Mumbai rising

Film still for Mumbai rising

'Slumdog Millionaire' is a rags-to-riches tale of a Mumbai chai-wallah who wins on India's 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'. Here director Danny Boyle explains to Alkarim Jivani how a part-Hindi film with no stars can become a huge US success

Danny Boyle's film career, which began with the 1990s Britflick phenomenon Shallow Grave, is on the boil again after several years on the backburner. His latest film Slumdog Millionaire depicts modern India in all its paradoxical splendour: skyscrapers stand next to slums, slick television shows are fed to an audience which doesn't know where the next meal is coming from and Dickensian figures lure new recruits to their gangs of child beggars with bottles of Coca-Cola.

Simon Beaufoy's script, taken from Q&A, a novel by Vikas Swarup, follows three Mumbai slum children: two brothers, Jamal and Salim, and Latika, the girl who comes between them, with the action unfolding in a series of flashbacks. The film begins with Jamal sitting in the hot seat on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Kaun Banega Krorepati). 20 million rupees are at stake when he is arrested for cheating: how else could a poor, uneducated boy know the answers to questions that have stumped professors?

It turns out he learnt each answer at a significant point in his life. He and Salim are Muslims and their mother was killed in communal riots when they were seven. As they ricochet from one disaster to another they befriend Latika who is also adrift and abandoned. The trio are separated by circumstances and it turns out that Jamal's key motivation in becoming a contestant isn't money but the desire to re-establish contact with Latika, who is an avid fan of the show.

Slumdog Millionaire is full of contradictions. It's an art-house film which will also appeal to a multiplex crowd. Danny Boyle has done the seemingly impossible - made a film about slum kids, with plenty of subtitles and no stars and made himself hot again in Hollywood with talk of Oscar nominations before the film had even been released.

Alkarim Jivani: What was your first reaction when you got the script for 'Slumdog Millionaire'?

Danny Boyle: I thought, I absolutely don't want to do this - it comes over as a soundbite but it's the god's honest truth. Then I saw Simon Beaufoy's name on the script and I thought, I'd better read some of this so I can do that thing where you say, "I enjoyed it but it's not for me." But after 10 or 15 pages I knew I was going to do it - I didn't even care how it ended. The time to commit is when you just get caught up in the story and have a kind of amnesia about the realities of film-making and when I started reading Simon's script I was like this [he mimes a dumbstruck expression]. Apart from the narrative, I was drawn by the idea of India - I've always worked so I never did the whole backpacking thing.

AJ: One thing about India is that the clichés come true - land of contrasts, land of extremes etc and within a few hours you can go from feeling dejected to feeling completely elated. Presumably that is magnified ten times if you are working there?

DB: It absolutely follows that pattern and what you've got to do is have faith, to trust in things and it will come back to you. It's very difficult to describe and although I'm not a hippy it's true what they say: you have to have this easy mental approach. If you go in rigid it won't work.

AJ: What was your blackest moment?

DB: [Laughs uproariously] The Taj Mahal, without a doubt! We hadn't been quite honest with the Indian government about what was in the script - that we would be showing Salim and Jamal running a series of scams on tourists visiting the Taj. They gradually got to see what we were doing and they ran us out of town. The Indian production company we were working with rushed us to the cars. They had already collected all our belongings from the hotel rooms and bundled us off across the state border. So that was a pretty dark moment. We sent back a crew who had not been there the first time and got them to pretend they were a German documentary crew.

AJ: Which part of the film gives you the most pleasure?

DB: Two of the kids are from the slums and we got them into schools. Rubiana [Rubiana Ali who plays the young Latika] just passed her exams and got 100 per cent - she is the top student. Az [Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail who plays the young Salim] is not quite as good, but he's sticking at it.

We had to find a way of making sure the kids didn't get abandoned after the film was finished - because that's what film people do. We put them in school and we've paid these rickshaw drivers to take them to school till they are 16 to make sure they get there. There is also quite a large sum of money that will be released to them when they are 16 if they've passed their exams. Otherwise the money they earned will just seep away and they'll be put into jobs when they are 12. Hopefully long after the film is forgotten they'll still be reaping some benefit.

AJ: You've worked with child actors in a number of your films - you presumably don't subscribe to the W.C. Fields dictum about working with animals and children?

DB: That's an attitude propagated by actors: they're terrified of kids because kids are so clean. There's no baggage, they just do it. There's none of that, "Do I look good in this?", "Are they going to dislike me if I say this?"

AJ: Conversely, when a child can't get it right, they haven't got the technique so you can't work them as hard as you would an adult.

DB: The way to get round that is to make sure the kid understands the scene and recognises something in it that's truthful. What kids don't understand is why they have to do it again. They turn and say, "You just said that was good so why do I have to do it again?" You also have to make sure that the atmosphere on-set is conducive to working with children and that also suits me. I like a set where things aren't pompous, where people are genuine and speak plainly. When you are a film director people tell you you're right all the time because it's quicker and cheaper and they don't want to piss you off because of all that status stuff, and I hate that.

AJ: You open the film with a long, set-piece sequence - a device you have used several times before. In this case it shows the kids being chased through the Mumbai slums by a policeman that establishes the mise-en-scène and the kids' place in it. Why are you so keen on this technique generally and what were you trying to achieve in this particular instance.

DB: Somebody once told me that David Lean said that in the first five minutes you have to declare the ambition of the film. And I've always believed that is a good policy. Specifically on this, you do need that long scene to enter this world because you are going to take a Western audience and plunge them into a Hindi-speaking world. You've got to smash them in there right at the start and show them how exhilarating it is - it's like 1980s New York but grittier and more money-obsessed.

AJ: How difficult was it to shoot that opening scene - the Mumbai slums are teeming with crowds and the narrow alleys are littered with hazards for a fast-moving camera operator - everything from open sewers to mango skins?

DB: We used this digital system - I didn't want to use film cameras because they are too big and they come with too much baggage. When you hire cameras in India you can't insure them so they come with boys who look after the cameras - they even sleep with them to make sure they are not stolen or damaged. Anthony [Anthony Dod Mantle, director of photography] came up with this prototype camera - it's not even a finished product yet. It's very small and comes with a gyro that stabilises it and the hard drive is strapped on to your back.

AJ: In this film you use a lot of Bollywood tropes: the fantasy sequences, the way the brothers jump off a train and suddenly they are seven years older and speaking in English. Even the storyline of the good brother and the wicked brother both after the same girl is pure Bollywood. And then you have that dance sequence at the end. What was the intention behind all these devices?

DB: People say, "Oh, I love the homage to Bollywood," but that wasn't what I was thinking. The dance isn't a nod to Bollywood, it's there because you can't go to India and not dance. It wouldn't be realistic. I did use dance in the way Bollywood uses dance - it's often there to express a union and it is in the dance that they kiss for the first time. And I definitely use genres but I never think of them as genres. It annoys me with 28 Days Later when people say it's a zombie movie - I realise that we stole lots of bits from zombie movies but 28 Days Later is a thing in itself.

AJ: How many extras did you use in the dance sequence?

DB: Not as many as I would have liked! Originally I wanted it to look like the Sebastian Salgado photograph of Church Gate station - when everybody is coming off the trains and he freezes it but with a blur. I wanted 5,000 people and then it got cut to 3,000 and then it was 1,500 and then it was 800 and we ended up a few hundred with the best 50 dancers at the front.

AJ: How do you think Indians will receive the film? There is still a cultural cringe in India in that they are gratified when the West depicts it without cliché. Do you think that will help you?

DB: Obviously you are making it for people in the west because they are the paymasters but I'm very nervous of what people in India will think. They used to say to me, I bet you'll have a cow in it somewhere, and I was absolutely determined not to. But cows are hard to avoid, they're everywhere, so unfortunately there are couple of cows in there - but they are not featured, thank god.

Things are changing very quickly and Hollywood is now going to India because it always chases the money. I was only there for eight months and during that time Will Smith was there twice, not filming but having business meetings.

AJ: Music has always been an important element in your films but with 'Slumdog Millionaire' you have taken it to a new level, so that it's much more to the fore and performs a variety of functions - underscores the action, comments on it and also advances it. There is the rap by M.I.A. with the use of a street children's chorus as well as having A.R. Rahman, India's most sought after modern composer, do the soundtrack. How important is music to you and in what ways have you tried to change the way you use it cinematically?

DB: A lot of the people I worked with also worked on A Passage to India, and they told me David Lean turned up there and said, I'm not having any of this bloody Indian music, and they remember things like that.

Here I had the chance to do something different - something a bit bolder. I love the way in Indian films the music is so upfront - it's much more present. We tend to hide the music in the west - it's manipulative because most of the time you are not even really aware it's playing. A.R. Rahman doesn't lack offers and obviously he was thinking, "Shall I, shan't I," so I said to him, I promise you I will mix it absolutely upfront. I wanted Rahman because, not only does he draw on Indian classical music, but he's got R&B and hip hop coming in from America, house music coming in from Europe and this incredible fusion is created.

AJ: The obvious reference point for 'Slumdog Millionaire' is Mira Nair's 'Salaam Bombay!' which also uses the city's street kids to act out versions of their own lives. What were your other influences?

DB: I've watched all of Mira Nair's films, and I watched Pather Panchali and then Loveleen [Loveleen Tandan, co-director] was my touchstone about more contemporary stuff and she recommended things like Satya [Ram Gopal Varma, 1998] Company [Ram Gopal Varma, 2002] Black Friday [Anurag Kashyap, 2004]. I then watched films by Aamir Khan like Lagaan [2001] that he appeared in and ones that he directed like that amazing one on dyslexia [Taare Zameen Par, 2007] - he is a properly good film-maker!

AJ: Having finished the film you faced the prospect of never getting it released - what happened?

DB: We raised the money through Pathé in Europe and through Warner Independents in America so they were our two distributors and we had virtually finished the film when Warner Independents was shut down. So you have to start fighting for your film otherwise it will get abandoned like an orphan. Then - and I'm delighted to say this to Sight & Sound because film-makers forget sometimes the importance of film festivals - Telluride and Toronto began to sniff around. That sent a tremor through to Warner Bros. and they were like, "Hang on a minute, what's going on here?" Then agents and journalists started little stories about how good it is - whether they had seen the film or not. It was the business working in my favour - finally!

To give him his credit, this guy at Warner's, Jeff Rubinoff, showed it to Peter Rice who runs Fox Searchlight and he had a screening. I have some friends there and a couple of them wrote to me to say it was wild after the screening, they just went mad for it. So Fox Searchlight goes into negotiations with Warner's. Peter Rice obviously overdeclared his hand and Rubinoff starts thinking, "Oh fuck, we'd better not give it away entirely." So now we have this extraordinary situation where we have not one but two American film studios distributing a film, a third of which is in Hindi, which in normal circumstances would have problems getting distributed in America at all.

AJ: How devastated would you have been if it had gone straight to DVD in America?

DB: It is a terribly hippy thing to do and I never thought I'd admit it but I stayed positive while my agent was going a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ah! And I have to say it: India is the reason. If you don't go there with the right attitude you leave straight away, whereas I didn't want to leave. They had to drag me away in the end - I literally wouldn't finish. Eventually Christian [Colson] the producer shut all the bank accounts and went home, not in a difficult way, but he obviously thought there's no way I'm going to get him out of here unless the money dries up. I remember feeling the same thing at the end of Trainspotting and being mad with the crew because they didn't keep going.

AJ: After 'Trainspotting' and 'Shallow Grave' Hollywood was all over you and you got offered a lot of big things - do you expect the same after this?

DB: To a degree - they won't offer me that much stuff because I don't live in Hollywood and if you really want to join in then you've got to be there and be in meetings all the time - I mean every day - in order for something to happen.

AJ: You were offered the fourth 'Alien' film and turned it down - a decision you've since said you regret. Those kinds of offers are likely to start up again? Is there a Batman or Bond movie inside you?

DB: No, no I don't think so. Handling those big, big budgets is a skill that I don't think I have. I learnt that from The Beach. It's not just a bigger toy box: it requires certain political skills which I lack. I work off spirit and to generate that spirit, the project needs to be limited in its size. I'm experienced enough to realise that I'm better at that than the other side of things.

AJ: How about a sequel to 'Trainspotting'?

DB: I'd love to; we're just waiting for the actors to look their age. We did a new DVD of it recently and all the actors turned up to do the interviews which suggests to me that they might be interested but the problem is that they don't look old enough or wasted enough yet: we'll have to stop them doing the moisturiser.

AJ: So what about a sequel to 'Slumdog Millionaire'?

DB: What happens to him as he walks away with all that money? It's funny; nobody here is bothered about the money but in America they all say, "He got the money? He did get the money, yeah?" I think the fact that he got the girl he loved is much more important but not over there - there they really care about the money.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012