Mumbai is currently defined by the movie Slumdog Millionaire in the way that New York was once synonymous with the Godfather. During my recent stay there, the city was gearing up for – and very much hoping for – the success of a movie that showcases it in all its glory and its ugliness.
The huge haul of eight Oscars, including two for Indian national A R Rahman (best original song and best original score), was yet to be announced as I was leaving the city. But the buzz surrounding the movie was almost as palpable as the 90 per cent humidity and the temperature in the high 30s.
Although the movie has been on general release in Mumbai for a considerable time, there are still plenty of advertising hoardings promoting it. The English-language newspapers seemed to be doing a roaring trade in adverts for both English and Hindi versions of the film (although 30 per cent of the dialogue in the "English" version is in Hindi).
One certain consequence of the success of the movie at the Oscars ceremony will be a boom in tourism to Mumbai. The lightly idealised portrayal of the Mumbai slums will attract the curious and the simple-minded. By "simple-minded" I mean those people who are foolish enough to be seduced by the bright colours and the elfin beauty of the child actors. My stay in Mumbai was business, business, business. I did not go anywhere near the teaming slum areas of the city, but I have been in the presence of enough real poverty to know that the Slumdog portrayal skates right over the top of the difficult bits.
Even the early latrine scene (I will not say more for fear of diminishing the movie's entertainment value) is funny rather than, as it would be in real life, smelly. Of course, it is hardly the fault of the medium of cinema that it cannot convey odours. But the point is simple: Slumdog has put Mumbai at the centre of attention of the media world, at least for the few seconds it takes before Hollywood becomes distracted. Expect a series of slavish imitations and lots and lots of package tours taking tourists to see the difficult conditions for themselves. The British went to India in drives after a successful television adaptation of Paul Scott's novel, The Jewel In The Crown. The movie Heat and Dust compounded that effect. The new influx to Mumbai and India in general will now be worldwide.
All of which is good news. Before arriving in Mumbai I had been beset by concerns far darker than the possible future state of the Indian tourist industry. In steadier times, it would be perfectly reasonable to look at the Slumdog success and state that anything with air or sea routes to India or significant leisure interests in the country would be a buy – or would at least stand to benefit from what will be seen as the Slumdog effect.
But consider this: My travel plans were postponed. I had originally been planning to stay at the Mumbai Taj Mahal at the back end of last year. The booking was made for a week after the terrorist attacks on that hotel. This time around, I attended my conference, but stayed in a different venue. Whether American tourists, notably diffident travellers in times of global unrest, will actually board a plane, is open to some doubt.
Nevertheless, the people of Mumbai seem extraordinarily sanguine about the state of play. There is undoubtedly a tendency among some to blame their neighbours in Pakistan for the attacks. There is a body of partly formed thought that the authorities there ought to have known more, ought to have done more, at the very least. But such opinions are in the minority. The business people I met and the general level of debate I experienced in Mumbai reveal a ferociously ambitious populace with a strong dose of political maturity. These are determined, practical people who will do what it takes to make their country a top-rank economic power. It is business as usual – and the more of it the better.
In London and the West, pessimism reigns. The story people want to hear is one of global stagnation – gloom and doom. One of Gordon Brown's economic advisers was recently pilloried for opining that she saw the green shoots of recovery in certain areas of the UK economy. In India, there is merely a determination to get through what is probably best described as a slowing of the pace of growth. The most recent estimates I have seen from reputable investment houses put the expected rate of growth in China at seven per cent and in India at six per cent. These figures are worked out in dollars and are hostages to fortune in what we all know as the dismal science of economic forecasts.
Yet if you walk and talk in the city, it feels right. Mumbai is most definitely not a city in recession, and – perhaps because of its difficult experiences at the end of last year – the people do not want to hear defeatist talk of any sort. True, Indian retailers are cutting inventories for fear of a slowdown in growth. But the key word in that sentence is "growth". There is some, thank goodness. For part of my trip I was a guest at the Indian Women of Today awards ceremony. The keynote speaker was one Erin Brokovich – she of the eponymous movie. Brokovich made a keynote speech that reminded me of three of my undergraduate essays from Oxford days all stitched together.
The essay plan is simple: say what you are going to say, say it, then say that you have said it. Brokovich told her audience to stick to their principles, to fight for what they believed to be right and not to give up. It took her the best part of an hour to do this – though, at the risk of seeming churlish, it may have been longer. The audience, packed with talented people (mainly women, you guessed it), listened patiently. But my feeling was that having indomitable will to succeed, working hard and doing the right thing is a message the Indian people have already heard and understood.
- Martin Baker is a journalist, author and commentator on international business