Arts & Events

The Revolutionary Optimists: Indian Slum Kids Overcome the Odds--Opens at the Rialto Elmwood on April 5

By Gar Smith
Thursday April 04, 2013 - 07:49:00 PM

Can a bunch of underage slumdogs from the Indian state of Kolkata find the inner strength to become internationally recognized community activists? You bet! But it's not easy. 

The youngsters portrayed in The Revolutionary Optimists are up against some pretty daunting odds. They live in one of Kolkata's 5,500 slums. Twelve percent of India's kids between 5 and 14 are trapped in child labor. Instead of pursuing education, nearly half of Indian's girls become child brides before the age of 18. But this film (the work of two Bay Area filmmakers, Oakland's Nicole Newnham and Portola Valley's Maren Grainger-Monsen) demonstrates that birth is not destiny. 

This film (distilled from more than 250 hours of footage) covers nearly four years in the lives of four young slumkids as they struggle to overcome poverty, government disinterest, and physical abuse. 

Inspired by an energetic über-optimist named Amlan Ganguly (a criminal lawyer turned visionary teacher), these youngsters learn how to employ education and the arts – drama, dance, puppetry -- to forge new identities as agents of change. All it takes is someone to tell them they have the potential to challenge and change the world around them. Galvanized by hope, the kids of Ganguly's Prayasam slum school plunge into the work of community organizing. Using rudimentary tools and an abundance of charisma, these kids manage to control the spread of polio and malaria at the same time they are turning garbage dumps into playing fields. 


These are remarkable youngsters. They are articulate and passionate. They can think on their feet and they seem smart beyond their years. Despite being confined to living situations that people in the material-mined West would deplore, the kids are lively, healthy, intelligent and hopeful. 

We follow two of Ganguly's Dakabuko (Daredevils), 12-year-old Salim Shekh and Shika Patra, as they storm through their mud-hut slum insisting on change. Both are irresistible silver-tongued firebrands, aflame with conviction and a sense of mission. Brandishing clipboards and hand-made paper megaphones, they charge down the dusty alleyways, collecting information to create the first map of their sprawling neighborhood. On the official maps, these communities appear as a large blank space with no indication of the existing roads and alleys (let alone thousands of homes). 

Kajal Kahar is a slim, beautiful 12-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a tailor. She spends half her days working in a brickyard and the other half in an ad hoc school Ganguly has managed to fashion in the brick field. But when Kajal's mother falls ill, the girl has no choice but to abandon school and return to the brickyard fulltime --the same brickyard in which her grandmother worked when she was a girl. 

Under blistering heat, Kajal must repeatedly kneel to gather bricks to pile atop her head -- two bricks at a time -- until they are stacked four-bricks high. Then it's off at a brisk trot across the brickyard and down a rickety wood-stick ramp to a handler who removes the load. (A surprising amount of the housing construction in India's cities still depends on these hand-made mud-bricks, which are even used in the construction of multistory buildings.) 

Priyanka Mandal is a talented young dancer who works with Ganguly to train members of the school's dance troup, Allhadi (Dear Ones). Despite Ganguly's concerns, Priyanka sees childhood marriage as her only escape from her family where she suffers physical abuse. 

Shika and Salim make a powerful couple -- a boy and a girl who join forces to organize their neighbors to demand the government make good on a long-promised plan to bring clean water to their dirt-poor community. 

Because there is no water pipe, Salim has to struggle out of bed at 4AM and walk three kilometers to a water faucet in a neighboring slum. Once there, he must wait in a long line of other slum dwellers who shuffle forward impatiently, waiting to fill their plastic jugs with life-giving water. 

Shika and Salim see their efforts recognized when, in a surprising turn of fate, they are invited to plead their case before the Indian Parliament in Delhi. The filmmakers were on hand when a group of local politicians broke the news of the invitation to Salim. As his neighbors cheer and his beaming father hugs his son, the usually voluble Salim suddenly finds himself without words. 

Meanwhile, Shika has won a battle of her own -- she challenges and overturns the tradition that banned local girls from the community soccer field. After the film wrapped, Shika was invited to address India's National Girl Child Day. 

There is more to this adventure than the film itself. As Newnham explains, "we actually also partnered with the children" to create a piece of mobile technology called>"Map Your World." Based on the Daredevil's mapping work – and assisted by a media lab in San Francisco – other young activists in India and around the world will now have a powerful new tool for local organizing and problem-solving. 

Update: During their five visits to India, the filmmakers became intimately involved in the lives of these youngsters, their families and their community. On one visit, they hosted filmmaking classes for Ganguly's students. It paid off. Sikha recently produced her first short film. She is now contemplating a career as a lawyer or a journalist. In 2012, Salim was invited to address the World Forum in Oxford, England. He hopes to become a lawyer. Kajal still works in the brickyards but she has become a photographer and now shoots all the photo's for Prayasam's publications. 

Special Event! Amlan, Shika and Salim will be coming to Berkeley to join the filmmakers at the Elmwood where they will take questions from the audience after the 7PM screenings on Friday, April 5. 


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