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Slumdog’s Underdog

Danny Boyle’s new film, a Hindi love story made for peanuts, could be 2008’s best picture.


Slumdog Millionaire is a low-budget R-rated movie shot entirely in India with no stars, filmed partially in Hindi, and based on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It’s also a transcendent love story that has swept up festival awards and critics’ raves on its way to becoming a legitimate Academy Award contender for Best Picture. If Slumdog, opening November 12, pulls off one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, it will be because:

A. It’s the ultimate Danny Boyle film.
B. New Mumbai is the old New York.
C. It’s the Obama to
Dark Knight’s McCain.
D. It is written.

Consider your final answer:

A. It’s the ultimate Danny Boyle film.
When Manchester, England’s Boyle broke out in 1996 with his hallucinatory Trainspotting, it wasn’t just a bug-eyed mockery of Glaswegian heroin addicts. It was a scorching rejection of conservative Thatcherite Brits who wasted their lives watching “mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows.” Mostly though, it was cinematic smack for a new generation of counterculture film junkies.

Boyle is now a 52-year-old father of three, and he’s still searching for the next cinematic rush. Given his stylistic preference for hysterical realism and his noted distaste for game shows, the idea of making a film about what even Slumdog’s screenwriter, The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, merrily admits is “the most spirit-crushing game show of all” left Boyle cold. “When my agent said, ‘It’s a script about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ I almost didn’t read it,” he says, all spiky hair and excitable gestures, rocking back and forth in a posh Gordon Ramsay restaurant. “The only reason I did was because it had Simon’s name on it. Then fifteen pages into it, I had no doubt.”

From top, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine  

The first fifteen pages, loosely based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, start at a gallop and break into a sprint: A call-center tea servant named Jamal (Dev Patel, of the BBC’s Skins), raised in the horrific slums of Mumbai (a.k.a. Bombay), has made it to the final round of India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But before he can answer his final question, he is escorted from the building, arrested, and tortured by the police—because no “slumdog” (as slum kids are referred to in India) could possibly know the answers.

The game show is just a device—a familiar frame for Westerners (the film’s mostly in English, but essentially a foreign feature). The real tale begins during Jamal’s interrogation, when he explains how he knew the answers—triggering a breakneck series of flashbacks that take him from age 7 to 13 to 18. It’s a neo-Dickensian race through a brutally violent and corrupt modern Mumbai. But difficult as it gets for the characters, the film doesn’t “moralize about India or try to reform it,” says Boyle. “You just get thrown in the deep end.”

Fans of Trainspotting will remember a particularly vivid scene involving a toilet. And it was a toilet again that nailed Boyle’s interest in the Slumdog script.

Scrappy young Jamal gets locked in an outhouse as everyone in his slum runs to greet a visiting Bollywood star. The only way out? Jumping into the fetid hole beneath him. Jamal, the unstoppable dreamer, plows through the crowd covered in excrement, and scores the only autograph. “Oh, God, what a scene!” Boyle raves. “He’s got this dream—and all this shit to get through. That’s Jamal, right there.”

It’s nearly impossible to draw a through-line from one Boyle film to the next, because his films are so diverse. But watching Slumdog, you see flashes of everything he’s done before: the technical madness of Trainspotting, the gleeful romance of A Life Less Ordinary, the fast-paced, digital-video grit of his zombie flick 28 Days Later, his warm touch with amateur kid actors, explored in his underrated drama Millions—even the grand gestures that defined his two big-budget misses: the Leo DiCaprio soul-searcher The Beach and his sci-fi movie Sunshine.

“The degree of difficulty—it’s an amazing achievement,” says Fox Searchlight President Peter Rice, now pushing Slumdog in six-plus Oscar categories. “To go into the slums of Bombay and come out nine months later with this virtuoso movie. Like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

Boyle has never done well with big budgets: “A huge amount of money precludes risks,” he says. So after spending three years with Sunshine, he relished the absurd challenge of leading a skeleton crew into a place he knew nothing about.

Boyle says he’s always been “hooked on the kind of adrenaline you get in cities,” and has said that he’d love to make a film that’s “as mad and crazy and heartbreaking” as Apocalypse Now. In Mumbai, the filmmaker, as producer Christian Colson has said, “found a place that’s more Danny Boyle than he is.”

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