March 31, 2009
With the exception of Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle is one of the most versatile filmmakers currently working. He’s tried his hand at all kinds of different genres, from thrillers (Shallow Grave) to horror (28 Days Later) to science fiction (Sunshine). With Slumdog Millionaire (2008), he’s taking on the Bollywood genre and the film itself has become a sensational Cinderella story. It was nearly released directly to home video and has gone to win eight Academy Awards including ones for Best Picture and Best Director.
Based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, the film tells the story of a young man named Jamal Malik (Patel) from Mumbai, India who is on the verge of winning the maximum amount of money possible on his country’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The authorities are convinced that he is cheating somehow and torture him in order to find out the truth. After an intense and suspenseful prologue, Boyle immerses us in the sights and sound of Mumbai – it is noisy, claustrophobic and densely populated. He captures it all with the same kind of energetic, hand-held camerawork seen in Wong Kar-Wai’s depiction of Hong Kong in Chungking Express (1994).
Slumdog Millionaire goes back and forth in time to show what in Jamal’s past informed the choices he made on the game show. We see his harsh childhood surviving on the mean streets of Mumbai where he and is brother narrowly avoid being killed for their Muslim faith. After escaping death, the two boys befriend a young girl named Latika who will grow up to become the love of Jamal’s life. The film essentially traces the journey of these three characters’ lives from the slums of Mumbai to Jamal on the verge of triumph on a popular game show.
A large part of the appeal of Slumdog Millionaire, at least to North American audiences, is that the film provides a window into an exotic locale in a country that most people don’t know anything about. And isn’t that one of the special things about cinema – to take us to places we’ve never been? Aiding in this immersion in another culture is the effective use of Sri Lankan musician M.I.A.’s song “Paper Planes,” which is about hustling and the disenfranchised, played over footage of young Jamal and his brother conning passengers on a train. Her music is also featured elsewhere in the film and this is rather appropriate as it has an international flavor, often providing a voice for the Third World.
Ultimately, the story is a Dickensian tale a la Oliver Twist as Jamal and his brother survive on the streets by their wits and without parents. They steal, beg and hustle their way up out of the slums. Watching Slumdog Millionaire you can see where Boyle has applied what he’s learned on other films. The gritty street hustling scenes evoke Trainspotting (1996). His skill working with kids and getting authentic performances out of them was first honed on Millions (2004), and the knack for depicting the exoticism of foreign countries was first attempted on The Beach (2000). It has all come together on this film and much like Jamal, Boyle has hit the jackpot.
There is an audio commentary by director Danny Boyle and actor Dev Patel. Boyle explains the choice of the film’s framing device while Patel shares some of his impressions of working on this project. The actor says that he was very nervous when he first came onto the game show set with all of the many extras in the audience. Patel speaks admiringly of working with the veteran Indian actors, some of whom are legends in Bollywood. Boyle points out the various locations he used in India. Both men provide good insights into Indian culture and the filmmaking process on this project.
Also included is a commentary by producer Christian Colson and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. They talk about the transitions back and forth in time and point out that in early test screenings, audiences felt uncomfortable with the torture scene that starts the film. Beaufoy says that he made up the word “Slumdog” and reveals how he came up with it. He also says that he used The Three Musketeers analogy because the film had three main characters that went on an adventure. Colson talks about some of the behind-the scenes information of the production.
There are 12 deleted scenes that feature more footage of Jamal and his brother playing cricket and then being chased at the beginning of the film but this time with a different musical cue. There is a nice scene where Jamal and his brother steal a dress for Latika. We also see more of Jamal on the game show.
“Slumdog Dreams: Danny Boyle and the Making of Slumdog Millionaire” takes us briefly through the origins of the film – Channel 4 bought the rights to the book Q&A. Boyle talks about how he got involved and how he reacted to first reading the screenplay. The filmmakers talk about the challenge of casting, especially for the various ages of the three main characters. The featurette covers several aspects of the production, including shooting on location and the look of the film, and provides insight into this unique film.
Finally, there is “Slumdog Cutdown,” a montage of clips from the film scored to the Academy Award-winning song, “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman.