It does not take much to galvanize protest against a movie in India, but few thought the word “slumdog” would cause so much anger — especially as hundreds of Bollywood titles translate into much worse slurs. We had to pay attention, though, when friends from Mumbai’s sprawling Dharavi area joined hands with those demonstrating against the Oscar-nominated film “Slumdog Millionaire.” The Indian media widely reported that the outrage was over the word “dog.” But what we heard from Manju Keny, a college student living in Dharavi, was something else. She was upset at the word “slum.” We could not agree more.

In truth, the movie never claims to be a portrait of Dharavi, though some of the most spectacular scenes were shot there. The imagery represents what most middle-class residents of Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend of its squalor has taken root because few Mumbaikers have ever been there.

Its depiction as a slum does little justice to the reality of Dharavi. Well over a million “eyes on the street,” to use Jane Jacobs’s phrase, keep Dharavi perhaps safer than most American cities. Yet Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see hopeless people loitering — Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state — including having set up a highly functional recycling industry that serves the whole city.

Dharavi is all about such resourcefulness. Over 60 years ago, it started off as a small village in the marshlands and grew, with no government support, to become a million-dollar economic miracle providing food to Mumbai and exporting crafts and manufactured goods to places as far away as Sweden.

No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi. It was built entirely by successive waves of immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression and natural disasters. They have created a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself. In the words of Bhau Korde, a social worker who lives there, “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.”

Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate.

Building on what exists, rather than clearing it for redevelopment, may preserve not only the character of a place but also its economic vibrancy. In Dharavi, it would allow all residents to leverage their most precious asset: a place to live and work.

Originally posted on The New York Times