Why the children are asked (plucked, really) to do this is never quite clear, except that the well-off founder of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra feels it would be a splendid opportunity to expose some of the city’s poorest children to the magnificence of the arts. The orchestra flies in an actual Austrian, a music professor named Johannes Steinwender, to conduct the musicians and rehearse the young singers. Everyone seems predictably idealistic about this cross-cultural experience. Everyone gets lederhosen and fraulein braids.
So far, so good, so weird.
A precocious 11-year-old boy named Ashish is over the moon about being chosen for the choir. Crammed with his family into a tiny, street-level tenement, Ashish tells us that “the biggest thing” in his life is to become less “self-conscious.” He writes disciplinary lines over and over in a notebook, admonishing himself for his lack of confidence. He practices self-esteem exercises in front of a mirror, a sort of slum kid Stuart Smalley, with Alfalfa’s ear for musical tone — all energy and F-sharps.
“The Sound of Mumbai” wallows beautifully in these contrasts but too easily retracts from necessary documentary conventions, such as theme or point of view. It’s one of those docs that cries out for a few sentences of interstitial text, particularly near the beginning, that might explain what we’re seeing and why.
Ashish wanders the streets of his slums endlessly singing a string of Julie Andrews gaiety. The hills aren’t alive (there are no hills). Nor are there yodeling goatherds. There is noise, filth, hunger. Yet the music fills him with a remote sense of joy and expectation. What there is, thanks to India’s caste system, is a sense of karma that cozies up to part of a lyric from the movie version of the musical: “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood / Perhaps I had a miserable youth / But somewhere in my youth or childhood / I must have done something good.” Ashish pins his hopes on being noticed in the concert, from which his own personal “Slumdog Millionaire” fantasy takes over.
We also meet Ashish’s neighbor and classmate, Mangesh, who offers to help Ashish practice his “Sound of Music” songs. Both boys, also aware of the camera’s presence, try to find polite ways to criticize each other’s singing, obsessed with singing “proper.” When Steinwender chooses Ashish to sing a solo rendition of “The Sound of Music’s” title song in the concert, Mangesh is understandably jealous. Their friendship is ruined.