For the most unusual, and possibly most moving, performance of the Sound of Music score you may ever see, check out the documentary The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, premiering on HBO2 this Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST. The film follows children from the slums of India’s largest city as they rehearse and perform with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), a venue normally inaccessible to the poor.
The Sound of Mumbai gives viewers a close-up look at life inside the slums and illustrates just how insidious India’s class stratification is even as children of different classes pursue the same activities. But most of all the film stands as a tribute to the power of art to inspire and uplift.
Director Sarah McCarthy found a star in Ashish, a toothy 11-year-old selected for a solo in the Sound of Music concert. He lives in a one-room shack where there’s no furniture—all the belongings are just piled up or hanging—and he and his family sleep one beside the other on the floor. But he’s undaunted by his circumstances, practices affirmations to boost his confidence and projects the charisma and cuteness that would have parents of greater means dragging their kid to the nearest talent agency. In a telephone interview last week, McCarthy told BWW that Ashish was “the biggest surprise” for her in making the film. “I never expected to find a kid quite like Ashish in the slums of India—that kind of commitment and dedication and that ferocious intelligence. And that emotional awareness as well.”
The program for poor children featured in The Sound of Mumbai was a one-time occurrence, initiated by Jini Dinshaw, a musician in the Bombay Chamber Orchestra who’s interviewed extensively in the documentary. McCarthy said that Dinshaw basically “had to keep the kids’ background a secret from the owners of the NCPA. Such is the level of snobbery—they probably would have canceled the whole concert if they knew where the kids came from.” Dinshaw selected the Rodgers and Hammersten classic as the music for the children to learn because, according to McCarthy, “these kids have never tried music before—may as well start at the very beginning.”
That’s not the only echo of a Sound of Music lyric in the film. When Dinshaw is reflecting on why the children have lived lives of deprivation that she's never suffered, she brings up the Hindu concept of karma and says, “I must have done something good so I got all these privileges.”
“I couldn’t believe she actually said the words ‘something good,’” said McCarthy in our interview, noting how other themes in the Sound of Music score have resonance for the situation: “Like ‘Climb Ev'ry Mountain’—obviously, these kids have pretty big mountains in the way of their dreams.”
The British filmmaker’s previous documentaries include Murderers on the Dance Floor, which goes behind the scenes at the maximum-security prison in the Philippines whose inmates became YouTube sensations with their “Thriller” dance (watch the documentary here). The Sound of Mumbai has been featured at the Toronto Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival and, earlier this month, at DOC NYC.