Every morning, Jamal spends a few special minutes with himself in the loo. Squatting, chin resting in his palms, he dreams. Sometimes, the seven- or eight-year-old slum boy looks at the dog-eared photograph of Amitabh Bachchan that’s neatly folded and tucked in his pant pocket. The loo is makeshift—precariously perched on a wooden platform, which stands on swampland. His neighbourhood is the Juhu slum—the one we see every time our flight is about to touch down in Mumbai. The slum begins where one side of the runway ends.
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At other times, Jamal plays gilli-danda or invites the ire of cops, making them chase him through grimy, narrow lanes to his matchbox tenement home.
And later, after his mother dies in a communal riot, Jamal’s life is endlessly and dangerously charged with adrenalin. He begs at traffic jams, palms pressed flat against car windows. He steals food through the windows of running trains.
The cast: (from top) This is Mumbai-based model Freida Pinto’s first film; Boyle and Rahman received their first Golden Globes (Mark J. Terrill / AP); Boyle left room for improvisation during filming.
By then, he has fulfilled one of his cherished childhood desires. One day, while inside the makeshift loo, his hero’s private jet lands on the runway. His brother Salim, who keeps guard (they make money by charging fellow slum dwellers a fee for using the loo), runs away, locking Jamal inside. As the chorus “Amitabh ka helicopter aaya!” reverberates through the foul, open air, Jamal, delirious and livid, jumps into a pool of viscous excrement. It’s his only escape route. Jostling past the crowd, he hands the photograph to Bachchan, who signs it. Jamal throws his hands up in the air, triumphant—his body stinking of shit.
Jamal and Salim are the feisty children in Slumdog Millionaire, the $15 million (around Rs75 crore) film that is the toast of world cinema today, and this scene encapsulates the spirit and soul of the film. By plunging headlong into the squalor and poverty of Mumbai—or the “developing world city”—it brings out the grittiness, idealism, innocence and joie de vivre inherent in that squalor and poverty.
A heart-warming masala potboiler, Slumdog juxtaposes the malaise of the city with its fierce will to live. But above all, it is a clever Western stab at Bollywood—“Unconsciously so, for most of it,” says director Danny Boyle. “I only wanted the music and the end credits to be full-throttle Bollywood.” The ghetto-picturesque style, first glorified by the 2002 Brazilian docu-fiction City of God, met Bollywood histrionics and music, and walked away with four Golden Globe awards and 11 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) nominations. Industry watchers say a couple of Oscars are almost certain.
Much before Slumdog caught the world’s attention with the Globes (it almost didn’t have a distributor in the US when Warner Independent, which was to distribute it, was closed in November), it was variously described by Western critics. Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times called it “trauma tourism”; The Guardian said it was “wildly silly but perfectly watchable melodrama”; The Telegraph, UK, said it was “an advertisement for the dramatic potential of the non-Western city” and that it was “the first emblematic film of the Barack Obama era”.
Few films depicting a slice of non-Western reality have evoked such response from Western critics; and few have been accorded such pathbreaker stature. But its making, as Boyle told Lounge, is as much an underdog story as the story itself.
In mid-2006, executives of UK’s Film4, the films division of Channel 4, entrusted the job of adapting Q&A, the 2005 novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, to scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, who had written the quirky British comedy The Full Monty (1997) and Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008). Beaufoy had visited India as a teenager in 1984—“an important trip that changed certain perceptions, but not one that had a profound, spiritual impact”.
The story of Ram Mohammad Thomas, Swarup’s protagonist, caught Beaufoy’s imagination. He arrived in India on a research trip a few months later and discovered a new city, in the throes of rapid globalization. In the post-9/11 world, Thomas became Jamal Malik—a Muslim youth from the Juhu slums, with unadulterated idealism, naively in love with his childhood sweetheart.
Beaufoy denies having been “inspired” by Bollywood. But it couldn’t be just a coincidence that Slumdog so convincingly reiterates the moral principles that most Hindi film heroes of the 1980s and 1990s lived by—that hard-earned street knowledge can be as valuable as traditional education; that you can live on love; that good ultimately triumphs; and that success comes after hard work. We have seen Mithun Chakraborty and Amitabh Bachchan rise above their circumstances and their slums, helped by virtue or the gun, again and again. Think Laawaris (1981), Coolie (1982), Hum (1991), Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), Paap Ki Kamaee (1990) or Galiyon Ka Badshah (1989)—badly written films that played to the house.
By the time Beaufoy’s India experience peaked and the script was ready, Film4 had signed on the UK-based Celador Films as co-producer and Danny Boyle as director. The director—most famously of Shallow Grave (1995) and Trainspotting (1996)—was sceptical, but Beaufoy’s prism of Mumbai drew him in. Christian Colson of Celador (the company also, interestingly, produced the UK-version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) arrived in Mumbai in March 2007 and convinced Delhi-based Loveleen Tandan, casting director for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Namesake, to come on board.
A week later, Tandan was in Mumbai, setting up office and a team to coordinate auditions. “I had to cast actors of three age groups—the child, the adolescent and the adult. It was a nightmare.” Finding the right children was, of course, the trickiest part of the job. The characters in the script had the uncanny combination of innocence and street wisdom, and she had to spot that spark in a face that would make the combination seem natural. Auditioning teams spread out: Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Jaipur, besides Mumbai.
As with most child auditions in Mumbai, children came in hordes, with parents and agents, spouting Shah Rukh dialogues and showing off Hrithik Roshan stunts. But Jamal, Salim and Latika, the girl Jamal is in love with, remained elusive for more than a month. “Finally, I decided to go into the slums,” says Tandan. The child characters of Latika and Salim were played by two children from a slum in Mahim, who Tandan cast in a day. But the search for little Jamal continued.
Boyle and Beaufoy flew down to Mumbai in November 2007— Boyle with a copy of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and Beaufoy with the openness to alter scenes with Tandan’s help. Tandan, who finally got the credit of “co-director, India”, was the culture filter. No detail—from clothes and dialogues to specific situations and locations—was approved without her scrutiny. “I had to trust someone who would have the pulse on India to avoid the outsider’s view. Loveleen was my moral compass,” Boyle says. For Tandan, being the cultural filter involved telling them that Hindu rioters out to kill Muslim slum dwellers don’t wear T-shirts with Ram’s picture on them or that street beggars don’t sing Sufi songs. She convinced Boyle and Beaufoy to have some of the dialogues in Hindi and, when that happened, she called up a boy from Bhayander who she had auditioned, but had to let go because he couldn’t speak English. They had found Jamal and were ready to begin filming.
Despite Tandan’s scrutiny, certain improbable situations have slipped in—which slum school in Mumbai teaches Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers in class I?—but are forgivable because of Boyle’s gifted touch. It’s hard to disagree with what Beaufoy said in his Golden Globe speech: “Danny made my script fly.”
Boyle, 52, is at his best when he makes the shocking look credible—and beautiful. Many scenes in Slumdog, as in all his best works, have the kind of punch and audacity that seem incredulous or gimmicky after you’ve watched the film, but as you’re watching it, you can’t help but give in. Tandan, who was with Boyle throughout the filming, says: “Danny is one of those directors who love natural locations. He ensured that we were inconspicuous on the streets as we shot. ‘Let’s not mess around with what’s happening on the road…we want the real’. Only the indispensable members of the crew were present while shooting was on, and most people in the slums didn’t quite realize it was a film shoot. He was Danny Uncle playing cricket with the boys.”
The film’s story doesn’t begin in the slum. We meet Jamal for the first time as an adult (Dev Patel), in the middle of a violent police interrogation. A ruthless Mumbai cop (Irrfan Khan) and his uncouth assistant (Saurabh Shukla) slap and electrocute him till he loses consciousness and starts bleeding from the mouth. He is one question away from winning Rs20 million, or Rs2 crore, in the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The night before the big day, he is whisked away to the police station by the show’s convincingly creepy and vindictive host (Anil Kapoor) because he thinks a slumdog chaiwallah of a call centre could never possibly know all the answers.
Jamal has no secrets, neither has he cheated. And here’s the most implausible aspect of the plot: The answer to every question is in an incident or chapter in Jamal’s own life—he knows Samuel Colt invented the revolver because when he and Salim parted ways, Salim had a revolver in his hand which said “Colt”. The final question takes him back to his classroom, where a copy of The Three Musketeers had been flung at him and Salim by their teacher. You better suspend your disbelief, but then, Bollywood’s trained you well.
So we meet pimps, rioters, underworld goons, abused children, and children blinded to rev up their begging power in the dizzying world that Jamal has had to brave to reach this point. At Slumdog’s heart is the sentimental (bordering on maudlin) love story of Jamal and Latika (Freida Pinto). Their union is the film’s climax. But, as Shekhar Kapur, director of Elizabeth (1998), says, “To find joy and yet not shy away from realities of life is not easy, but Danny and Simon pulled it with great aplomb, by using a very light touch, not allowing the film to get heavy or overbearing.”
A.R. Rahman’s score is really the star of the film. Hip hop, lilting Indian sounds and 1980s beats synchronize to create a score that’s all the more effective because of the way Boyle and his editor have used it in key transitions and cuts.
The other star is Mumbai, filmed in saturated reds, yellows and browns—few Indian film-makers have captured the city in so many hues and moods. Yes, Mexico and Sao Paulo would probably look similar, but that’s better than the Mumbai we’re so tired of seeing—always with the lit-up Queen’s Necklace in the background.
The dark side of New India seems to be the new flavour for Western judges. One of them, who cast a crucial vote in favour of Aravind Adiga’s Booker win for The White Tiger in 2008, had said he was “shocked into” the New India through Adiga’s story. Unlike Jamal, Adiga’s Balram Halwai is a maverick, who uses deviousness to his advantage in the cruel city. But the landscape and milieu are similar in both works— schizophrenic, but full of possibilities. Adiga’s language also complements this newness of theme. But most of Slumdog‘s dialogues are jarring, stilted English. Standing in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra, Salim asks Jamal: “Is it a hotel?” Too unreal to digest.
Yet, to Boyle, Beaufoy and Tandan’s credit, Slumdog remains an abidingly Indian film. The crossover film era has given way to the global Indian film—or the counter-crossover film.
Fox Star Studios India, the distributors here, has just released two versions—Slumdog Crorepati in Hindi and the original English version—in more than 80 cities in India. It’s bigger than a staple multiplex release, but much smaller than the full-throttle, saturation releases of, say, Ghajini and Singh is Kinng. Vijay Singh, COO, Fox Star Studios India, says: “In the US, when it was first released, word of mouth brought people to the film. There’s much more hype about it after the Golden Globes, but in India too, we hope word of mouth will work. We first decided to release 250 prints, but later the number went up to a little more than 400.” In the US, Slumdog grossed $42.7 million (till 19 January) and in the UK, it grossed £1.75 million (around Rs12.25 crore) on the first weekend. Its total worldwide returns on the weekend of 17 January was $50.4 million, which is close to the lifetime gross returns of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982)—$52.7 million— one of the most famous movies filmed in India.
By surpassing the returns of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001)—it grossed close to $35 million worldwide—Slumdog becomes the most successful film shot in India. “My guess is that the film will go on to gross about $70 million in the US box office and another $80 million in the rest of the world by the end of 2009. The bar has been raised for Indian films, thanks to Danny and his team,” says Kapur. (The total lifetime gross of the 2007 film Juno, which started small but became a box office hit, was $143.4 million.)
The slumdog barked, as the cop told Jamal while interrogating him. And a shy and nervous Rahman thanked “the billion people of India”.
Slumdog Millionaire and Slumdog Crorepati released in theatres on 23 January.