The Fixers of Dharavi

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A view of Dharavi. (European Press Photo Agency)

By Mansi Choksi

SEE VIDEO HERE 

DHARAVI, Maharashtra— The success of “Slumdog Millionaire,” which sent a number of journalists, documentary filmmakers, and photographers to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, created an industry of fixers, researchers, and line producers who specialize in finding a cast of characters the visitors demand.

Dharavi, which sprawls over 175 acres, has an estimated population of one million people, and houses roughly 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories.

For a fee, Dinesh Dubey, 43, helps visiting photojournalists negotiate the alleys and addresses of Dharavi, which confound even the most adept Indian postmen. Mr. Dubey, who grew up in Dharavi, went to an English-language school till 6th grade, but dropped out because of poverty.  Yet he managed to pick up sufficient English-language skills.

Thirteen years ago, in his first job at a nonprofit Mr. Dubey had to take visiting journalists around the slum.  A few years later, he became a full-time fixer and has since worked with several American and British media organizations.

“My rate is minimum $100 a day,” Mr. Dubey said.  “Dharavi will never go out of fashion.”

Mr. Dubey has helped document features and reports on Mumbai’s water crisis, prostitution, black-and-yellow taxis, and the Dharavi orchestra.  After the release of “Slumdog Millionaire”, when tempers ran high in Mumbai’s slums because of the perceived condescension of the movie’s title, foreign journalists had trouble visiting the slum.

“I was never stopped. Everyone knows me,” Mr. Dubey said. After the film’s release, Mr. Dubey earned between $300 and $400 every day.

On a recent rainy day, Mr. Dubey led a French journalist into a narrow lane where children in school uniforms waded through puddles. Mr. Dubey led the reporter into a single-room plastic recycling unit, where a worker tossed used plastic sheets and bottles into a rusted machine that swallowed, thundered, and pulverized. The French journalist was looking for a character, who would symbolize India’s economic ambition. Mr. Dubey introduced him to the plastic recycler.

The fixers double up as translators, ward off inquisitive neighbors, haggle with policemen, and even transcribe and conduct the interviews. Yet, they have their own red lines. “One fixer rejected a story about kids in Mumbai who perform stunts on moving trains because he didn’t want kids to do such things,” said Martin Heidelberger, a German journalist.

In the early 2000s when he was new to the job, Mr. Dubey would be troubled when Western photojournalists pointed their cameras at naked children and “sick persons with flies on them.” He told himself that even though these images portrayed an idea of India he didn’t like, they were telling true stories. Mr. Dubey still makes it a point to be watchful. “Photojournalists tend to get greedy,” he said. “When they cross the line, it is my job to say, ‘Come on now, get lost.”

The fixers have their own dreams of making the transition to being journalists. Rajesh Prabhakar, who grew up in the slum describes himself as a “researcher and independent field producer.” Mr. Prabhakar, who wants to be a photojournalist, gets requests like finding an English-speaking taxi driver in Dharavi. “I know that in all of Dharavi, there is one man on 90 Feet Road [a road in Dharavi] who reads the English Mid-Day,” said Mr. Prabhakar.

Mr. Prabhakar has been working with a Canadian filmmaker, Sturla Gunnarsson on a documentary about the Indian monsoon.  Mr. Gunnarsson was looking for a character who had to brave the flooding of Dharavi and show up at his office in the city, looking crisp and business-like. “There’s discrimination against Dharavi dwellers in India’s aspirational circles and I thought it would make an interesting story,” Mr. Gunnarsson wrote in an email. “People in Dharavi trust Rajesh and he helped us navigate our way into the heart of the community.”

As an adolescent Mr. Prabhakar was impatient to leave Dharavi for the bigger world. But the thrill of the story, the money, the association with top filmmakers and documentary filmmakers have convinced Mr. Prabhakar to stick to his 250 square foot home in Transit Camp area of the slum.

Five years earlier, Mr. Prabhakar worked as a video editor at a hyper-local news channel called “Mumbai Today” that was broadcast only in Dharavi. In 2010, a Channel 4 crew recruited him as the fixer for “Slumming It,” a documentary film on Dharavi. After that assignment, he quit his job and became a full-time fixer. His clients include Ross Kemp, the BAFTA-award winning British actor and journalist, producers from the BBC and the National Geographic.

“I walk about Dharavi and talk to at least ten new people every day. I keep a record because someday they could be characters,” he said.

Mansi Choksi is a journalist based in Mumbai.

Published in the New York Times India Ink; September 20, 2013.