The Unlikely Stars of 'Slumdog Millionaire'

"Slumdog Millionaire" seen as the underdog success story of the awards season.

January 21, 2009, 8:17 AM

MUMBAI, India, Jan. 21, 2009 — -- Giggling into the phone, Indian actress Freida Pinto describes her brief encounter with Angelina Jolie during a recent trip to Los Angeles. Pinto says Jolie complimented her while she was eating and she was scared to speak.

"I didn't say anything because I didn't want to spit food out of my mouth," Pinto told a reporter in between back-to-back television interviews promoting her first film, "Slumdog Millionaire."

As Hollywood awaits the announcement of the Academy Awards nominees Thursday, bookies and Bollywood fans around the world are betting "Slumdog" will top the lists.

With its recent victories at the Golden Globes, "Slumdog" is now recognized as the international underdog success story of the awards season. Had Fox Searchlight not picked up the Danny Boyle-directed movie after its original backer shut down, the movie may have gone straight to DVD.

Of course that didn't happen to this rich and vibrant Bollywood-rooted fairytale about an orphan from the slums of Mumbai competing on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" And for many of those associated with it, the film's little-movie-that-could status is not surprising.

"It seems like it was all written up there for us," says Freida Pinto, who plays "Latika."

By "up there," the gorgeous former model with long black hair and a contagious smile means "in the stars." And listening to her as she widens her large dark eyes and talks about the experience, it's easy to believe there was some magic dust sprinkled over the set of the film.

Pinto had never acted before and had never even taken an acting class, yet was chosen from among Mumbai's famed beauties for the role. Throughout interviews she repeatedly gushes about how grateful she is that Boyle gave her a chance.

"It's a rags-to-riches story," she says.

Despite her lack of experience, the actress' background and understanding of the city and its young slum dwellers lends itself to the movie role.

The actress grew up in Mumbai's northern "suburbs" – neighborhoods more similar to the rest of the overcrowded and chaotic city than the green lawns and white picket fences associated with the term.

Each day, along with seven million others, Pinto rode the trains to reach her college in south Mumbai. The city's trains are the most efficient mode of transportation, but they are also the most crowded and deadly trains in the world. About 4,000 people die each year riding the rails.

The edges of the tracks are filled with small tents and shacks that serve as home to some of the city's estimated 18 million people.

"Anytime I traveled to any destination, I probably passed one slum area or two, at least. And anytime I traveled by an auto rickshaw in India I would meet these little kids at traffic signals who would come and start begging for money," she says.

"When they see me they run away and say 'Oh my god she's going to give us a lecture on begging' and 'Why are you not going to school?'"

British actor Dev Patel plays the lead role of "Jamal Malik" in his feature film debut. Patel was on Britain's Channel 4's teen series "Skins," and director Boyle's daughter suggested him for the role.

Bollywood child star Tanay Cheddha also seemed destined for the film. Cheddha, 12, plays a younger version of Jamal.

Cheddha was initially asked to try out for the role, but he missed the audition. Then, eight months later, he was in his classroom when a casting director came to his school to find boys to play a movie role.

"I said, 'Sure what is this for?" and then 'Oooooh this is the thing that I had eight months earlier,'" says Cheddha. "Then in a couple of days I auditioned in front of Danny and got the job and started shooting."

Like Pinto, he is also from Mumbai, although his experience is very different. Cheddha lives in an affluent part of the city and has little experience with beggars and street children. He is grateful for the opportunity to see the sections of Mumbai that he barely knew existed.

"At first I thought it was dirty because there was s*** all over, but it was really good to see them, seeing them was a completely different thing," he says.

Mia Inderbitzin plays the role of the American tourist Adele. She lived in India as a child and now lives in New Delhi.

Originally, Inderbitzin received a call from a casting director asking her to come to an audition. She assumed it was for a Bollywood film and was unaware of Boyle's involvement.

"I was supposed to go to a tennis match with my husband, but I ditched him," she says.

The audition went well and she was called back to audition for Boyle. At the point, she was asked if her husband acted so they could play the roles of a tourist couple at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Her husband does not act, but works in film. They tried out together.

"It was a great, lovely experience," she says. But "we didn't hear from them."

So that was that, she thought, until Inderbitzin and her husband were in Japan on a ski vacation.

"I got a call that said 'So we'll see you next week in Agra.'" It was a Friday night and they wanted us to be there on Tuesday for the shoot," Inderbitzin said. "At this point my husband had a 'real' job…so he had to bail out, but I said I'm still doing it. We flew back from Japan and they flew me out the next day to Agra."

"After my first audition, they gave me the script and I read the script and I loved it and, having lived in Mumbai, I told Danny how accurate it is, depressing and amazing. I really connected with it."

"You know Danny Boyle makes great movies so I wouldn't expect less from him," she said. "But you never know."

The film has aroused some controversy in India. Today, the Press Trust of India reported that Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, the general secretary of the Mumbai Slum-dwellers Joint Action Committee, has filed a defamation case in a local court against Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, who plays the gameshow host in the film, and Indian composer A. R. Rahman, who scored the film.

Vishwakarma alleged that the film portrays slum-dwellers in bad taste by calling them slum dogs. The hearing is due to take place on February 5.

"Slumdog Millionaire" opens in India on January 23.

Ammu Kannampilly contributed to the reporting of this story.

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