It has been an earth-shaking few days for British director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and the cast of their Mumbai-set movie Slumdog Millionaire. The film has captured the imagination of the public and critics alike, and is the clear front-runner for the forthcoming Bafta and Oscar awards. On Sunday evening it dominated the Golden Globes, triumphing in all four categories in which it was nominated, including best dramatic picture. Boyle and Beaufoy walked away with individual awards, as did A R Rahman, the celebrated Indian film composer who wrote its score.
Here in Britain, Slumdog Millionaire opened brightly on Friday, accumulating a weekend gross of some £1.75 million. By last night, it was confidently expected to have overtaken all rivals to become the number one film at the UK box office.
These are heady days, then, for this film, which is both likeable and, despite its Mumbai setting, very British (more of which later). In the current awards season, it clearly has what industry insiders like to call “momentum”. But the influence of Slumdog Millionaire could be felt well beyond this year’s Oscar ceremony. Indeed, I wonder whether, in coming years, we shall not regard it as the first emblematic film of the Barack Obama era.
This is not merely because I think the US President-elect would like Slumdog Millionaire – though I am confident that he would. It is more that the film is such a radical contender for Oscars, and in ways that correspond to what appears to be Obama’s world view.
To recap briefly, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal, a sweet-natured, uneducated teenage orphan from Mumbai’s appalling slums who serves tea to call-centre workers. By a fluke, he becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and, astonishingly, finds himself on the verge of winning a fortune. Suspected of cheating, he is brutally interrogated by police. But in recounting incidents in his eventful life, he shows how he knew the answers to the specific questions.
The first striking thing about this British-made film is its even-handed, generous spirit of universality. It is set in India and it’s about Indians. There is no hint of Merchant Ivory decorum, the predicaments of rich westerners far from home, nor any notion that Boyle and his team were engaged in a David Lean-style imperial adventure in what was once one of the pink regions on the globe. Refreshingly, there is also no white character to “explain” the story (which needs no explanation) to western audiences.
Similarly, Slumdog Millionaire is faithful to the language of its characters.. At least a third of it is spoken in Hindi; Boyle playfully placed his subtitles in different parts of the screen in various scenes, a tacit concession to American and British audiences traditionally deterred by them.
It is also notable that Jamal is a Muslim. Screenwriter Beaufoy profoundly altered his source material, Indian author Vikas Swarup’s agreeable, amusing novel Q&A. Swarup’s hero was called Ram Mohammed Thomas, a name with Hindu, Muslim and Christian connotations, suggesting an Indian everyman. Beaufoy deliberately plumped for a specifically Muslim hero.
Furthermore the film is decidedly 21st century in its portrayal of a teeming city. One of the mixed blessings of globalisation is the tendency of Third World populations to migrate from rural areas, thereby creating sprawling, unwieldy mega-cities, such as Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Nairobi and, of course, Mumbai.
Boyle and Beaufoy show in detail the devastating social problems in such a place – pimps, prostitutes, men who exploit children as beggars, murderous race riots and organised crime – as well as its frenetic buzz, its juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty and, despite everything, its giddy sense of exhilaration. Most urban films don’t come close to capturing the modern city in this way.
Nor are they made as cheaply as this one. Boyle, who used hand-held cameras and a mostly local Indian crew, told me recently that Slumdog Millionaire cost a mere $5 million to shoot – a pittance in modern film terms. But then he was not burdened by expensive western stars. Anil Kapoor, who plays the quiz show presenter, is a bona fide Bollywood superstar and Irrfan Khan, the police interrogator, is a distinguished Indian actor. But neither commands vast fees. The entire cast is largely unknown to western audiences, and it has not hindered its success a jot.
If that hints at a new way forward for the film industry in this credit-crunch era, so does the theme of Slumdog Millionaire. One of the delights of Beaufoy’s script is a contradiction: the portrayal of a city obsessed with amassing wealth – the hustle, the deal, the next get-rich-quick scheme – with a romantic young man at its centre who cares nothing for money. Instead, the overwhelmingly important thing in his life is his love for Latika, a slum girl he has known since childhood. He loses her for years at a time, and finally finds her living as a wealthy gangster’s girlfriend and pleads with her to run away with him. “What will we live on?” she asks anxiously, in the story’s key exchange. “Love,” he says, simply.
And in that single word lie the key qualities of Slumdog Millionaire. It does not have an ironic moment. It is utterly devoid of cynicism. Instead, it is bright-eyed, optimistic – idealistic, even. To generations reared on a drip-feed of corrosive cynicism, the elevation of greed for greed’s sake and weary disillusion with our leaders and our institutions it feels almost shocking..
Yet maybe we’re ready for it. We saw these laudable qualities in the hundreds of thousands of people (most of them young) who toiled to elect Obama. Those whose work limits them to poring over the minutiae of life in Washington’s Beltway and the Westminster village have already been murmuring that this idealism looks like naïveté. Yet look where our defensive cynicism has landed us: maybe we do need to look at the world anew.
Slumdog Millionaire holds out this promise, and the one inescapable truth about the film is that the people who see it love it. Its word-of-mouth reputation, the strongest, most positive of any film in memory, has grown gradually since it was first screened in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the audience award.
Since then, its US distributors Fox Searchlight (a Hollywood studio subsidiary headed by an astute Englishman, Peter Rice) have shrewdly released the film gradually in relatively few American cinemas, allowing word-of-mouth to burnish its stature. Happily, that process finally bore fruit this last memorable weekend, and will surely continue to do so.
Let us not forget this is a British triumph. Film 4, the film-production wing of Channel 4, originally optioned Sharup’s novel before publication, and hired Beaufoy to adapt it. When Boyle came on board, he urged Beaufoy to focus on the love story he had devised (which was absent from Sharup’s book). Film 4 was able to develop and finance the film with Celador, the British company that created Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The film has had its setbacks. Its original US distributors, Warner Independent, sceptical about its commercial prospects, pulled out, but Rice’s Fox Searchlight stepped into the breach.
In many respects, Slumdog Millionaire could only be British. It is technically adept in a manner that still eludes India’s Bollywood cinema; Boyle is at the top of his form. Its subject matter is too foreign and remote to have been initiated by Hollywood; we British are not quite so insular in our world-view. And would any US studio bigwig approve a film with a Muslim hero?
Next week, millions of Americans – and no doubt hundreds of thousands of Britons – will cluster around television sets to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama, whose election victory is rooted in the notion that while the world may be troubled, complex, and even ugly, our best instincts can help make it better. Slumdog Millionaire – a truly remarkable film – is rooted in that same idealism.