Slumming it in Mumbai
MUMBAI - When British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire won four Golden Globe awards Sunday night, it was like a scripted final scene in the hope-for-happiness India-themed film that is earning worldwide applause not seen since Richard Attenborough's Gandhi or Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay.
The US$15 million Slumdog, shot mostly in Mumbai with an Indian cast, was the underdog David beating the Goliath of a $150 million film starring Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - for the Best Picture award at the 66th Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles.
"Slumdog Millionaire: A Triumph for South Asians Everywhere," boasted the MTV website, celebrating Doyle's effort that has already won over 60 awards since its release in November 2008. "This film seems unstoppable for the rest of the awards season," predicted Entertainment Weekly critic Dave Karger in his ‘Oscar Watch’ column.
Gandhi won eight Oscars in 1983 and Slumdog Millionaire could expect to head into the 78th Academy Awards on February 22 with at least eight nominations, adding to its four Golden Globes won in all four categories nominated - best film, Doyle for best director, Simon Beaufoy for best screenplay and iconic Indian music maker Allah Rakkha Rahman for the best original score.
Forty-three-year-old Rahman, who collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams and was dubbed the "Mozart of Madras" by Time magazine, became the first Indian to win a Golden Globe, the annual awards instituted in 1943 by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Rahman's haunting Dreams on Fire score in the film, rendered by Suzanne D'Mello, appears headed to become one of the smash hits of 2009.
Based on diplomat-turned-writer Vikas Swarup's first-person novel, Q and A, published in 2005 and translated into 36 languages, Slumdog Millionaire tells the grime and guts story of an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) from Dharavi, Asia's largest slum. Jamal wins 20 million rupees (US$409,540) on India's version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV show, en route to searching for Latika (Freida Pinto), the girl he loves and has lost in Mumbai.
Swarup, currently based in Pretoria, South Africa as India's deputy high commissioner, published his second novel Six Suspects in July 2008 and has already sold its film rights.
The movie version of his first novel, of which Swarup has expressed satisfaction, offers viewers a taste of the bitter-sweet and electric masala that crackles through Mumbai, one of the world's most lively yet complex cities. Director Doyle has called Slumdog Millionaire an "Ode to Mumbai".
Lancashire-born Doyle, 52, who was stopped by a priest from becoming a priest ("I don't know if he was trying to save me or the priesthood"), churned out the latest creative effort to crack the character code of Mumbai, a mystery that is an enigma of hope wrapped in infectious energy, and a riddle Mumbaikars have yet to credit anyone with for solving.
Doyle may have made some headway, having told a television interviewer he was "destined" to make the film and that he has tried to deal with the reality of "kamma" and "change", deep-rooted in Asian life, as in an ocean - "the waves are changing constantly but the ocean is still there".
If Dominic Lappierre's best seller, based in Kolkata, was called City of Joy, Slumdog Millionaire can get by with its lyrical legend of Mumbai as the "City of Hope".
However, Roland Joffe's movie version of City of Joy, starring Patrick Swayze, flopped in India and Doyle's Slumdog Millionaire "Ode to Mumbai" may get a less enthusiastic reception in India than it did in the US and Europe.
Movies in India play their designated song, dance and fantasy role, offering viewers an escape from the over-crowded grimness of life, and movies with strong doses of ugly realities - as both City of Joy and Slumdog Millionaire have - are doomed to strike jarring notes at Indian box offices.
Yet Indian - or Asian - eyes outside movie halls are well-equipped to cope with the harsh realities of poverty because life is not seen as being single-dimensional. Real life in the slums of Jamal and Latika's life, while holding suffering, also sees the joy of often unselfish sharing of whatever little one has.
The smiles that shine through suffering, as seen from the six slum children of Slumdog Millionaire, can mystify any culture seeing money and physical comforts as the root of all happiness, instead of as an impermanent state subject to change.
"I am amazed how street children here can still laugh and be so cheerful compared to underprivileged children in the West," a Western aid worker told this correspondent many years ago over a cup of tea under the late afternoon sunshine in Mumbai.
Having lived homeless in the streets of Kolkata and Mumbai, it was easier to smile in reply than explain to her the exhilarating freedom that comes with having little to lose, a painful yet pain-free life, a gruesome yet gratifying spirit of the streets that Slumdog Millionaire tries to capture through Jamal's life of hope out of hardship.
"Polarities jar from the start," says movie critic Jonathan Romney in his review on Slumdog for the British daily Independent. "On the one hand, we get a man set alight by rioters, a child's horrific blinding, the discovery of Latika in a brothel district. On the other hand, the film often seems most at ease in a mode of larky comedy: notably, in a brisk sequence of Jamal conning tourists at the Taj Mahal [hotel]."
A big difference between City of Joy and Slumdog could be in the latter's integrating the diverse, contrasting elements of India, such as India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire having a slum dweller as winner. Or contrasts such as Mumbai with Dharavi, the slum where the film was shot and the main protagonists live, a megapolis with millions of homeless in the streets and the city where industrialist Mukesh Ambani's is constructing a 27-storey residence, a 21st century Tower of Babel called "Antilla," costing over $2 billion.
Or in Mumbai being the underworld capital of India, the dark world filled with the goons of gangster Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) that Jamal and Latika have to escape, as well as being the financial capital and home to the largest number of charitable institutions in India.
Mumbai's verdict on Slumdog Millionaire will come following the scheduled January 23 release of the film, which already achieved impressive success in the US where it leapt into the North American Top 10 with an 11% increase in the first weekend of 2009 sales.
Running in 612 theaters in the US, besides 324 screens in Britain, Slumdog Millionaire has grossed $28.78 million in the US as of January 6, the 54th day of its release, according to Reuters movie revenue figures.
Like New York-based Indian-born director Mira Nair did after Salaam Bombay in 1988 with her Salaam Baalak Trust to help the Mumbai street children on whom her movie was based, director Boyle has established a trust fund with Slumdog Millionaire income to help Mumbai slum children.
The film featured real slum children because, as Loveleen Tandon, India co-director, told local media, "We did not want to cast middle-class children from English medium schools because they could not have matched the raw energy of the slum children."
Real life poverty-stricken Mumbai children like Rabina (playing the young orphan slum girl Latika) and Azharauddin Ismail (Salim, brother of the hero Jamal) cast in Boyle's film will have access to the funds when they finish their schooling for which he has arranged. Danny Boyle, who said he hates sentiment, told a music website, "They're learning English, and they sent me birthday cards. I started weeping when I opened them."