Slumdog Symphony: A Chat with Danny Boyle

Jan 28, 2009 4:54pm

A bit of a change from the norm on this week’s ABC News Shuffle Podcast: Our guest is Academy Award-nominated director Danny Boyle, whose film "Slumdog Millionaire" is wowing audiences and critics alike — and causing some controversy as well.

You can listen to the podcast HERE. It was produced by Huma Khan with some assistance from Lindsey Ellerson and ABC News Radio’s Rusty Lutz.

Some excerpts from the interview:

On how important the Oscar nomination is to him:

"It’s extraordinary for all sorts of different reasons, some of which are vain (laughs) — you have to be honest — some of which have to do with your own vanity and some of which have to do with something much more important, which is kind of the future of the film, really.

"The trajectory of the film has been enormously held by Fox Searchlight, it distributes it in North America, have positioned it very carefully and very slowly in this season, the awards season and for a film like ours, a third of which is in Hindi and has no conventional Western stars in it, its like, there’s no other way you could release it other than to try and position it within this season … and it elevates you, you’re used in the articles constantly and it makes a huge difference in the box office."

On Co-Director Loveleen Tandan:

"It’s actually a very generous credit, a well deserved one as well. There were three people who I personally thought of as my co-directors. There was my first assistant director who organizes the streets for you and stuff like that and another guy who did the sound, Resul Pookutty, who has been nominated as well, extraordinarily, it’s a wonderful honor for him, it’s fantastic. Basically Loveleen was our casting director and so and then I got to know her very well and she helped me enormously making sure that if I was making mistakes, culturally, I knew about them, you know, so I could change them or not, depending on the situation."

I asked for an example.

"For instance, an extraordinary scene is of riots where the mother is killed, and… to depict the riot you have to be very careful that you do it properly because it’s still a very contentious subject in Mumbai and I deliberately made it much more about the perspective of the 7-year-old. He doesn’t understand politics or religion, absolutely does not, because that’s the only way a Westerner approaching it can do it. You can’t dig there as a Westerner into that particular wound, it is an extraordinarily sensitive subject. You cannot hope to — nor would I want to — deal with that as Westerner because you can only learn so much and you can’t learn enough about that.

"It’s essential for the narrative of the film and it becomes something to enrich the film because it makes it from the point of view of a 7-year-old and as a 7-year-old, how can you understand that kind of political religious world of intolerance, you cannot. And he sees it just as a 7-year-old, and there were many many things like that where I was helped through. And I think people who’ve seen the film, who know Mumbai well, are amazed that it is as accurate as it is. It is not complete perfect — no film ever would be — and I think that’s a tribute to those three people who helped me. So Loveleen wants to be a director in her own right so we gave her a co-director credit and it’s one she well deserves as well."

On the Controversy About Young Actors from the Film Still Living in Slums and Whether They Were Adequately Compensated:

"We, for a long time, for over a year now, we had a plan in place to the two children from very poor backgrounds should go to school and we’re trying to keep them in school until they are 18, when a substantial sum of money will be released to them. I guess that’s the carrot to try to keep them in school for as long as possible and we thought long and hard about what was the best way that they could have a long-term benefit from the film. The children, everybody, was paid well. Some of the figures that have been quoted are nonsense.

"The children were paid well but we’re very mindful of trying to protect the children and as much as we can their families from the pressure the success of the film puts on them, the reception it had in India and also that some of these figures are being banded about in public.

"We don’t want to reveal exact figures about what’s in the trust fund, what’s in the bank account for them for when they leave school because it will make them vulnerable and a target really but it is substantial, and they will hopefully gain benefit from the film long after the film has disappeared and long after the media who are chasing them at the moment sadly have lost interest in the film and that’s been our approach throughout and I think it’s the right approach. It’s additionally things, since the reception of the film in North America, it’s clear the film is going to make substantial profit to the distributors of the film and we’ve persuaded them all to join us in creating a fund which will be directed back to a number of institutions and causes in Mumbai that work with street children, so some of the profits of the film will go back directly there as well.

"One of the things we decided was not to take them out of their communities, That’s a big moral decision you have to make as a… you know, it’s only a small film compared to some, but we are a rich institution compared to their lives. And you have to make a decision and we made a decision to let them remain in their communities because they’re very complex communities, and although they look very poor as well… they are extraordinarily resilient communities as well which do self support in a way we couldn’t, we can’t do that because in the end, the film disappears after a while as well. So we try to give them benefit. You’re right what you said about money disappearing. I can’t comment on that any further than that but it does happen and we saw it happen, and you have to try and put in place a plan that will protect and benefit the children in the long term in the end."

On Objections to the Title of Film as Demeaning to Mumbai’s Poor, and the Film’s Portrayal of Slums:

"The objection to ‘Slumdog’ is a terrible misunderstanding which we’re trying to correct. One politician in particular in Bihar state has objected to the title but has not seen the film — he was asked by the court when he presented the case to try and get the film banned,…he admitted he hadn’t seen the film. Our use of the word ‘Slumdog’ is obviously a hybrid of underdog, which is the emotional half of the film, and slum, which is where he comes from. And the film triumphs his case, and anybody really who sees the film will know that, and that he has pride in his origins, and what that gives him… how that prepares him for life, which is quite… you could attack it for being romantic really but you certainly couldn’t attack it as being insulting.

"The second case is more about the depiction of poverty in Mumbai, and is to do with a huge ongoing debate about what sorts of films Bollywood should make for instance. Should they cover their own, should they cover poverty themselves which they cannot do even though it’s a huge part of that city, and that’s a huge ongoing debate, which is a different matter I think. That’s a debate that you’ve just got to become part of, really. That’s a huge thing they have to work out for themselves, it’s really about what they want to concentrate on or not. The first part of our film looks at the streets and the second half of the film looks at the stars and it tends to, and in Bollywood they just tend to look at the stars really, if you see what I mean."

Since I (and millions of others) have seen the film I asked him about some of the choices he made and plot points — those are all at the end of the podcast and I gave spoiler alerts before we delved into those questions.

You can listen to the podcast HERE.

Enjoy!

– jpt

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