Film Review: The Revolutionary Optimists

Inspired by their teacher, children in the slums of Calcutta become community activists.

<a href="http://www.itvs.org/films/revolutionary-optimists">ITVS</a>

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

One day while playing around on Google Maps, children from a squatters’ village in Calcutta discover that their neighborhood has been completely overlooked by the digital mapmakers. Urged on by their teacher, Amlan Ganguly, they decide to create their own map for the community of 9,000. That’s just one way Ganguly pushes them to question their lot.

In The Revolutionary Optimists, Stanford filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen follow the story of Ganguly, a pied-piper figure who left his job as a lawyer to find more meaningful work through his foundation Prayasam. They chronicle his efforts to turn the kids into mini-activists. The film opens with Salim and Sikha, two of Ganguly’s bright-eyed disciples, who walk the streets of their slum speaking to friends, neighbors, and anyone who will listen about the problems their community faces. They enlist other children to act as town criers to get out the word about polio vaccines, meet with local officials about getting a potable water hookup to serve the village, and work together to transform a trash heap into a soccer pitch for the community. 

Ganguly tries to instill in his students that they can break away from the paradigms enforced by poverty. But an entrenched caste system, glacial bureaucracy, and cultural inertia make it an uphill battle. India boasts the second fastest growing economy behind China, but it also has more child laborers than any other country in the world. One-third of all girls are pulled out of school by the time they are 11, and many are quickly married off to older men. In describing the odds his son faces, Ganguly’s father invokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech: “That dream included eradication of poverty in the land of plenty,” the old man says. “Amlan…” he continues. “has to [do] this in the land of nothingness.”

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.