British Filmmaker Exposes India for ‘all Its Beauty and Ugliness’
TORONTO ~ It took an Englishman with a penchant for making offbeat films to capture the eccentricities of life in Mumbai’s slums, said visiting Indians who saw Danny Boyle’s latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, at the Toronto film festival this week.
The film tracks a poor boy’s suspicious rise to fortune on an Indian version of the hit television game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, with the hustle and bustle of modern-day India as a backdrop.
It is a picturesque tale of too commonplace betrayal, greed and corruption around every corner, delving deeply into current Indian social, economic and political woes with characters seemingly right out of a Charles Dickens novel.
“As someone born and raised in Bombay, (the film) has instinctively touched the heart of our problems,” said one viewer. “It’s a primer about my city.”
“It’s exactly right,” said another.
Scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) said he spent months touring the city with a translator talking with locals to try to better understand Indian society in, as Boyle described it, “all its beauty and ugliness.”
In the slums, “you never get a sense of ‘Oh poor them,'” Beaufoy commented, dismissing pre-conceived Western notions of poverty and wealth, as an example.
The film was inspired by Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A.
Boyle, best known for his highly acclaimed first feature film Shallow Grave (1994) and cult classic Trainspotting (1996), added: “We bring so much of our (Western) values. You can’t take them there with you. It’s inappropriate. They’re working out their own values.”
Boyle said of making his first film in India: “There were times when we thought, ‘We’re not going to get anything filmed today; there are just so many people'” crowding the film set.
Also, Bollywood actors are “constantly doing six films at once” so scheduling shoots was difficult at best, he said. “But you have to go with it. You can’t thump your fist on a counter … and try to reorganize the country.”
Bollywood megastar Anil Kapoor appears in his first English-language role in the film, reprising a “lovely dance” in one scene from another of his movies.
Originally, Boyle said he had hoped for an all Bollywood cast, but that failed because the local actors “didn’t look enough like losers” for the main role of poor Jamal.
“It’s a great underdog story,” he explained. “In Bollywood if you want to be a young actor breaking in to the system, you have to go to the gym for six hours a day” to bulk up. “I needed a very average-looking guy.”
West London-born actor Dev Patel eventually got the part of Jamal. Patel commented he “did not enjoy” his first trip to India as a child for a family wedding because he was “bitten to death by mosquitoes.”
But his stunning co-star Freida Pinto, appearing here in her first film, described him now as “a Bombay boy.”
“If you stay open to it, it’s an extraordinary country,” said Boyle, hinting that he may return to India to make a thriller. “It’s a very generous place.”
The crew ran into “a bit of trouble” filming at the Taj Mahal, Boyle conceded, because they had not fully declared their intentions and the mausoleum’s tour guides “didn’t take too kindly to that.”
But it was all worthwhile, he said.
Also showing from India at the Toronto International Film Festival this week were Nandita Das’s Firaaq; Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram; Singh is Kinng by Anees Bazmee; and Australian-born director Megan Doneman’s documentary about Kiran Bedi, Yes Madam, Sir.