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November 20, 2011

'The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical'

Documentary explores high hopes, and stark reality, in the slums of India

In Slumdog Millionaire, a young man escapes Mumbai's extreme poverty by winning a ton of money on a game show. It was, of course, fiction.

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In The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, premiering Nov. 23 on HBO2, a young boy hopes to escape Mumbai's extreme poverty by getting his own share of the spotlight. He doesn't. And it's fact.

A compelling documentary, The Sound of Mumbai follows the story of 20 young children from Mumbai's slums who have been selected to sing songs from The Sound of Music with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, a ritzy facility normally inaccessible to the poor.

The film zeroes in on charismatic 11-year-old Ashish, whose unbridled optimism and persistent smile grab you from the moment you meet him. He is chosen to sing a solo, and he's both thrilled and nervous at the prospect of singing in front of a thousand in such an important spotlight. He looks in the mirror and gives himself pep talks, telling himself that he IS confident -- whether he really believes it or not. Articulate and outgoing, Ashish comes to believe that this opportunity is his ticket, and his family's, out of the slums and into a better lifestyle. He's convinced that he'll get noticed, and someone from the aristocracy will pay for a private education so that he can someday become "a doctor or a scientist," and earn the money needed for a better lifestyle.

It's interesting how snippets of Rogers & Hammerstein's songs play perfectly into the story. "Climb Every Mountain," with its admonishment to "follow every rainbow till you find your dream," aptly describes the hope of these children. Ashish's pep talks mirror the message of Maria's song, "I Have Confidence": "With each step I am more certain /
Everything will turn out fine / I have confidence the world can all be mine / They'll have to agree I have confidence in me."

But then there's that haunting tune sung by Maria and the Captain, "Something Good," with its reality-check lyrics: "Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could." And amid all of the smiling faces and colorful optimism of The Sound of Mumbai, you can't help but think of how rare it is to escape India's caste system, for "the least of these" to move up the socio-economic ladder.

"It would be easy to say, if they believe in their dreams, they will do it," says Johannis Steinwender, the orchestra's Austrian-born conductor who puts the program together. "That would be the American way. But this is not America. This is India."

Will Ashish, like Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, beat the odds and ultimately escape the slums?

Click here for HBO's showtimes, and here's the trailer:

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