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The not-for-dummies guide

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INSIDE TRACK: Those who have grown up in slums offer tours

There are some questions even Google cannot answer. One such query routinely comes up when foreign tourists, mainly Americans, make the bumpy ride to the farflung Mumbai suburb that manufactures roughly 1, 200 dreams per year. "Why doesn't Salman Khan get married ?" they ask Anandya Dutta, their tour guide, with genuine curiosity.

Had Dutta been a regular guide - whose relationship with clients began and ended with a series of parroted lines - this question may never have come up. But the 40-year-old is a filmmaker who conducts Bollywood tours in Mumbai with the kind of fierce passion only an insider can possess.

By virtue of his profession, Dutta has easier access to certain film studios and naturally, during these six-hourlong tours, friendly conversations are inevitable. Unlike questions about dubbing and sound mixing, which he readily answers with examples, Dutta deliberately refrains from commenting on things like Salman's marital status. "I simply laugh it off, " says the filmmaker, who knows that is the best answer to some industry riddles.

Increasingly, such conversations are becoming common. The growing popularity of domestic tours has spawned a number of niche packages such as Bollywood, slum, heritage, manholes and, sometimes, all three in one. Naturally, it's no longer uncommon to find voluntary guides with an interest in the subject such as Dutta who works for a tour company in Mumbai founded by film producer Vikram Makandar.

And, what used to be the domain of the black-pouch-and-grey-safari-suitsporting licensed guide, now boasts passionate men and women from various backgrounds. Filmmakers, college students, street kids, chefs and even housewives are playing guide. And though they may not have a license, these voluntary guides make up for what they lack on paper with experience and passion. Most do not even treat their fairly well-paying pursuit (Rs 500 to Rs 1, 500 plus tips) as a profession, lending their tours the muchneeded personal touch. Jitin Shrivastava, founder of Bollywood Tours in Mumbai, says voluntary guides prove very useful "during peak seasons when professionals are not available". Shrivastava has been training college students in the art of acquainting NRIs and foreigners with the ways of Bollywood.

One such student is Ishaan Srivastava, a stage actor who uses his experience to explain how Bollywood manages to churn out 1, 200 films annually. He has now learnt to deal with contingencies such as the time when a Japanese lady insisted on meeting Akshay Kumar throughout her tour and when he finally came up to shake hands, asked him, "What's your name?"

Another time, he conducted an entire tour with a French woman using "sign language". "They don't mind it when I tell them I am a student, " says Srivastava, adding that the experience has improved his general knowledge and etiquette.

Sometimes, the pin code can become a qualification as in the case of 26-year-old Sunil Chettira, who has been conducting slum tours for a company called Mumbai Moments. Having grown up in Mankhurd's poverty, Chettira, who has done stints at a paan shop and a call centre, can easily answer all the questions tourists throw at him, including why boys resort to cheap thrills like travelling on train rooftops and whistling at girls. "They get a kind of momentary high from seeking the attention of a pretty, unattainable girl, " explains Chettira.

Four years of showing foreigners around Dharavi - where the film Slumdog Millionaire has brought relentless tourist footfalls - has made Chettira a confident orator. Groomed by his boss Amish Sheth, Chettira is also no longer nervous about entering McDonald's - a prospect he dreaded earlier because the waiters spoke in English. "Now, when I speak, people tend to assume I am from a high-class family, " says Chettira, in fluent English developed as a result of several nights spent reading the subtitles of Hollywood action movies on television. "I would watch them on mute so as not to wake up my father, " recalls Chettira, who once asked a client what the word "heck" meant after hearing it on TV.

This ability to make conversation and add value to a host of subjects distinguishes this bunch from the average guide. "My commentary does not come off as rehearsed and is spurred by my interest in the subject, " says 34-year-old Shilpi Burman, a graduate from the National Institute of Design, who conducts customised art walks in Delhi. Her discussions with clients, who include curators and people who are seeking niche experiences, have ranged from the architecture of India Habitat Centre in Delhi, which has linked courtyards, to the Naxal problem.

Needless to say, the impact of such unique exchanges is mutual. While tourists get more than their money's worth in the form of information, guides, on their part, return with fresh perspectives on seemingly mundane things as they learn to look at things from the outsider's point of view.

Mass media student Stuti Srivastava capitalises on her experiences as a village tour guide during classroom presentations. "My public speaking skills have improved a lot, " says the 18-yearold, who often escorts tourists to "mud and brick" pockets like Naigaon on the outskirts of Mumbai. In the course of convincing shy village women to pose for pictures and treating foreigners to mineral water pani puri, her confidence has improved. There could be slightly severe consequences too. Says slum guide Chettira, "I have stopped throwing garbage on the road".

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