Here is a special Q&A (a semi-intentional pun on the name of the novel that the movie is based on: Vikas Swarup's Q&A) by SAJAer and entertainment writer Aseem Chhabra.
British filmmaker Danny Boyle is well known for his cult classics "Trainspotting," "28 Days" and "Shallow Grave." Boyle’s latest film "Slumdog Millionaire" is a thoroughly entertaining and uplifting story of a young Indian teenager from the slums of Mumbai who wins the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" show so as to connect with the girl of his dream. The film stars two first time actors – Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, with two of Bollywood’s finest actors – Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan in supporting roles.
"Slumdog Millionaire" was a huge hit at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. It won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto. And since then there has been a lot of buzz about the film’s Oscar chances.
Boyle is a self-described Bollywood aficionado. He can discuss in details differences between the original "Don" (1978 with Amitabh Bachchan) and the recent "Don" (2006 with Shahrukh Khan). He is a fan of the first film.
Aseem Chhabra had a chance to talk to Boyle about Slumdog Millionaire and making the film in India.
Aseem Chhabra – This film has come out of nowhere and now everyone is talking about it. It was not supposed to open this year and now there is an Oscar buzz. Do you believe in luck?
Daniel Boyle -- On the one level nothing has surprised me about this film, since I went to India. And I learnt something about destiny, fate and the way things work. I kind of never believed in these things, but people there believe very, very deeply, in a way that is quite meaningful.
Warner Independent was supposed to distribute it. And then Warner Bros closed down Warner Independent and we were suddenly an orphan, we had no home. There was no profile for the film, nobody in the west knew about it. And then Telluride and Toronto (film festivals) began to demand it. That made everyone go – ‘Oh what’s ‘Slumdog?’ The Fox Searchlight guys watched it and they loved it. And it suddenly took off.
AC -- The film had two first time young actors and then Bollywood stars who are not well known in the west. Did you think about how the film would crossover and travel in the west?
DB -- I thought it might work in the UK, because of the connection with India. Dev (Patel) is on the show Skins and he has a bit of a profile. But I had no idea about America. And I hadn’t thought how important the underdog idea is in America, if you get it right. It is so much a part of the psyche of America, the belief that if someone has a dream, they can stick to it and get there, even if everything is apparently stacked against them. The country is built on this idea. I think that is one of the reasons why it appeals to the audience in America.
AC – You are a fan of Bollywood films. What do you like about Indian popular cinema?
DB -- They are amazing. They are long with songs and dances, but they are more about the moments of the melodrama or a song. They do not always have a smooth overall arch -- the value that we put on our films, that they have to be a coherent whole -- it’s more about the enjoying the moment.
I particularly like the way the music is mixed in Bollywood films. It is right in front. In the west we try to hide the music. It walks up to behind your ears and you are sometimes manipulated. There it is wow!
Plus I got to work with AR Rahman. I had seen lot of his stuff and he is amazing and I wrote to ask if he would do it. I showed him the film. He writes these very short emails. He wrote back saying, ‘I saw the film and it was like The Shawshank Redemption’. I have just now understood what he meant. It is because the guy (Boyle’s lead character Jamal Malik, played by Patel) puts up with so much and it is about hope.
AC – The Indian actors in the film are used to a very Bollywood style of acting. Did you have to work with them to tone down their performances?
DB – They do watch American movies and they are conscious about the difference between their movies and the acting styles in American movies. They know the greats (Robert) DeNiro, (Al) Pacino, Paul Newman. So when they work with western directors they want to make sure and they kept asking me – ‘Tell me if I am over the top.’ I loved Anil in Taal. His performance is so extreme and yet he is so entertaining and believable. He was nervous. Although he speaks great English but he had never made a film in English. He was great to work with.
Irrfan has done a lot of work in the west and I had to persuade him to do this, because on paper it looks like he has a small role. But he brings so much humanity in the film.
They are all so busy doing half a dozen films. Here when you hire an actor, they are out of work for most of the year. Even the famous ones. There they are just working on four or five different films. They love to be working throughout the night and turn up during the day to work for you and then they will sleep most of the day!
AC -- For a lot of the audience, this will be the first time they would have seen the massiveness of the slums of India. Can you talk about shooting in the slum?
DB --- The word slum has a pejorative connotation attached to in the west. They are not like really that. They are just places where people live. They are not wealthy people, but quite resourceful people. They are not provided by the state. The sewage system doesn’t work, but the homes are clean. They are very generous. They were very keen that we didn’t just say they were poor. They didn’t want a documentary about the poor in India. They hate that. You can never be bored there. It’s life going on fast forward, the whole time. I loved it.