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“The Revolutionary Optimists” Avoids Perils of “Indian Poverty Porn”

"The Revolutionary Optimists" Avoids Perils of "Indian Poverty Porn"

Ever since the success of Oscar-winning films “Born
into Brothels” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” India’s slums and
impoverished children have been a popular topic for Western filmmakers.
Accusations of “poverty porn” are inevitable, however, and, when it
comes to this former British colony, there’s always a question of whether these
films perpetuate age-old stereotypes of some backward “Orientalist”
land, plagued with dirt, poverty and illness, all wrapped in exotic colors and
bouncing music. 

Of course, huge portions of India, as revealed in “The
Revolutionary Optimists” (opening Friday) and “Blood Brother
(this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner) do lack basic
services, but there are more and less responsible ways of conveying this predicament.

“The Revolutionary Optimists” takes us inside the
work of a unique Bengali man, a dancer and former lawyer, who teaches kids
living in urban slums not just how to read and write and dance, but also to
empower themselves and their communities. We have seen this kind of thing
before (i.e. “Brothels”), but “Optimists” is refreshing in
that it presents a situation where the will to change comes not from the West,
but from within.

Directors Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen also
present the conditions of these kids without sentimentality, favoring a less
ham-fisted and more observational approach. These people might have to walk two
hours to stand in endless lines to get fresh water, but no one is crying about
it, not even the filmmakers. 

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