Who wants to be a millionaire? Especially with belts tightening worldwide, a better question might be, who doesn’t? Danny Boyle’s new film Slumdog Millionaire, a sensation on the film festival circuit, provides a surprising answer to that question. Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, finds himself just one question away from the top prize of 20 million rupees on the Indian edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but his success is in question: how could a hardly educated “slumdog” be a quiz-show winner? And why does he continue to answer questions to which he seems unsure of the answers when he could walk away with massive sums?
As with his film Millions, Boyle’s latest deals with surprising fortune in the hands of the young. Three actors play Jamal at various ages: Dev Patel (of BBC America’s teen sensation Skins) as the 18-year-old Jamal, Tanay Hemant Chheda as the pubescent Jamal, and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as seven-year old Jamal (three actors likewise play Jamal’s brother Salim). On his recent stop in San Francisco, Boyle told me that he doesn’t allow the challenge of casting young actors that can make or break an expensive film to daunt him: “You don’t think in a negative way about it all,” he explains.
“They are very keen on acting in India. It’s like America, really. It’s really interesting because being British—films in Britain—it’s not really our thing, to be absolutely honest. It’s not in our DNA in the way it is you guys. And for people in India it’s absolutely imprinted in their DNA. Everybody goes to the cinema all the time. They know what’s going on. The kids do bits of dance for you, from certain movies. They’re actually naturally inclined that way. And you start to stop them doing things like—when you say, ‘You have to act really scared here,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you mean scared like Shahrukh Khan was in—” Boyle laughs. “You have to take that and work it into a kind of naturalism that we find more acceptable.”
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, the Dickensian Slumdog Millionaire exhibits the vibrancy and poverty of Mumbai. Boyle sought to capture the energy and unconventional beauty of the place, but admitted despair at the conditions. “You can’t teach it anything—you can’t bring anything to it really. You have to learn from it, and that’s what I did.” On the other hand, the production set up a fund incentivizing the education of the local young stars of the film. “When they’re sixteen, if they’ve completed school, a quite substantial sum of money will be released to them,” Boyle explains.
With all the smart, stylish directors—like Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, and even Kenneth Branagh being snapped up for comic-book movies, Boyle seems a natural candidate, but despite flirting with doing an Alien film, he hedges about franchise filmmaking. “Well, I mean, there's franchises that I love: you know, Alien was one, which is why I briefly got involved in it…I was asked about the Bond. And Harry Potter I've been asked about. And I don't want to do those kind of films. They just don't interest me, really… I've got an idea for a third [28 ----s Later film]. I don't know whether it'll actually happen or not. It is a franchise, I suppose, but it's a kind of slightly amateur franchise,” Boyle laughs. Though his characters don’t exactly laugh all the way to the bank, Slumdog Millionaire provides a crowd-pleasing happy ending for filmgoers.
Danny Boyle, Freida Pinto and Dev Patel at the 2009 Golden Globes,
where Boyle won Best Director