Bethnal Green, meet the Dharavi slum; Oliver Twist, meet Slumdog Millionaire.
What has made this genre so enduringly successful is not the melodramatic account of a young person's rise from squalor and poverty to something more elevated. That story had been doing great box office for centuries – including such hits as Cinderella, Moses, Moll Flanders and Jesus Christ.
What Dickens introduced was a new character – the slum itself. The East London shantytowns of Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green loom so large in Oliver Twist that they serve as the novel's main antagonist, throwing all manner of spectres and challenges at the hapless Oliver. At the end, while Oliver is fixed and catalogued, the slum remains a blank-faced mystery.
Danny Boyle's Mumbai, which at the story's outset has not yet been robbed of its name Bombay, is similarly compelling, similarly menacing, similarly inscrutable. It appears as a vast and gorgeous figure, responsible for most of the film's plot twists.
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