"Slumdog Millionaire," a rags-to-riches story set partly in the slums of Mumbai, is this year's sleeper hit. With a modest budget of $15 million, it's gone on to earn nearly $100 million worldwide. Critics have awarded it top prizes at the Golden Globes, and the film has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. But back in India, the movie has become a cultural lightning rod, attracting protests and charges of "slum voyeurism." A lawsuit alleges it defames Mumbai's urban poor, and many take offense at the appearance of "dog" in the title. NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria spoke with the director, British filmmaker Danny Boyle, about the film's creation and the resultant uproar. Excerpts: (Article continued below...)
NEWSWEEK: "Slumdog Millionaire" feels like a big movie in its commercial aspirations, but did you expect it to get the kind of critical acclaim it's received?
Danny Boyle: No. With every film you make you have what I call "the bathroom moment," where you look at yourself and you think, "OK, this is the one." Hope's a very important part of making a film. But you never could expect what's happened with this film. Having said that, I remember moments while making the film. Mumbai is such an exhilarating, extraordinary place to be, that you do think, "If I could capture some of this city, some of what a lot of people don't realize is here, it will be fascinating." It is an insatiable city in the sense that you want to capture it but can't—you can only get a bit of it.
Do you think part of the resonance and appeal of the movie stems from people's fascination with India, and Mumbai in particular?
I think so. That's one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. I didn't want to make the film because of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." I have to say, though, I've rethought [the importance of India to the film's appeal]. Although that is an element in it, for the public it's the universality of the story. People want to root for Jamal. It doesn't matter where he comes from. There's always a point where [a film] goes beyond a writer and director and becomes the characters. That's the reason for a lot of the success of the film: it's actually people's appetite for his story and his quest. The first time we showed the film was at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and I remember having to rethink it, because—and it seems the most obvious thing in the world now—it's basically the "Rocky" story: a kid succeeding against all odds. And it's not about success in the end, it's about love and a girl.
It struck me as a very Dickensian story: the ups and the downs of the big city, with a very human tale of love, lust and fortune at its core. Was Dickens a conscious influence?
When I asked Simon Beaufoy, the writer of the script, what it was like writing it, he said, "You can't escape the shadow of Dickens, dealing with these extremes within an extraordinary city." He felt the shadow of Dickens on him the whole time. The tone shift, where you shift from high comedy to moral horror to an exhilarating dance sequence at the end—people think we put that in to give it a commercial, feel-good ending. The truth is that if we left out the dance it would have been a really imperfect picture of the city, because it's such a part of the city, the instinct of the city. That's why it had to be in the film. The only question was whether we put it in the middle or the end. So yeah, Dickensian—it's very, very true. He's the master storyteller, and you follow his lead in having confidence to slam such extremes next to each other in a film and risking such vast variations of tone. It shouldn't work—the rule book says you can't shift tone like that constantly—but it does.
In India itself, there's been a cloud over what have otherwise been very sunny skies for the film. Some activists have claimed that the title is demeaning. What did you mean by "slumdog"?
This is one of the saddest things for me. People are absolutely entitled to say whatever they think about the film. Protest is a healthy part of life in India, provided it doesn't become violent. Basically [the title] is a hybrid of the word "underdog"—and everything that means in terms of rooting for the underdog and validating his triumph—and the fact that he obviously comes from the slums. That's what we intended.
Some people seem to feel that you are shining a spotlight on Indian poverty.
It's an entertainment, in the end. It's not a documentary. But we wanted to depict as much of the city as possible. For me, it wasn't the romantic "Rocky" story. My central thrust was to try to capture, within our narrative, as much of the city as possible, and you cannot ignore that part of life in Mumbai—nor would I want to. It's crucial for me. That's the bedrock, the starting point. I would do that again because it is one of the most extraordinary things that hits you about the city, the way that the slums sit beside everything else. They're not ghettoized, they're not separated—everything sits side by side.
For me, the slums were so extraordinary. This is something that's very difficult to convey. I think when you go, if you don't know the city, as I didn't, part of you expects abject poverty. And what you find, of course, is an extraordinary energy of life there. People on all sorts of levels are all working, doing bits of business. You sense a kind of resilience against all odds. It's really breathtaking. As a filmmaker, I wanted to try and capture that energy, as well as show the circumstances in which people are forced to live. But despite that [the people] are extraordinary. I hesitate to use the word inspiring because you would be foolish to use that word about it, but on a human level, it is inspiring. If we could all live our lives as resourcefully as people with so little do! Whereas we [in the developed world] live in such luxury, yet complain about things and moan about things. There are people who are making the most of themselves in very limited circumstances.
Do you worry that the movie will face a stronger backlash in India? Have you taken any legal precautions?
No, not legal. Our priority at the moment is the children, and what they've been exposed to.
The child actors?
Yes, the young actors, especially the two that come from very poor backgrounds. We are working hard to try to protect them both. We have been for a long time, in terms of their long-term educational plan, but also what's happening now with the press following them. I also worry about any kind of violence, anybody getting hurt. In terms of furor, criticism, debate, you realize that part of your responsibilities as a very privileged person, as a filmmaker, is to stand up and be counted if you're proud of the film. You listen to what people have to say about it, and I'm proud to do that.
How long did you spend in Mumbai?
I spent about a year there, and was there permanently for eight months: five months preparation and then approximately three months filming. As soon as you touch India, specifically Mumbai, you feel electric, in good ways and bad ways. A pulse just charges through you. That hasn't changed since we started the film. I feel more alive than I've ever felt in my career.
It sounds like India had a huge impact on you. Can you just walk away from it?
Well, you can get on a plane, but you can't walk away from it. It's always going to be with you.
Do you think you will make another movie set in India?
I would love to make a thriller in the city. We made basically a picaresque film with elements of a thriller, romance, comedy. But all the time you're there, you're thinking, this would be the most extraordinary place for a thriller. Some of my favorite films actually used that element of the city; my three favorite films are "Satya," "Company" and "Black Friday." So I would love to do that. I don't think I'll do it next—it probably wouldn't be wise for me to do it next. But I would love to do it. I've begun talking to a couple of people about that idea.
Do you have your Oscar speech prepared in case you win?
[Laughs.] This is a wonderful opportunity: because the film features Benjamin Franklin—he's in the bit where the kid gets the [$100] note—I can use his great quote, that "Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes." To which I would add, "and law cases and protests." We've had an extraordinary reception and been given some extraordinary awards. You have to make sure that you thank the right people, but that comes from your heart, really, rather than too much preparation. So, no.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Just an acknowledgement to Mumbai and everybody who lives in that extraordinary city. What they put up with, and what they deal with—it's a gift for a filmmaker going there. And I will always be eternally obliged to it—and that's to everyone, to those who love us and those who hate us. Somebody sent me a quote from Plato, the great Greek philosopher: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." That kind of approach helps you deal with everything, really, and that's how we tried to behave in Mumbai. Hopefully in the long run people will appreciate that.