Hasitha Fernando revisits Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire as it turns 15…
Depending on where you’re from you will either love or hate Slumdog Millionaire, plain and simple. Where some will find an emotionally gratifying story, others will certainly take offense of and label it as poverty pornography. And so, on its 15th anniversary we take a deep-dive look at what went on behind-the-scenes during the making of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and then some…
The story was a loose adaptation of an award-winning book
British writer Simon Beaufoy caught lightening in a bottle when he penned the screenplay for 1997’s The Full Monty. It was rarefied cinema that saw the seamless coalescing of comedy, pathos and politics, into one poignantly beautiful whole. So, it would come as no surprise that when Beaufoy received the galley proof of Vikas Swarup’s utterly engrossing novel Q & A, he knew there was a potential film lurking in there somewhere, waiting to be realized.
During an interview with Script Mag Beaufoy had this to say regarding the arduous creative process, “Each chapter of the book explained how the kid happened to know the correct answer: in effect, a series of short stories. But while some of the stories linked together, others fired off into fascinating but unconnected tangents about Australian spies, fading Bollywood stars, or the Indo-Pakistani conflict. There was no single, unwavering arrow of narrative to take an audience all the way through, apart from the game show. So, how to make a rags-to-riches story without it involving money? There was only one way to find out: go to Mumbai.”
And that’s exactly what the writer did. He made three research trips to India, frequenting the labyrinthine alleyways of Mumbai’s Juhu slums in the searing, tropical heat to accurately capture the lives led by the street children of India.
Danny Boyle wasn’t interested in joining the project at first
Danny Boyle had already earned a name and reputation as a maverick filmmaker prior to his success on Slumdog Millionaire. With multiple bona fide hits such as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and The Beach already under his belt, the talented auteur had developed a tendency to be picky about the projects he’d be working on, and the same was true of Slumdog Millionaire at first.
Since Celador produced the British television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Boyle was disinterested in being part of their initiative since he was under the impression they were indirectly promoting their IP. But when he learned that Simon Beaufoy – who’d written The Fully Monty which was one of the Boyle’s favorite flicks – had crafted the script, he decided to have a look at the material sent by Celador again. Immediately drawn to how Beaufoy had beautifully woven the myriad storylines from Swarup’s book into one cohesive narrative, the director decided to commit to the project.
One of its casting directors later became co-director
Loveleen Tandan was originally one of five casting directors appointed to oversee and assist production related activities in India, however, when her contribution to the film grew Boyle decided to credit her as co-director. It was on Tandan’s suggestion that Boyle and Beaufoy decided to shoot a fairly large number of Slumdog Millionaire’s dialogue in Hindi.
“I suggested to Danny and Simon Beaufoy, the writer of Slumdog, that it was important to do some of it in Hindi to bring the film alive […] They asked me to pen the Hindi dialogues which I, of course, instantly agreed to do. And as we drew closer to the shoot date, Danny asked me to step in as the co-director” she stated during one of her interviews.
Boyle then went above and beyond, deciding to translate nearly a third of the film’s English dialogue into Hindi to add a greater dimension of authenticity to the proceedings. He even fibbed to Warner Independent’s president that he wanted 10% of the dialogue in Hindi, when the reality was entirely the opposite.
The film was an homage to Hindi cinema
Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar – famously known professionally as Salim-Javed during their heyday – were two screenwriters who literally transformed the face of Bollywood cinema during a 15-year period by transforming the cinema trends of that era and establishing the blockbuster format of the Indian film industry that still continues to endure in a huge way. Both Boyle and Beaufoy minutely studied the works of Salim-Javed during the making of Slumdog Millionaire. The 1975 crime drama Deewaar, which was written by Salim-Javed, has been described by Boyle as being, “absolutely key to Indian cinema” and its influence on the production can be seen in many aspects such as the narrative structure and character types.
Boyle has also stated that the chase in one of the opening scenes of Slumdog Millionaire was based on a “12-minute police chase through the crowded Dharavi slum” in 2007’s Black Friday, adapted from Hussein Zaidi’s book of the same name about the 1993 Bombay bombings. Ram Gopal Varma’s Gangster trilogy, which explored the dealings of Mumbai crime syndicate D-Company, also had a notable influence on the film according to Boyle. Classic Bollywood themes and genre tropes were also incorporated into the story by Beaufoy.
Shahrukh Khan was first choice for a pivotal role in the film
The role of the charmingly manipulative game show host Prem Kumar was initially offered to none other than superstar Shah Rukh Khan himself. But the uber-talented actor turned down the role since he didn’t want to give the impression that the real show – “Kaun Banega Crorepathi” hosted by him at the time – too was a duplicitous affair by playing a fraudulent host in the movie. In a strange turn of fate, however, actor Anil Kapoor, who eventually nabbed the role once starred as a guest on the show going on to win Rs. 500,000.
A.R. Rahman completed the score in two weeks
Indian musician A.R. Rahman is something of a legend in the Indian film industry. Often touted as one of its greatest modern day film composers Rahman is a multi-instrumentalist who commenced his career in the 90s scoring acclaimed Tamil movies such as Roja and Bombay before making waves in Hindi films. Rahman’s first foray into the world of Hollywood was in the 2009 romantic comedy Couples Retreat. However, it was with Slumdog Millionaire that Rahman was introduced to a wider western audience in a big way. Rahman planned the score for Slumdog Millionaire during a period of two months, but completed recording it in just two weeks.
An unexpected commercial success
In August 2007, Warner Independent Pictures acquired the North American rights and Pathé the international rights to distribute Slumdog Millionaire theatrically. However, in May 2008, Warner Independent Pictures was sadly shut down, with its entire slate being transferred to Warner Bros., its parent studio. Warner Bros. doubted the commercial prospects of Slumdog Millionaire and even pondered a straight to DVD without a US theatrical release. But fate intervened and in August 2008, the studio entered into a pact with Fox Searchlight Pictures to share distribution of the film.
But little did Fox Searchlight Pictures know that they’d entered into one of the most lucrative deals they’ve ever made. Made on a production budget of $ 15 million, Slumdog Millionaire went on to ultimately gross a whopping $ 378.4 million worldwide making it the most successful British independent film of all time. A part of this achievement can be attributed to a late release in the United States, closer to awards season where the flick garnered massive success, making it Fox Searchlight Pictures highest grossing movie ever.
An unparalleled awards season darling
To say Slumdog Millionaire was an awards season darling is something of an understatement. At the 81st Academy Awards the film won eight of the ten awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Director. Its other achievements of note are cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle’s win which was the first movie shot using digital cinematography to nab the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and A.R Rahman’s double whammy which saw the Madras-based musician garnering the Oscar for Best Score and Best Song (“Jai Ho”).
The movie also nabbed 7 BAFTA awards, 4 Golden Globe awards and 5 Critics Choice awards amongst its other accolades. The film received major critical acclaim across the board and made it into many critics top ten lists for the year 2008. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, calling it “a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating” and Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern referred to Slumdog Millionaire as, “the film world’s first globalized masterpiece.”
The birth of a divisive cross culture phenomenon
However which way one chooses to look at it, not since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has there been a pop-culture impact of this magnitude. But unlike Lee’s 1998 blockbuster Boyle’s legacy is something more complex and less straightforward. From a musical standpoint the flick left an indelible mark the world over, with A.R Rahman’s ethnic flavored score and the deliciously infectious Pussycat Doll’s rendition of Jai Ho which became a staple in clubs everywhere, this was the full package. But when it came to actual movie itself the reception from India and the Indian diaspora was something of a mixed bag.
Although superstar Shah Rukh Khan was a staunch defender of it, other Indian creatives like Adool Gopalakrishnan lambasted the affair as “a very anti-Indian film”. Further criticism was levelled by academics for ‘glamourizing and showcasing the poverty in India for shallow artistic gains.’ However, the fact that the film is capable of stimulating debate by making its viewers pause and reflect even 15 years later, is testament to what Boyle has accomplished as a filmmaker with Slumdog Millionaire. As the American art critic Leo Steinberg so eloquently put it, “If a work of art or a new style disturbs you, then it is probably good work. If you hate it, it is probably great.”
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Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.