There’s no denying it: Hollywood is influential. How is our perception of poverty shaped by the film industry? We take a look at one popular, Oscar-winning Hollywood movie and examine how its interpretation of poverty matches up to reality. Is there truth in the fiction?

Slumdog Millionaire has been slammed by some critics as exploiting the poor’s condition in the name of entertainment. But what was sensationalised or oversimplified and what is simply the reality for some children living in poverty?

The plot

18 year old Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Arrested by police on the suspicion of cheating the night before his final question, Jamal is forced to explain how an uneducated street kid like himself could possibly be answering the questions correctly. To prove his innocence, Jamal recounts his childhood with his brother Salim and Latika, the girl he loves, as they grew up living in poverty.

Poverty in Slumdog Millionaire

Living in a slum

From above, Jamal, Salim and Latika’s community is a never-ending ocean of flat tin roofs. Tiny homes open directly onto narrow streets teeming with people, while garbage blankets the dirt roads. Women wash their family’s clothes in waterways clogged with rubbish, their clothes vibrant against the mud and dull water.

The reality

When we think of slums, there are common assumptions: slums are crowded and dirty, children have to work instead of going to school, and the overall living conditions are very poor.

While this is often true, slums, like most communities, have different levels of wealth and prosperity. Living in a slum and being in poverty are not always mutually exclusive: the cheap rent is often a major attraction for those who do earn a steady, albeit low, income.

Slumdog Millionaire was shot in Dharavi, a real-life slum in Mumbai, India; one of the largest slums in Asia. Perhaps surprisingly, Dharavi is also a thriving economic market. The BBC reports the annual turnover of business in the slum is estimated at more than UK£650 million a year, built upon the small-scale production and exportation of goods like embroidered garments.

While millions of people around the world live in slums, the United Nations reports that the majority of the world’s poor actually live in rural areas, not urban cities. Many of the rural poor are family farmers, agricultural workers and subsistence producers. Despite improvements over the past 10 years, the United Nations says global poverty remains a massive and predominantly rural phenomenon—with 70 per cent of the developing world’s 1.4 billion extremely poor people living in rural areas.

Poor toilets and sanitation

There’s a memorable scene in the film when Salim locks five-year-old Jamal inside a ‘long drop’ toilet after Jamal costs him a paying customer. To escape, Jamal jumps feet first into the waste below, plugging his nose first.

The reality

Access to clean toilets and safe water is one of the most urgent needs in the developing world today. Worldwide, one in three people lack ‘improved sanitation’—access to a flush toilet, connection to a piped sewer or septic system, a composting toilet, or even a pit latrine with a slab. This means a huge proportion of the world’s population are forced to use ‘unimproved sanitation’: public or shared latrines, buckets, open defecation—and toilets that flow straight into waterways, like the one Jamal used in the film. The impact is huge: in India, one in 10 deaths is linked to poor sanitation, according to the World Bank.

A slum in Kenya

Begging on the street

After their mother is killed during a religious riot, the brothers and their new friend Latika are taken in by Maman, a sinister gangster who wins the children’s trust through food and a safe place to live, before tricking them into begging. The boys escape when they discover Maman is blinding children to make their begging more profitable.


The National Human Rights Commission of India reports nearly 40,000 children are abducted every year with 11,000 never found. Organised begging that involves the abduction of children—known as the begging mafia—is also a reality, with numerous cases across India.

Child begging takes many forms. Some children are trafficked into begging or exploited by predators like Maman in Slumdog Millionaire. However, forced begging is also imposed by family members, with parents sometimes using harsh punishment to ensure their children bring money back home. Forced begging can rob children of their childhood and their right to get an education.

Not attending school

After their mother passes away, Jamal and Salim stop attending school, instead travelling around the country to find work—including as unofficial tour guides at the Taj Mahal.


Children who have been orphaned have a higher instance of being out of school than their peers. UNESCO reports that in South Asia, one in four orphaned children is out of school, while globally, one in seven orphaned or abandoned children are child labourers.

Two girls in Haiti

How Compassion responds to poverty

Although Slumdog Millionaire has shown many of the hardships of poverty, the reality is that poverty is complicated and requires a holistic response. More than can be shown in a film. The solution is more than providing the Salims, Jamals and Latikas of the world with food, shelter, clean water, education and healthcare, though each is important. It also requires affirmation, encouragement, support and love. It involves combating the lives of poverty and telling children—sometimes for the first time—that they matter and their life is important.

We focus on one child at a time, building long-term relationships between children and their local church family. Most importantly, every child has the chance to hear and respond to the message of God’s incredible love for them. The result is that Compassion sponsored children are known, loved, protected and equipped to bring lasting change to their families and communities.

Children laughing

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This content was correct at the time of publishing. Compassion closed its programs in India on 15 March 2017 and no longer works in that nation.

Words by Zoe Noakes

Sources: BBC, ‘Life in a Slum’; United Nations, Rural Poverty Briefing Paper, 2011; WHO, ‘Lack of sanitation for 2.4 billion people is undermining health improvements’, 2015; The World Bank, ‘World Bank Approves US$1.5 Billion to Support India’s Universal Sanitation Initiatives’, 2015; The Guardian, ‘An Urbanist’s Guide to the Mumbai Slum of Dharavi’, 2014; The National Human Rights Commission of India, 2003; UNSECO, ‘Children Out of School’, 2010.

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