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Dickens Meets Bollywood in Slumdog Millionaire

New America Media, Q&A Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Feb 23, 2009

Editor's Note: "Slumdog Millionaire" is the underdog that did make it to the top with eight Oscars. The film about a young slum kid rising to the top of the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is as much a rags-to-riches story as it is about an India that's changing before our eyes. Director Danny Boyle had never been to India before making "Slumdog." He spoke to NAM editor Sandip Roy on the radio show New America Now long before the film became a monster hit. Photos: Ishika Mohan

Were you into "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" (WWTBM)?

Slumdog Millionaire
I was a prisoner of it like everybody, I think. You watch it and you can't stop watching it. But they are irresistible. You realize these things are like drugs they use to hook you in and keep you watching. And they make you feel full and satisfied for the hour then afterwards you feel wretched.

So you decided to make a whole film based around it?

When they said it's a script based on WWTBM I thought, I am not going to make a film on that. Then I saw it was adapted by Simon Beaufoy. He wrote "The Full Monty," and he's a very fine writer and thought, I'll read half of it so I can ring Simon and say very nice to talk to you. But after reading 15 pages I was completely blown away. Its immersion in India was just wonderful. He uses this device of the game show. And it's got this feeling of the underdog: He's got this dream and he will do anything to get to it. People respond to that. People want to see that lived out.

The show is a global franchise. Is there anything unique about how it plays out in India?

I believe they are about to get a version in Afghanistan. I went to see it recorded in Mumbai. Actor Shahrukh Khan was the host. It is interesting. They gaze at him the way people don't gaze at the host here in the west. Here we have TV presenters. There you have mega stars and people try and catch his gaze. It's clearly a way the star becomes accessible to the people.

In the film, the quiz show host uses a lot of Hinglish Hindi and English. Did you want it that way?

I loved Hinglish. I love that mixture, and you see that in so many different ways in an emerging city like Mumbai. It makes it own rules. You take a bit of Hindi, a bit of English, a bit of Marathi and it's all chopped and mixed up. They take a bit of hip-hop music, they take a bit of house music from Europe and they meld it in there with some traditional Indian music. That's what a billion people are going to listen to. And they will dictate the way things go, not the cultural tastemakers in the west.

But would slum kids in India really read "The Three Musketeers"?

We had to work around that. We originally decided to do the whole film in English. But when I got there and started auditioning, it was clear that the little kids don't really speak English. I immediately thought, 'We have to do it in Hindi.' So the kids speak in Hindi in the beginning, and I remember ringing the studio, telling them, 'Oh, by the way, the beginning of the film is going to be in Hindi.' And they were just horrified. They thought subtitles. And all I said was, 'I promise you the subtitles will make the film even more exciting.' And they bought it, fortunately. It's true someone from his background would probably not have that much English but he's a smart kid, and he picks stuff up quickly and he remembers it. That makes his dream come true - the things he remembers.

Your last film, "Sunshine," was a sci-fi film. How much of a contrast was it to film in Mumbai?

You cannot find a bigger contrast to the isolation and coldness of outer space than modern day Mumbai. In fact, there is very little that's permanent about Mumbai. It's just moving all the time. It gives you this little glimpse of what all other cities are going to be like. They are all getting bigger and they will have to share resources, like Mumbai has to. There isn't enough water, there are certainly not enough sewage facilities, the transport breaks down. But it's crazy. We find a location, think it's great. We go back a week later with the crew to double check. Great. We go back the next day to shoot and there's a huge 100-meter wall, 8 foot high, built right in the middle of it to keep beggars out.

What was it like for you to film in slums like Dharavi?

Dharavi is enormous. As many as two million people live there. The real estate value of the land is enormous. There are all these industries that operate within the slum itself. It's very self-connected, self-reliant, self-sufficient. And very powerful because politicians service them. Politicians arrange to have private ambulances waiting at the edges of the slum for and when people are taken ill, to get them to hospital.

Isn't it easy to turn slums of that scale into a National Geographic special?

I swore I wouldn't depict them like that. In India, a slum is a geographical reference. In the west, it is a value judgment. It's a very pejorative word in the way we use it. These places have little sanitation, which is shocking because India is going to the moon. But they are incredibly organized, business-like hard working people. The homes are spotless. I wanted it to feel like a generous film, not a pitiful film. Someone said, 'Please don't show as poor. You might think we are poor but I am employing a lot of guys in my shop.' I valued that.

How much were you inspired by Bollywood? You use the familiar tropes, like separated brothers on opposite sides of the law.

Good brother and bad brother are classic ingredients. And they value their mother. We took away the mother. If you notice, the boy that witnesses the violence turns to violence. That's his solution. I like the basic elements of storytelling. You can call them melodramatic but we respond to them on a human level. When you read Dickens, he's full of that. It's no coincidence his work came out of that Victorian explosion of opportunity, wealth creation and a mass of people who suddenly have a little purchasing power and want to be entertained. Dickens provided that and Bollywood does, too.

Had you been to India before?

I had not. When I made "The Beach" in Thailand, I wanted to spend a month in India. But I never did. My dad was in Bombay training to invade Japan during World War II. He stayed in the Salvation Army hostel. He told me about the beggars being cleared off the verandas of Colaba in Mumbai. But he also talked about how much he liked the people. When I was growing up, British television in the 60's and 70's was full of terrible racism. The Indian immigrant was the butt of terrible jokes. My dad would always object and say, 'That's not right.'

What was it like directing a Bollywood star like Anil Kapoor?

Anil's very smart. He watches western movies. He'd say, 'Don't be frightened to tell me to tone it down.' Anyway I like big performances. If it is truthful, I like actors to go for it. I don't like people mumbling away. I like it full on. The biggest problem is getting them to turn up. They are all so busy. They are all doing like half a dozen movies. So you tell Irfan Khan, you have a big scene on Tuesday. And Irfan says, with that wonderful arm gesture, 'I can't come on Tuesday. I can come a week from Friday between 2 and 6,' and your instinct is to scream. But he had this amazing assistant he would have a dozen mobile phones and he'd be ringing all the first assistant directors of half dozen films Irfan is working on and theyd do a deal. And finally Irfan khan would be there and your scene would be done.

What about working with kids who had grown up in the slums?

We saw a lot of kids who could speak English but they didnt feel like they were slum kids. We started going around slums and you could tell the difference between kids who were living by their wits on the streets and nice middle class kids who knew a bit of English. We found two of the kids there. I loved working with them. I made my casting director the co-director because she was there the whole time working with the kids.
We put the two little kids who come from a very poor background in school which was a wonderful thing because they had never been to school. We had to find out their birthday. They didnt know which day they were born. Suddenly they had a birthday which is their day and you could see them go oooh. Thats their day now, every year. We have this plan that if they stay there until there are 16 and take their exams there is quite a large sum of money that will be released to them then. We wanted to figure a way that parents or relatives didnt take advatange of the money and send the kids to work when they were 12 or 14. We wanted to keep them in school and hopefully the film will benefit them just as they benefited the film.

Listen to Danny Boyle discuss Slumdog Millionaire on New America Now.

danny boyle

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