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Slum lords

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Their specialty is that they are street-smart and have deep contacts in Mumbai's slum sprawls. For a foreigner who wants to write about or film the metro's underbelly, these agents/fixers/liaison men are a must-have.

India has always been a place that guarantees a writer or a foreign journalist a good story. The most recent example is Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. It was released in January and continues to be unanimously and effusively praised.

Boo, a journalist with The New Yorker, spent four years following the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the airport in Mumbai. Her research would have been tough without the aid of Unnati Tripathi, who she credits as her translator and co-interlocutor.

It's not often that one hears of people who assist writers with their stories. They are indispensable facilitators who arrange interviews, provide research and act as liaisons and translators. Suketu Mehta relied on fringe gangsters like Anees, Ishaq and Shahabuddin to introduce him to Mumbai's mafiosi for Maximum City. The journalist Charu Deshpande acted as a translator for VS Naipaul when the writer was working on A Million Mutinies. And every writer keen on plumbing the depths of Mumbai's underworld pays a visit to S Hussain Zaidi, the city's bestknown crime reporter.

For many, being a liaison is a full-time job. Mumbai, which is often the first port of call for foreign journalists, is home to a small group of 'fixers' and line producers. The two qualifications the job requires, they say, are street-smartness and the ability to cultivate useful contacts across the country.

Dinesh Dubey, a gangly 40-year-old, has been a fixer for nearly nine years. The term might seem insulting, suggesting a shady middleman, but Dubey insists that it's misunderstood as it's also used to refer to political lobbyists and black marketers.
A native of Dharavi, Dubey lives in an MMRDA slum rehabilitation colony. He moved here in 2007 after his tenement in Dharavi was demolished. It helps to have connections with Dharavi. India's most organised slum, the neighbourhood is a darling of visiting journalists. Dubey, who works largely with foreign photojournalists, says most of his clients are interested in Dharavi. "There are many stories in Dharavi, " he says. "Water, environment, the builder lobby. I have made the most money out of my Dharavi stories. " He recalls a time in the 1980s when Dharavi was notorious for its crime. "I was afraid to mention Dharavi in my address in my school in Sion, " he says. "But now tourists go there."

In January, Prithviraj Chavan, the Maharashtra chief minister, approved the first phase of the Dharavi redevelopment project. When, and if, this longpending project actually takes off, the low-rise tenements will be replaced with towers that have a floor space index of four. But Dubey isn't worried that this will cease to earn him a living in dollars and euros. "They will still come to see how families are surviving after re-development, " he says jovially.

Dubey's other money-spinner is Slumdog Millionaire. In the aftermath of the film's success, a torrent of foreign journalists descended upon Mumbai wanting to interview and photograph its stars, the real life slum children, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail. "I used to do three translations per day every day just after Slumdog, " Dubey says. During the interview, Dubey got a phone call from an Austrian fashion photographer. She wanted him to arrange a shoot with Ali.

Those in the liaison business say that most journalists are intrigued by social changes wrought by India's economic progress. "People are interested in India, China and Brazil, " says Subhash Sharma, freelance photographer and arranger. "More and more people are living in urban areas. This is the big change happening all over the world. (Journalists are keen to capture) what challenges are coming up because of huge migration of talent coming into cities. "

Occasionally a major event brings a flood of writers to the country. Two months before the release of Slumdog Millionaire in India in 2008, ten terrorists besieged the city for three days. Journalists landed in Mumbai to cover the first terrorist attack to be broadcast live. Dubey, who was nursing a fractured arm, rushed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where terrorists had indiscriminately fired on commuters. Besides arranging logistic support for journalists, he was asked by foreign TV channels to report from the scene. "India is so full of stories that journalists always get something interesting here, " Sharma says. "Some have made a career in India. Also people are English-speaking and friendly. And there's not too much government control of the press."

Some fixers have moved on from simply arranging interviews for journalists to becoming reporters themselves. Uday Sripathi, 35, is now a producer for television channels and a freelance reporter for NBC. He began his career in IT in Bangalore, but soon quit the industry as he preferred to be outdoors. He moved to Mumbai to work as an assistant cameraman. Sripathi had some idea of this line of work. As a child he would often visit sets of movies being directed by his father, SP Rajaram, a Telugu filmmaker. His breakthrough was a show for NBC's Nightly News in 2007. "There was no looking back, " Sripathi says. "From fixer I became a producer. "

When NBC's reporters didn't get visas in time to interview the film's actors, Sripathi conducted the interviews. During the 26/11 attacks, he produced shows and reported the events for NBC and ITV.

The job beats sitting at an office desk, Sripathi says. He has been chased by pimps while filming the city's red light areas, been trained in the use of hidden cameras by a specialist whose name he cannot disclose and worked with the environmentalist Alexandra Costeau on Blue Planet, a show on the world's water bodies. But one of the brightest moments in his career was being a member of the pool of reporters invited to cover Barack Obama's visit to Mumbai in 2010. "I felt powerful, " he says.
On the sidelines of his production job, Sripathi writes screenplays. He has written King's Cross (to be released), a film that hinges on the tragic romance between a Sri Lankan taxi driver, a prostitute and a terror plot. "The producer and director said that they are looking at a dark love story and then I thought of setting this love story with a prostitute and a terror background, " he says. "I saw a side of the prostitutes that wants to love and be loved and during the terror stories, I kept wondering if everyone is a terrorist by choice or brainwashed or there are people too who innocently get caught up in the web. "

Reader's opinion (1)

John PanditMar 10th, 2012 at 21:17 PM

Nice article. Uday's story is really an inspiration about where you can reach! Kudo's to him!

 
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