concert hall, conducted by Austrian music professor Johannes Steinwender, who comes to Mumbai in advance to prepare them for the big night. The children are elementary school age.

The film is almost entirely in English. There are subtitles for the occasional bit that is not, or where one of the children speaks too low to be easily understood. (Because of the accents, I missed 10%-15% of the non-subtitled things the kids said, so I wouldn’t have minded having the whole movie subtitled.)

At first it looks as though we might get an overview of the entire process of putting together the concert and preparing the children. But really there’s not a lot of that. We don’t see how the children are chosen, etc. It becomes more the story of one child in particular, 11 year old Ashish.

Ashish is an irrepressible little fellow with a charming smile and a warm heart. He is given to repeating over and over to himself (and often to writing out) the affirmation “I am not a self-conscious boy. I have confidence in me. I can do it everything!” He is very excited about this opportunity to perform in the concert (as the children in general seem to be), especially when early on he is chosen as one of the soloists.

We are given a look at the Mumbai neighborhood where Ashish and his peers live, and the interiors of some of their homes. As is to be expected, the overall impression is one of squalor. There’s plenty of debris lying around, but probably mostly not discarded items but items still in use (perhaps often not for their original purpose) by someone or other, just stored haphazardly in front of a dwelling or alongside the street. Dogs and other stray animals wander around. Various people lie or sit idly on the ground.

Everything is super crowded. The ramshackle buildings are crammed very close together, with the little walkways or alleyways between them so small that it would be hard for two people to squeeze past each other. Large families live in spaces the size of studio apartments, which seem even smaller because all of their junky stuff covers just about every bare spot on the floor.

Ashish’s dreams are of the present and the future. He is thrilled (and of course trepidatious) about this concert project itself, this opportunity to perform in such a rarefied atmosphere in front of everyone from his schoolmates and family to Mumbai’s elite, and he is thrilled about the doors this could open up.

Ashish notes multiple times in the film that his father is a security guard, not with any shame or pride, but just stating a fact. But he wants, and his family wants, more for him. “I want to be a doctor! Or a scientist!” he proudly proclaims, and now must add, “Or a singer!” Family members of his speak to the camera briefly—one mentioning in passing that he studied this or that, with the implication being that it didn’t work out and really none of them are employed at any level above menial labor—to say that Ashish is their one chance. Not only does he, and do they, dream of his rising up from his present condition, but of his making enough money to bring the whole family along with him.

What exact causal mechanism Ashish and his family have in mind is unclear. They seem to think that by rubbing shoulders with or being exposed to these foreigner filmmakers, the foreign conductor, the members of the orchestra, and the rich folks who will be in the audience, Ashish will somehow be “discovered,” whether to then be given lucrative opportunities to sing for a living, or for someone to step up and pay for him to have a high level education just out of appreciation of his being a cute kid and catching their eye or something.

That becomes one of the tensions of the film. How will the children, including Ashish, experience and appreciate this opportunity to perform in this concert, and to what extent will they get caught up instead in the dubious dream that it will somehow serve as a means to the end of lifting them out of poverty and giving them a future?

Ashish’s journey in the brief time Steinwender has to prepare them (I think a month or so) takes a few unexpected turns. One is that his being chosen for a solo puts him in conflict with his best friend (now former best friend) Magesh, who is convinced that he is a much better and more deserving singer than Ashish. “I am closing my ears when he is singing,” Magesh says of Ashish. At least once they even come to blows, or at least they do the kind of pushing and shoving and wrestling around that passes for fighting between little kids.

One day when the children visit the concert hall for the first time—inspiring them with awe at the unimaginable grandeur and flush toilets—Ashish happens to hear a group of children singing in a side room. He slips in and stands at the back, watching them with great interest, especially one statuesque young lady in particular.

These are students of a private school—in other words wealthier and more privileged children than Ashish and his schoolmates, students who much more realistically can dream of becoming doctors and scientists and such—and she is Kimberly.

Kimberly is 10. Though roughly the same age as or even slightly younger than Ashish, she is at least a head taller than him, and appears to be more like 16. Given how confident (much more natural confidence than Ashish’s constant efforts to talk himself into being confident), and articulate she is, the way she moves with the grace and bearing of a budding model who has spent much time practicing walking back and forth in her home with a book balanced atop her head, and the many accomplishments she cites in academics, singing, piano, karate, etc., I’d say she’s more like 20.

She gets the second most camera time of any of the kids in the movie, even though she and her school have no connection to this concert, and I don’t get the impression that she and Ashish have any interaction beyond chatting amiably for the camera for a few moments on one occasion. But Ashish is quite smitten with her, and now he is able to add another component to his dream: to perform so well in his solo as to win the heart of Kimberly and live happily ever after with her.

As the big night draws near, the excitement rises. The kids give a full open-air rehearsal performance on the streets of their neighborhood. Their teachers and Steinwender keep their spirits and confidence up with pep talks. Ashish reiterates what all this could mean to him, and psychs himself up. The families of the children, who no way could afford to attend an event at this concert hall if they weren’t given free tickets, file in nervously to sit amongst rich people their lives otherwise never intersect with and to await an experience they never could have imagined for their children.

So how will it go? Will any of the children fall on their face as they walk to take their places on stage? Will they panic and forget the lyrics? Collapse in tears? Fall out of time with the conductor and sing much too fast or too slow?

What about Ashish’s big solo? Will it prove too much for him? Will his voice crack with nerves and cause him to perform far worse than in rehearsal?

I admit I got caught up in the moment and even got a bit choked up rooting for them to succeed and to enjoy the experience. You can see how emotional it is for all concerned, from Steinwender to the orchestra members to the audience to of course the kids themselves.

And how wonderful it is when it all turns out so well, including Ashish nailing his solo. Now that’s not to say that he and they are great singers. I’m not a good judge of such things, but my best guess is that they’re mediocre. Not laughably bad and not professional level. I’m pretty sure that, for instance, Kimberly and the singers from her private school that we saw in that one scene sang at a higher level. My impression is that for the concert they let pretty much any kids from the ghetto school who wanted to participate do so—at least we don’t see any tryouts or anything, with anyone being rejected—and then just brought them up to whatever level was possible in the month or whatever limited preparation time was available.

But qualified in that way, relative to appropriately low expectations, it seems to have been a big, big success. Ashish cannot contain his joy. Magesh even apologizes to him and tells him that whatever criticisms he may have had of him in the past, he sang very well tonight and he wants them to be friends again. Steinwender speaks movingly of how proud he is of them all, and what it felt like to see the tears in the eyes of the orchestra members watching the children rise to the occasion.

There remains the question, though, of what happens when the present fades and the future does not play out as some of them allowed themselves to dream it might, and they have to return to their lives of squalor and little or no hope of a better future.

Ashish notes with a shrug that though many of the rich people from the audience came up afterward and thanked him for his performance and praised him for doing so well, none of them gave him any money or raised the possibility of arranging for him to receive some form of higher education. He also mentions how he had hoped that Kimberly would be in the audience and would be impressed with how he had done, but that, alas, she had not come.

But he says it all with a smile, and the impression one gets is that he had a pretty good grasp all along—though I’m not convinced his family did—which of his dreams were realistic and which were just fun fantasies to play with. He was never going to marry the princess from another world, never going to receive the largess of random millionaires to rescue him and his entire family from poverty. But the aspects of his dream that were realizable and that were within his power to achieve, he achieved. Just as you’d expect from a boy who is not self-conscious but is confident in himself and knows that he can do it everything.

There isn’t a great deal of information about this film readily available online. Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, has a grand total of zero critic reviews and just one user review. However, when I did a Google search I was able to bring up a few reviews and such, including one that appeared in the Washington Post that was more unfavorable than not about the film, and even more so the project itself.

I found myself instinctively defensive in response to that. This film and these people left me with a decidedly warm feeling.

The reviewer talks about how the context of the hopelessness of these children’s lives is glossed over in trying to make the story of this concert as heartwarming as possible. In fact, far from ignoring them, the film explicitly explores their lives beyond this concert. It contrasts their prospects with those of children like Kimberly. It addresses the risk that participation in this concert will give them unrealistic expectations of it somehow affecting their life in a big way beyond that one night. These issues are a huge part of the film.

The review talks about the palpable smugness and patronizing manner of the conductor and the other white folks swooping in temporarily to supposedly save the unfortunate brown folks when in fact it’s all illusory and everyone will return to their privileged or unprivileged lives as soon as the project is over. Which is largely offensive bullshit of the “the amount of good you’re doing is not changing the world in a sufficiently fundamental and thorough manner to satisfy me, so you’re the enemy” type.

The people from the school and the orchestra, the Austrian conductor, the filmmakers, etc., are giving these children an opportunity at a very positive experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have. They’re taking the initiative and sacrificing their time, money, and labor to make it happen. That’s a heck of a lot more than 99.9% of the world’s population is doing for these kids, or others in need. Far from being smug, they’re openly struggling with the fact that however well this goes it’s unlikely to have more than the minimal long term effect of perhaps raising the self-esteem and confidence of these kids some modest amount, while still leaving them without the resources to properly pursue their dreams.

As far as I’m concerned, the proper response to “Yeah, but it’s not enough. And worse yet, some of y’all are white,” is a hearty “Oh go fuck yourself.”

Not to mention, the filmmaker (who reportedly bankrupted herself to complete this film, by the way) used it to raise money for the kids, setting up a website for donations to pay for higher education for them. The website is gone now—the film is roughly a decade old—but there’s still a Facebook page for the movie, and from there there is a link where it looks like you can still donate. I don’t know how much they’ve raised, but maybe it has indeed made a difference for Ashish and at least some small number of these dirt poor kids.

I mean, yeah, that doesn’t change the fact that these folks didn’t overthrow predatory global capitalism and eliminate racism from the world, so I guess that means they’re still just a bunch of liberal do-gooders motivated by an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for offering some illusory or token assistance to a few of their inferiors.

The reviewer even takes a shot at Kimberly for her obnoxious bragging about all her accomplishments made possible by unearned privilege. Um, she’s a 10 year old girl. God love her for the confidence and pride she shows in herself.

Dude’s a tool, in other words, so enough about him.

It’s a sweet film with sweet kids that you naturally root for, and kind folks who are giving them some little boost that they otherwise would not get. It’s to be embraced and celebrated. And if you can’t do that because you’re too bothered by the injustice of Third World poverty, then send what you can to help toward these children’s education, or join the revolution to overthrow capitalism and replace it with something better, but don’t take it out on these good people and The Sound of Mumbai.

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