One in a million
Since last month's terrorist siege that left nearly 200 people dead, the international press has been heaped with hard news about the devastation within the Indian capital city of Mumbai and the efforts to capture those responsible. Ironically, Mumbai had already been making headlines for weeks, but in the entertainment pages, as the base for one of the most vibrant films of the year.
Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel by Full Monty scribe Simon Beaufoy and directed by Brit Danny Boyle, is a colorful cinematic portrait of Mumbai and its extremes, combining in its slum urchin story Dickensian tragedy, classic movie romance, the internationally popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the filmmaker's electrifying visual style. A hit with critics and early audiences, Slumdog leads the pack of this year's dark horse contenders for a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly following the attacks, Boyle could barely speak about recent events, and he hoped that audiences would be able to see his movie as it was intended, as a love letter to Mumbai.
That sentiment came through clearly in conversations I had with Boyle and Beaufoy shortly after the film premiered to cheers at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award. The filmmakers' experiences offer an intimate view of Mumbai's unique character and an uplifting sense of its resilience.
As Beaufoy explained to me, he first visited Mumbai as a teenager, when it still bore the marks of Colonial rule. His return for the film presented a bit of a cultural and creative shock.
"I sort of come from a naturalistic background of screenwriting in Britain," he said. "But there, writing in a naturalistic way seems so out of place. You know, the tea's too sweet, the sun's too hot, it's too noisy. Everything is turned up to the maximum in a way you don't get in the West.
"You've got extreme poverty, extreme wealth right next to each other," he went on. "For some reason, as a writer, it gives you that Dickensian sense of heightened reality as well. You can get humor right next to tragedy, poverty right next to wealth. In India, it's kind of operatic. All those things seem to fit OK."
When first considering the project, Boyle said the game-show angle made him skeptical, "but then I read [the script], because I know [Simon's] a really good writer. Twenty pages in, I was on board. And then we went to Mumbai together and that was just it."
His love at first sight for the city, Boyle admitted, blinded him to the frustrations he would encounter in Indian film production, an alien world unto itself.
"Words like 'logistic, schedule,' they're all really pointless," he explained. "That is not the way to get the best out of this country. There is control, an order, but it's elusive. It can only be bestowed upon you if you earn it through respect. And I loved it. There were key people that guided me through it."
By employing a small, prototype camera system that could shoot on location without drawing attention and enlisting superstar Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman for the film's score, Boyle strove to bring a true sense of the sprawling, dichotomous, rapidly changing city - warts and all - to global audiences.
"We wanted to make as honest a picture as we could," he said. "Some of it is really tough, and you can't bring your Western pity to it. No, we wanted it to accurately reflect that [India] is hard and it's joyful. There is something extraordinary about it, and the people are ultimately what it's all about. There are a billion of them and they somehow manage to make it work."
His feelings were mirrored in Beaufoy, who said, "You don't go there and feel sorry for anybody. [In the slums], it is alive and jumping and selling and chatting. It's so important to us that this wasn't a film about poor old India. This is a film about India pumped up in the gym, heading to the front of the queue at a thousand miles an hour."