Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sound of Mumbai: a Musical Tragedy

Everyone is well familiar with musicals in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Naturally, they know their Bollywood there. Unfortunately, this creates unrealistic expectations when a group of the city’s poorest children are recruited to perform a choral concert of Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Intended as an unforgettable music appreciation lesson, the children hope for a greater life altering experience in Sarah McCarthy’s documentary, The Sound of Mumbai: a Musical (trailer here), which premieres this Wednesday on HBO2.

It is never explained just why the von Trappe family musical was selected for this project, though presumably it holds some patriotic significance for visiting Austrian conductor Johannes Steinwender. In fact, one of his biggest challenges was conveying the significance of the songs’ alpine settings to the children who only know Mumbai’s teeming slums. Early in the rehearsal process, he assigns a few solos to kids who catch his eye and ear. In doing so, he creates intense jealousies, not just for the attention the soloists get, but the presumption of their back-end opportunities.

Frankly, Steinwender’s musical instincts prove largely correct. To his credit, he also expresses concerns about raising the students’ hopes beyond the narrow scope of the production. However, he appears completely oblivious to the tensions caused by his not quite arbitrary solo assignments. Indeed, Ashish, Mumbai’s principle POV figure, almost irreparably severs his friendship with close mate Mangesh, because of the latter boy’s resentment.

McCarthy has organized benefit screenings of Mumbai to raise funds for the students’ further education, which is a worthy thing to do. Still, viewers will want to hear more from the adults behind the concert about what exactly their goals were. On the other hand, she clearly won the confidence of the kids and their families, gaining intimate access to their lives and homes.

Inexplicably, some critics and programmers have apparently labeled Mumbai “inspiring,” but it is anything but. Rather, it ultimately becomes a rather pointed critique of grand do-gooder gestures, with no subsequent follow-up. It is much more akin to Landon Van Soest’s Good Fortune than any plucky success in the face of adversity story. While the absence of tougher interviews with the adults is a drawback, Mumbai is an unquestionably honest film, worth checking out on HBO2 this Wednesday (11/23) for those in search of a dose of unvarnished reality on the subcontinent.