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Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire's Director on Memory, Music, and the Maximum City

Nov 01, 2008 Danny Boyle
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“You know when you smell something, and it’s like a really vivid recollection?” asks director Danny Boyle. “You get a memory throwback. I wanted to try and create that intensity in film.”

Memory is a key component to the storytelling in Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle’s latest directorial effort, and he is articulating the sensation that he attempted to capture while shooting selected scenes on a CanonCam, a still camera that produces an intermittent motion effect by photographing 11 frames a second. In the film, Jamal, an 18-year-old call center assistant from the slums of Mumbai, becomes a national television star on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when he inexplicably closes in on the show’s top prize. Orphaned as a young boy and unschooled thereafter, Jamal draws upon various incidents in his past to correctly answer the show’s questions. Suspicion of cheating leads to Jamal’s arrest, and a marathon interrogation jeopardizes his return to the show and his chance at 20 million rupees.

“I never wanted to make a film of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” says Boyle, who, in preparation, attended a live taping of the Indian version Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). “And I don’t think people really want to watch a film about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But it’s a very useful tool; it’s a useful device to trigger the story.”

The questions posed to Jamal on the game show, scrutinized on video by a police inspector, lead to flashbacks that function as chapters to Jamal’s story, allowing elements of various genres—comedy, romance, gangster, musical—to infiltrate the film without sidetracking its narrative. With a diverse résumé of films that includes Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine, Boyle was well suited to bring vibrant location imagery and a visceral street energy to the project, but the production presented unique challenges. The film was shot in India, and its three primary characters—Jamal, his childhood love interest Latika, and his brother Salim—are depicted during three stages of their lives, requiring nine actors to play the roles. And to be more culturally accurate, a significant portion of the film’s dialogue is in Hindi.

“When we set up the film and raised the money for it, it was all in English,” Boyle reveals. “And I remember having the phone call where I rang up the financiers to tell them that the beginning of the film was gonna be in Hindi. They were horrified. And I remember saying to them, ‘No, listen, it’ll make it even more exciting having it in Hindi.’ And I remember them saying, ‘How can it be more exciting in Hindi?’”

Raised outside of Manchester, England, the London-based Boyle is a “huge music fan” and cites the latest albums by TV on the Radio (“excellent”), Elbow (“beautiful”), and British Sea Power (“fantastic”) among his favorites of 2008. “I work on the music probably more than any other element in the film,” he says. “Or as much as certainly any other element in the film.”

Esteemed Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman scored Slumdog Millionaire, and Boyle was so pleased with the music that he hopes to work with Rahman again. “I think it was quite a challenge for him,” Boyle says, “because obviously I’ve got a Western sensibility, even though the film’s set in Mumbai, and I wanted a certain kind of approach from him. But we had a great time doing it…and he got M.I.A. involved.” M.I.A. collaborated with Rahman on the track “O…Saya,” which was written and recorded for the film. “She was a huge fan of A.R. Rahman’s when she was growing up,” Boyle notes.

Slumdog Millionaire is based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup and was adapted by English screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). When Boyle read the script, he recognized a Dickensian quality to the story that Beaufoy had also identified. In Mumbai, there is visible evidence of the wealth and technological advancements that exist in major metropolises, but Mumbai also has the world’s largest slum population. Slumdog Millionaire includes astonishing shots of crammed shantytown roofs that overlap like card houses and massive piles of garbage alongside the Juhu slum. It raises the question how Indian officials have reacted to Slumdog Millionaire’s representation of Mumbai.

“They’ve not seen the film yet,” Boyle says. “You can only second guess it to a degree, because like everything in India, it’s always surprising. For instance, there’s a scene at the beginning, where Jamal is tortured by the police, and we had to show them that scene. And we thought, ‘Oh my God, there’ll be a big problem about this.’ And they said, ‘That was fine, the torturing, provided nobody above the rank of inspector was involved.’ And you think, ‘Oh my God. That tells you something about what goes on in a police force there, in a place like Mumbai.’ And it does, of course. You speak to the local crew, even the crew will tell you, if you get picked up for anything more than a traffic offense, you’ve got a fair chance of being ‘encouraged’ in your interview to be forthcoming.”

“They have to see the film before the film is released in India because the government has control of everything that’s released,” Boyle explains. “They vet a script before it’s made, and obviously you make some small adjustments in the script to ease its passage through that process, so it will be interesting to see what they say about the finished article.”


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