Last Wednesday The Nehru Centre in London hosted a charity screening of Sarah McCarthy’s The Sound of Mumbai. The film was a documentary profiling the work of Pratham, a charity dedicated to improving literacy and educational opportunities in India. In this instance, children from the slums of Mumbai were given the chance to be part of a select choir performing The Sound of Music with a professional orchestra.
From the outset, we were told that this would be a surprising and poignant film, which on many accounts it was. However, it was also endearing and enlightening. We learnt that children from the most harshest and dire of circumstances could demonstrate fortitude and great resolve when given the opportunity.
The film follows several individuals and gathers their experiences as they embark upon a journey of practice, discovery and performance. Fittingly, the Austrian conductor with his orchestra leads the children through the process – introducing them to new music, new sounds and ways of singing. He highlights their strengths and surfaces their weaknesses. Quickly, two leads are chosen to perform solos, Ashish and Nandini. Ashish is put forward as the film’s protagonist and we largely focus on his journey. The experience brings new meaning to his personal moto ‘I’m not self-conscious I’m self confident’ which is truly tested. He has to learn a great deal about things which at first appear foreign, but then become familiar. The opportunity to be part of the choir is perceived by him, his family and his classmates as a window towards a better world. It is no surprise therefore that this is something Ashish vehemently campaigns for, at times upsetting the dynamics between himself and his classmates – but particularly his best friend Mangesh.
We are shown two very distinct worlds in the film as McCarthy follows Ashish in his domestic environment, exposing us to the slums of Mumbai and the inner world of the city’s poor. He tells us of the horrendous things he’s come to witness – but in a child-like state, been able to quickly adjust to. We are then shown Kimberly – a high achieving girl from a wealthy family with a strong education. She is by contrast a renaissance woman of a very young age – truly accomplished. The sheer confidence she exudes adds a comedic dimension to the film and it’s fascinating to watch how these two individuals contrast in their respective worlds.
Adding testimonials to this is Jinny Dinshaw, an elderly lady who has in part – spearheaded the project. Though herself from a comfortable background, she demonstrates with great sensibility the plight of the charities like Pratham. Though there’s no simple answer for why some people are poor and others aren’t - she contemplates on the notion of karma. Perhaps she’d done something good in her former life to make the existence in this a little easier. In this vein, you understand her motivation in doing good for the benefit of others.
As crunch day comes and goes, Ashish and the other children return to their everyday lives. Their performance marks the end of one part of the first leg of their journey. What happens afterwards is entirely up to them. They maturely learn, in a bittersweet fashion, that this is not The X Factor – they aren’t going to be talent scouted or whisked away to a better world. Yet, through song, they’re brought closer together; they’ve learnt new concepts through language and literacy – which has always been the goal. Ultimately, they’re offered a taste of something, which now they know about – they can continue to chase.
Technically, the film is well crafted – yet simple in its approach. It seeks to bring out the most from its subjects – so doesn’t need too many bells and whistles. Personally, I felt the Rogers and Hammerstein soundtrack worked superbly contrasted against the sadness of slums.
Following the screening, McCarthy talked to us about the experience of making the film. Its ultimate goal had been about bringing a greater awareness to Pratham, but of course the audience also felt tightly connected to the Ashish and his classmates. One’s left wondering where he is, what he’s doing. Though ultimately we have to tell ourselves that the best we can do to help children like Ashish is to work collectively through organisations such as Pratham. Even in such difficult circumstances, children like him are able to demonstrate a level headedness – which as McCarthy concluded - is not brought about by material wealth, but more so a spirit to learn and support network of loving friends and family. This is a subject she’ll explore in greater detail in her next project.
The Sound of Mumbai has already premiered at certain festivals on the film circuit; there are potential plans to take this forward with HBO and North America.