I recently took my two daughters to see an inspiring film that will be shown on PBS next month, and you should check it out, too.
The movie, "The Revolutionary Optimists," will premiere on June 17 as part of the Independent Lens series. It deals with children in a Calcutta (now named Kolkata) slum who, under the direction of an NGO, work to change their surroundings. The film was screened on Saturday at a library here in Madison, Wisconsin, and its message of girl empowerment drew me to see the movie with my own two girls.
"'The Revolutionary Optimists' reveals the work of Bengali visionary, Amlan Ganguly, a passionate former attorney who doesn't just rescue slum children -- he empowers them to become change agents, battling poverty and transforming their neighborhoods with dramatic results," states the press release of the film. "Filmed over the course of three years, the film follows Amlan and three of the children he works with on an intimate journey through adolescence, as they challenge the idea that marginalization is written into their destiny."
As the description reveals, "The Revolutionary Optimists" is an impressive cinematic project. And it is quite powerful to see. The movie doesn't peddle false uplift. There are episodes of heartbreak. A teenage girl, Priyanka, working with Ganguly's group, opts for an early marriage to escape her abusive family. Another girl, Kajal, is a child laborer who is forced to leave school. (There is a silver lining here, since Ganguly's organization has a teacher tutoring Kajal at her home.)
But the tone of the movie, reflecting the title, is generally upbeat. The kids do compel the municipality to bring piped water to their slum. One of the children, Salim, attains such fame that he is invited to speak before an Indian Parliamentary committee. A UNICEF official sitting in the room humorously remarks that if it weren't for child labor laws, he'd be hiring Salim for a top post with the organization!
Another touching aspect of the movie is the bonding of the children across religion and gender. Salim is Muslim, and Shika is Hindu, but you would never know that if it weren't for their names and the somewhat different dressing styles of their mothers. The fact that these children come together to change their lives -- and of those around them -- is certainly cause for hope.
"The Revolutionary Optimists" is also a welcome antidote to the images that Americans have of Calcutta, due to Mother Teresa and movies such as "City of Joy," of being almost irredeemable (except through the efforts of Westerners). Here, the children are working under the direction of an adult who isn't foreign (Patrick Swayze) or foreign-born (Mother Teresa). Ganguly and his organization, Prayasam (meaning self-effort), are doing impressive work, and they deserve all the support they can get.
Where the film falls short is implying that conditions in such slums can be changed dramatically just through the efforts of well-intentioned NGOs.
But as University of Wisconsin Professor Joe Elder remarked during a discussion at the end of the film's screening, the only portion of India in which the poor have received decent social services is the progressive communist-dominated state of Kerala. (Curiously, the communists who ruled for more than three decades in the state of Bengal, of which Calcutta is the capital, had a much more dismal social record.) There is no substitute for enlightened governance.
The very reason such slums exists, as Mike Davis points out in his 2006 book, "Planet of Slums," is because of inadequate wages and lack of affordable housing. "The idea of an interventionist state strongly committed to social housing and job development seems either a hallucination or a bad joke, because governments long ago abdicated any serious effort to combat slums and redress urban marginality," he wrote.
And as Professor Vijay Prashad details in his recent "The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South," West-dominated institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank have squelched any possible alternative to the idea that the free market will provide for the urban poor (though there has been a recent fightback, especially in Latin America).
Even if it is unable to provide a broader perspective, "The Revolutionary Optimists" is definitely worth watching. It provides a sense of empowerment to girls in this country, as it shows their counterparts in other parts of the world battling and sometimes succeeding against tremendous odds. My ten-year-old liked it (even if my seven-year-old struggled to understand it fully). Do catch it when it is shown on PBS next month.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).