At first glance, you could hardly find a more unlikely candidate for a Best Picture Oscar than “Slumdog Millionaire.” With no stars and a cast of mostly Indian unknowns, a director best known for a controversially hip film about junkies, and — God forbid — subtitles, that would normally be three strikes and yer out. “Slumdog Millionaire” had only two things going for it: It was a very, very well-made film, and it had become a runaway hit.
Director Danny Boyle brings the kinetic style of filmmaking that so energized his breakthrough hit “Trainspotting” to tackle the story of two orphan brothers from Mumbai’s slums and the girl who comes between them. Working off a script by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), which was adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q&A,” Boyle lived in Mumbai for a year, breathing in the city’s ambience and energy, and filmed on its streets guerrilla-style to bring the story to life.
In an interview with The Japan Times, two days before he would pick up a Best Director Oscar (as well as seven others for the film), Boyle was relaxed and cracking jokes. The 52-year-old Mancunian looks much younger, no doubt due to a laid-back attitude that served him well when dealing with the logistics nightmares of shooting around India and in Mumbai’s bustling streets. Between being chased out of the Taj Mahal mid-shoot (and sneaking his second unit back in, posing as a German documentary team) and paying Mumbai “community leaders” (i.e., gangsters) for the right to film in certain neighborhoods, Boyle had plenty to stress about.
Yet sitting in a Tokyo hotel suite and reflecting upon it all, the director was adamant: “You’ve got to go for it. You can’t think, ‘This is so frustrating!’ (or) just moan all the time about ‘how dirty everything is.’ Because you might as well make the film at home then, if you want conditions like how you normally work. But if you want to have fun, you just have to embrace it all. You embrace the culture; then you benefit.”
The film starts with a teenager, Jamal (Dev Patel), sweating it out on India’s version of the TV quiz show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” Jamal, a call-center chai-wallah (tea server) who grew up as a homeless street-kid “slumdog,” is now one question away from winning 20 million rupees (¥10,000,000). Suspected of cheating by the show’s host (Anil Kapoor), he is hauled off by the cops and tortured for a confession. Then, in flashbacks, we see episodes from Jamal’s childhood that show how he knew the answers to the questions he was asked.
In the first such flashback, Boyle drops us in on a group of slumkids playing cricket on an airport runway. A group of staff-wielding cops show up to give them a thrashing, and the kids run like hell through the narrow, labyrinthine alleys of their slum, before ambushing the pursuing police with a hail of garbage.
It’s an amazing sequence, throwing the viewer right into the heart of a world rarely glimpsed on screen (“Salaam, Bombay” and “Born Into Brothels” being notable exceptions). It’s not a world where anyone can just walk in with a camera, but once the proper “contributions” were made to the community leaders, “people were amazing, much more patient about it than a lot of places I’ve filmed,” said Boyle. “They did tend to get a bit upset, though. If they see a big camera, they think that maybe a big star will come along.”
Director Tarsem Singh once told The Japan Times that his biggest problem in shooting “The Fall” in India was keeping the curious crowds who gathered to watch out of the frame of the shot. Boyle admits it was a problem, but said “I think you’ve got to accept that. You can’t complain about it, then spend a fortune trying to clear the streets of people, because it’s pretty pointless, anyway. By the time you’ve turned your head round, it will have filled up again. So we just tried to use (the people), include them in it. Sure, there’s people looking at the camera, lots of continuity mistakes, things like that, but what you get in compensation is this vividness of life, this texture, this miasma of detail; just constant movement. The real landscape (of Mumbai) is people.”
As “Slumdog” moves along, we see more of Jamal’s childhood, how he and his brother Salim were orphaned during an anti-Muslim riot; how they hooked up with a homeless girl, Latika, who would become a lifelong friend and lover; and how they were seduced into a gang of urchins by the Fagin-like Maman (Ankur Vikal), a sweetly smiling man who was not above permanently crippling some kids to make them more effective beggars.
This is the sort of tough topic Bollywood films rarely go near, and “Slumdog” — despite being basically a feel-good film — took some criticism, notably from Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, for showing a “negative” side of India. Boyle notes that “in India, any film that has any kind of impact (draws) protests; I never expected any different.”
Boyle also pointed to a row over the title “Slumdog,” which some people saw as colonialist, and the supposed hubris of a Westerner attempting to do an Indian story. Boyle shook his head, saying, “There’s nothing you can say about that. I am a Westerner. But the idea was to try and make it from the point of view of that kid (Jamal). It wasn’t to try and look at Mumbai from an outsider’s perspective.”
Boyle must have succeeded, because “Slumdog” went on to become a huge hit in India, with the Congress Party even paying a six-figure sum to use the film’s theme song “Jai Ho” — penned by Bollywood maestro A. R. Rahman and sung by award-winner Sukhwinder Singh — at its rallies.
While including British electro-rapper MIA on the soundtrack — which drives many scenes — was a nod to Western tastes, Boyle was also absorbing the local Bollywood flavors. Aside from employing A.R. Rahman — a very modern-sounding composer who has scored more films than John Williams — Boyle actually lets one scene, in Mumbai’s central train station, break into a song and dance routine.
Boyle explained the scene as not so much a nod to Bollywood, but simply because “I lived there for about a year, and you can’t live in Mumbai for a year and not dance! (Laughs.) So it’s gotta be in there, or else it’s gonna be only a very partial view of the city.”
Boyle also piled on the actors for this film, three for each of the three main roles of Jamal, Salim and Latika, with different actors playing them as young children, tweens and teens. With the exception of Freida Pinto (a professional model in India) and Dev Patel (a U.K. TV actor) as the teenage Latika and Jamal, none of them are familiar faces, and that’s the way Boyle seems to like it.
“I like not knowing a lot about the (actors) when you go into a film. Like Cillian Murphy in ’28 Days Later’ — he wakes up and you don’t know anything about him. He could be a lunatic or the good guy. And in ‘Slumdog,’ (Jamal) just turns up on the show; you don’t know whether he’s gonna get eaten up and slapped down, or whether he’s gonna become a hero.”
Boyle cites another reason for avoiding stars: “It helps to keep the price down. If you spend enough money on a film, eventually you can’t have a scene, because the financiers won’t allow it. They’ll just say, ‘No, we don’t want this in the film, we’ll take our money out.’ ”
Referring to “Slumdog,” he notes, “Nobody’s going to pay $60 million and allow you to go around blinding children!” (The director also points to Warner Bros.’ policy of not allowing scenes of people smoking, yet another example of good intentions advanced at the expense of depicting reality.)
A lot of these lessons were learned the hard way when making “The Beach” with a post-“Titanic” Leonardo DiCaprio as his $20-million star. While working with DiCaprio was worthwhile, Boyle says, “I didn’t particularly enjoy making that film. I sort of learned what I’m better at, really, which is working under the radar a bit. Which means taking less money, not so much working with stars, so you can make the film you want. Then you work hard to try and get it on the radar.”
Boyle, who at one point faced the prospect of “Slumdog” going straight to DVD when his U.S. backer, Warner Independents, was shut down, admits to still being a bit surprised by how successful the film has been.
“It’s weird: They say one of the reasons the film is successful is because of the recession,” says the director. “The film came out just as the recession hit, and everybody wants a film with an unlikely hero they can root for, against all the odds, to give them a bit of hope.”
Of course, the poor-boy-with-a-ticket- out-of-the-slums story is a good one, with plenty of twists and turns, but Boyle isn’t above including a bit of toilet humor. In a scene that recalls “Trainspotting,” where Ewan MacGregor’s Renton dived into a foul toilet to retrieve some drugs, poor Jamal has to take a dive into a latrine in order to catch a glimpse of his favorite Bollywood superstar. He emerges covered in excrement, an effect created with a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate.
Boyle briefed his child actor before filming the scene, but says, “I don’t know what he thought. We got on really well and used to play a lot of games together and stuff. . . . But after we dropped him in it (laughs), he never looked at me the same way again. I can’t blame him!”
“Slumdog Millionaire” opens April 18. The Hindi dialogue has English and Japanese subtitles.