B. New Mumbai is the old New York.
With 13 million people living on top of one another, Mumbai is the biggest city in the world, home to the most prolific movie industry and some of world’s most dramatic contrasts.
“You imagine Scorsese in the seventies. You imagine what it must have felt like—that everything’s an opportunity,” raves Boyle, leaning into his argument, fingers flashing, as if animating the city in the air. “You go there, and it’s buzzing. The extremes you get are incredible! You cannot believe what you’re getting on film because you don’t go anywhere that’s boring. The city’s just exploding somehow. Destroying itself and re-creating itself at the same moment—the buzz you get off it!”
The buzz! Vibrated! Pulsed! Exploding! Destiny! Serendipity! Vivacity! Bang! Rhythm! Movement! Boyle didn’t storyboard this film, but if he had, you imagine it would look like something by Stan Lee—full of pows and bangs and blasts of color. To capture the insane energy and sordid beauty of Mumbai, Boyle and 28 Days Later cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle skipped Bollywood’s elaborate studios and hit the streets: Using a prototype system, they packed hard drives in backpacks and used handheld lenses that made them look more like tourists than film crews. They shot 80 percent of the film in digital video—sneaking through crowds and into off-limits locales for some spectacular shots. They got kicked out of the red-light district, a gangster’s hideout, and the Taj Mahal.
“In Mumbai, the long routes take forever, so everyone takes the shortcuts through these dirty lanes and alleys,” says actress Freida Pinto, who plays Jamal’s love interest, Latika. “That’s exactly what the camera does, too, so you reach your destination so much faster.”
About midway through Slumdog, the soundtrack is thumping and the camera is whiplashing through the city’s streets, when suddenly a policeman shouts at the screen, “No filming!” Another director might have cut that moment, a ruined shot. Boyle left it in. “That’s what it was like!” he trills. “You leave it in the film because you can, because it breaks the wall. Because there are no walls anyway when you’re there. You can pretend there’s this fourth wall or pretense, but there isn’t.”
Likewise, the film combines unstaged street footage with pure gaga romance: “Realism is the foundation of everything I do,” he says. “If you’ve got that as a base, you can push as hard as you can so it stretches as much as possible.”
C. It’s the Obama to Dark Knight’s McCain.
At the Envelope, the Los Angeles Times’ Oscar blog, the lead contenders for Best Picture are currently David Fincher’s Benjamin Button (reported budget of $167 million), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight ($185 million), and Slumdog Millionaire (just $13 million). It’s one of the most lopsided races in history.
But these days, anything seems possible. And the early favorite, Christopher Nolan’s box-office goliath Dark Knight, may soon seem dated, imagining as it does a fearful war-on-terror Gotham, in which an idealistic leader is crushed. With Oscar nominations announced two days after Obama’s inauguration, will such a dystopic vision be embraced? As Rice points out, cinema has always been the ultimate escapism during tough times, and Slumdog’s optimistic romance—coming as it does on the heels of desperate times—seem curiously timely. “In its underdog status and its message of hope in the face of difficulty,” says Searchlight COO Nancy Utley,” “the movie is Obama-like.”
D. It is written.
By nature, most directors are control-freak egomaniacs—but when Boyle arrived in India, he let go. “If you believe in serendipity, and they do in India, it’s the only way,” he says. “You can’t just go in with your normal approach. You’re not going to conquer it or control it.”
When professional kid actors seemed too polished, he cast kids straight from the slums: “As soon as we did, it was, like, bang! The door doesn’t just open, it smashes open.” He took copious notes from local casting director Loveleen Tandan, and as a result shot a quarter of the film in Hindi. “She said, ‘This couldn’t happen in English. It would happen in Hindi.’ I said, ‘Do you realize what you’re fucking saying? We’ve been given $13 million and … ’ Well, she was right. We made her co-director.”
Boyle turned the score over to Indian superstar A. R. Rahman, who says Boyle “just said he wanted a pulse—and no cellos!” Boyle even integrated script notes from pop star M.I.A., also on the soundtrack, and leaned heavily on assistant director Raj Acharya, who brought a very Indian approach to the production—call it controlled chaos. “Raj drove everybody mad, but I saw the film through his eyes,” Boyle recalls. “The crew would be screaming—he’d just fucking disappear—but I always sort of knew Raj was working the wave—what I call the wave, anyway. It was like surfing in Bombay: The waves would come and they would disappear.”
Watching Slumdog Millionaire is, in many ways, like surfing a big wave—terrifying and euphoric. It’s no spoiler to reveal that when the credits run, the kids join in a giddy Bollywood dance—a supremely cathartic, universal moment that makes Jamal’s difficult journey seem worth it. “We’re all a bit inhibited now—it’s so hard to feel,” Boyle explains, “but everyone loves to dance,” And, as we’ve learned, everyone also loves hope.