It almost seems too easy. Get some poverty stricken Indian children, pair them up with a composer, and send them to a prestigous, fancy pants performing arts center to wow an audience with songs from everybody's favorite "The Sound Of Music." And yes, while "The Sound Of Mumbai" will hit all the adorable and cutesiness buttons you might expect from an endeavor such as this, director Sarah McCarthy does find some geniunely compelling narrative threads to follow in her debut feature film, even if the end result is plauged by some beginner errors and curious editorial decisions.
The documentary drops us right into middle of rehearsals with a handful of slumdog children, who are working with Austrian professor and conductor Johannis Steinwender on a concert of songs from the aforementioned musical. And immediately, this is where you'll find many of the shortcomings of the all too brief, just over one hour film. It's never explained why Steinwender is in India, how these students were chosen or why "The Sound Of Music" was selected as the musical choice (perhaps for no other reason than to get these kids dressed up in lederhosen). Even the benefactor behind the effort, who is interviewed a few times, remains somewhat mysterious with very little revealed about her background. But thanks to the big, toothy grin from Ashish, you won't dwell on these problems for too long.
McCarthy wisely pitches much of the film through the eyes of the young man, whose own pressure to succeed coupled with a pure enthusiasm is both heart-breaking and infectious. Regarded by his family as their last hope to rise out of poverty (and he's barely ten years old), Ashish constantly reminds himself in writing or by talking to himself in the mirror that he needs to stop feeling self-conscious and have the confidence in order to be successful. When he lands the coveted Maria solo in the concert, he is viewed as an outcast and show-off by his classmates, but worse of all, a rift forms with his best friend Mangesh who thinks he can sing the part better than Ashish.
Will the anxious Ashish, who is having trouble with the solo, manage to rise to the occasion when it's time to perform? Will his friendship with Mangesh survive? What about the pretty Kimberley who he spies practicing at the National Center For Performing Arts (in a subplot that unfortunately goes nowhere)? Most of these will be answered very quickly in "The Sound Of Mumbai," a film that takes pleasure in the moment of these lower caste kids getting a rare taste of first class living for what might be the only time in their lives (a sequence in which a gaggle of young girls thrill over a flushable toilet says it all).
You wish the filmmakers had dug deeper, spoken to parents, given more (or any) background on how this event came together (or was receivd afterward by attendees and/or the press) or addressed the social/political issues the story raises (particularly eye-brow raising is the final comment by the very person who puts this whole program together). But McCarthy prefers to live in the moment of the concert as these kids did, and based on that alone, it's hard to deny the film will stir you at least a little bit when these kids stand up tall and deliver the Rodgers & Hammserstein songs. It is a pretty remarkable, moving and significant moment. But perhaps more meaningful are the final words and tears from Ashish that will linger long after the credits roll. And oh yeah, for any producers out there looking for remake material? "The Sound Of Mumbai" might be worth your attention. [B-]
"The Sound Of Mumbai" premieres on HBO2 on Wednesday, November 23rd at 8 PM.