I was eleven when I first traveled to Dharavi, the biggest slum system in Mumbai, India. I had only taken my small, hand stitched Indian purse, wearing my dupata, salwar kameez, and chaupals that cost about 180 rupees. My father firmly gripped my wrist to the point where it hurt as we quickly turned into a small alley. Behind me, two naked children on the dirty, trash-filled road, began to cry.
My father was taking me to a very old doctor – one of the best in Mumbai, he proclaimed. I had a serious kind of food illness and he was not prepared to take me to the hospital, since they would charge more as I had come from the United States. “The doctors in the hospitals are all conmen,” he told me as he led me up the stairs into a rusty, dismantled room, made of metal scrap. “This is a man who has helped people of all kind – rich, poor, old, young – and has never really asked for anything in return.”
I don’t really remember much else after that occasion; just the old man, sitting in the corner of the room, empty metal bowls by his side. I remember seeing flashes of colorful saris on the way back in contrast to the smell of feces. I remember seeing naked children and buckets of dirty water. The next time I would come back would be six years later, when I joined a program that was devoted to educating children in the slums. I spent a month there, scrubbing girls’ backs with tough soap and rubbing their palms, trying to teach them basic addition and subtraction. I dressed them up, I took them home, I spoke garbled rural Hindi to their mothers and fathers as they served me whatever they could – often a glass of water or chai. And every time I came back to the large building devoted to this section of the slum, I would see sex workers, hands reached out, smirks and gazes everywhere. I saw men beat up their wives, casting them out of their homes, breaking their bangles and cursing at them. I saw rape. And yet, I also found a certain sort of kindness in the neighborhoods. I saw women clean other women’s children, or pass food along. The frugality was clean; no food was left untouched or overturned. Everything was recycled to the point where the only waste that existed was stuff that only could be thrown away, unable to be used. It was through all of this that I realized: I was a privileged ghost that lived through the lives of these children, through the town itself. And it is ironic then, that the one month I spent in Dharavi, taught me more about how to live than any of the cultural lessons I learned from Hindu school or Mumbai itself.
Suisei no Gargantia doesn’t give off the same, rich feeling of course; it’s not meant to. The show spends most of its time raising itself as a show that is more about life values than mecha battles. Whereas most mecha shows opt to focus on the robots themselves, Gargantia separates itself by spending more time on the life of Gargantia and its denizens. The result is a world that’s astonishingly colorful and creative: towns built on ships, remains of an ancient civilization attempting to trace its roots and learn more about where it comes from. Gliders zoom across the sky and Yunboros scavenge the seas beneath, looking for lost treasure. Children run through the bazaars while adults use tents and pots to collect water. It’s all breathtaking, and for 5 weeks, I was mesmerized by this creation. I was immersed in a world that bore somewhat of a resemblance to my own hometown in Goa, a neighborhood similar to the one I saw in Dharavi, without the darkness and corruption found in those particular alleys and households.
Episode 6 however, brings us to a grimmer reality of the situation at hand. One of the main characters, Amy, is shown to prepare herself for the “carnival” that is going to take part soon in the town. As we find out, it’s not just any regular preparation; Amy takes part in this celebration by belly dancing with her two best friends, in a crowd full of men. The thought of it alone doesn’t seem too bad, right? Amy’s just dancing along and expressing her individuality! Or so we think.
There are two issues I find with this scene. Neither of them have to do with belly dancing itself. Belly dancing is not a sign of cultural appropriation; to say this would be like saying yoga could only be performed by Indians themselves. Belly dancing is an art – a dance that encourages women and men to express themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that! The problems then, stem from how this belly dancing is used within context (and out of it). The first issue is the fact that this belly dancing has no cultural significance. Within slums, belly dancing was used as a way of gaining a customer for sex work. It was also sometimes a traditional ritual for certain poojas or way of paying respect for Indian gods. Many women became belly dancers as a way of creating a life for themselves – obtaining money and work, and also the prospect of getting a husband. The music, dance, and clothing all depended on what, and who, the women would belly dance for. But in Gargantia, there’s no suggestion that Amy is using belly dancing for these purposes. And to an extent, that would be fine – perhaps Amy is just belly dancing because she likes to! Maybe it is a way for her to express herself through dance; a simple hobby, nothing more.
That’s where the second problem comes in, regarding how this belly dance is portrayed. It is exploitative. The camera zooms in on Amy’s curves, her jiggling breasts and butt. The clothes Amy wears are incredibly skimpy, intended to allure and distract. They bear no cultural significance or intrinsic value. Amy is not using this dance to inspire confidence in herself. The camera is not from her point of view. It is from a male’s. And thus, this belly dance has no significance to it, other than the fact that it’s a simple use of fanservice. There’s nothing more to the scene: just Amy pandering to the audience with a dance that is all too often exploited in film and media. Thus the entire scene of the belly dance has no real meaning.
The idea alone is disturbing, but it also contributes to one of the larger problems Gargantia suffers from: a lack an understanding on how slum culture works. It chooses, like so many other shows and movies, to romanticize the aspects without inspecting the basic elements of what constitutes a slum. Instead of depicting a fascinating and realistic world of shantytowns that are connected through an inherited culture changed through reinterpretation, we get glimpses of men huddling around little campfires. We have sex workers being made fun of – crossdressers who try to beg the main character into joining their business, not out of desperation or the need for money, but just because. And we have belly dancers – girls who could very possibly be sex workers, trying to make a living for themselves, finding empowerment through dance and cultural tradition – being used exploitatively as fanservice. None of the life that I saw in Dharavi – both the bad and even the good, is really reflected in the show. Instead of looking inside Gargantia, we are looking at the outside.
And it’s a shame too, because Gargantia has the potential to step out of its already new circle and jump into something a little more daring – to become a little more adventurous, and to take strides in depicting a world we don’t get to see very often! Yes, Gargantia‘s world is fictional and so are its characters. But to excuse this and say that just because Gargantia is a fictional world doesn’t mean we can judge its content would be wrong. All of fiction stems from reality; media does not function in a social vacuum.
So by all means, if you will, continue to have that grill party, or gloss over Ledo’s chase to find work in a world not run by capitalism, but by gleaners. In doing so however, Gargantia continues to become less of a show about Gargantia, and more of your run-of-the-mill series about finding adventure in a shantytown – a basic plot I’m all too familiar with, frankly speaking.