Naomi Canton met Danny Boyle at the J W Marriott in Mumbai and spoke to him about his hit film Slumdog Millionaire, due to be released in India on January 23.
Why is the film being released here in India so late, after the US and UK?
It's just the way international distribution works. It opened in the UK the weekend before last, and you need to open in different countries at different times for the publicity. It will be released in Japan, Germany and Mexico after this.
How well do you think it will do in India, given it's about slums, which everyone here knows about, but that may be considered exotic in the west?
It will be very interesting to see (how it goes down here)- you are right. I think part of the appeal of the film is the exocitism,…but then again that isn't the appeal of the film…in fact abroad it is the universality of the story– its Rocky – it's about a kid from nowhere making it. And he's not doing it for money, success or glory – he's doing it for a girl.
But why did you make a film about India and the slums here?
I never made a conscious decision to do that. I don't think about issues. I think about stories. It was the story. I don't think 'Oh it would be great to do a story on this country or that subject.' I liked the title. I thought the extremes of the title crashed together very well because you had these two extraordinary things.
But isn't it the case that all your films are somehow about people breaking out of poverty or drugs?
People say that but I don't think about it clearly like that. I am just looking for good stories. I come from quite a simple working class background in Lancashire in the UK so I guess you can see some parallels of me ending up here because of the rags to riches tale.
So, what is your response to what Amitabh Bachchan wrote on his blog?
It's virtually impossible to comment on what Amitabh Bachchan said. My film is not a political film. I am trying to tell the rags to riches story but I wanted to include as much of the city as possible because I was transfixed by this city. I adore it. I found there were so many things to learn from this city.
Especially as a westerner you are never going to completely get it so it's always going to be an imperfect representation of the city. Some people might say it's a romantic depiction of the city but I wanted to capture the resilience and energy of the areas which I find amazing. In them you expect certain things and then you find the place is not like that at all, like for example Dharavi is fill of cottage industries, there are one-room schools where people are trying to educate kids and so on.
I remember once reading a story in The Guardian, which said in Dharavi there are no toilets, no running water and no schools and it's not true – there are schools in Dharavi. They might not be as well equipped as they should be, but there are people trying to educate kids there so they were so wrong. In my story you have a character who comes from a place like that and then ends up hijacking a TV show for his own ends and not for the reason people think he is doing it. It's a brilliant metaphor for a new world.
On the subject of Dharavi, do you know about the Dharavi redevelopment plan?
Yes I do. You can understand why people would find it difficult to move. You might think why would they not want to move from a crowded place with poor infrastructure but you see the sense of community they get there is addictive and so to give that up would be very difficult for them as right now in Dharavi they have self sufficiency, the organization of the place is phenomenal and you give that up for a price as we found in the west where we demolished these places and created supposed dream flats and 20 years later those places have become a nightmare – people have been disengaged from a sense of place and there is nothing to do.
In Mumbai you have slums but there is no sense of a ghetto – you see the slums absolutely everywhere – that is the difference. Here they are people's homes - there are people everywhere supplying goods and services and they supply a need. There is so much drive in them.
Why is that it takes western director to think of directing these kinds of films in India and not an Indian?
Jane Austen is the great classic British writer and yet Ang Lee directed Sense and Sensibility and he did it from a different perspective. Robert Altman, an American hippy directed Gosford Park about the British class system.
Sometimes you can come in as an outsider and see things that someone living there doesn't see. So I guess that is the only difference. I hope that I have captured bits of the city but I guess that what I've done will always be imperfect, an incomplete picture.
Is it true you were inspired by Bollywood films?
Yes Loveleen Tandan told me to watch Satya, Company and Black Friday and I did and I was inspired for this film by all of them.
What do you think of the Indian entries to the Oscars?
I really liked Taare Zameen Par. I like Aamir Khan. In fact the first half of that film was the as well directed as any I have ever seen. My daughter is dyslexic and I think it got very close to what dyslexia is all about.
Did you find it difficult shooting in Mumbai?
Everyone said to me 'You will find it difficult' but, in fact, I liked the chaos and drama. Because it dictates how you film it. In film ideally you want the subject to dictate the style of filming to you and that is what happened. It's organic. One of the best things about shooting here was that, unlike in the UK, all the actors here seem to be in work,. And so they have got that confidence you don't see in the west.
Even with the slum children actors – they were so natural. They would stand up and say to me: "Do you want me to a Shah Rukh Khan look or a dance from a Shah Rukh Khan movie?" and that confidence really helps. I have never worked with actors,with such confidence before and I am not just talking about the trained actors but the untrained actors in my film. In the west the actors tend to be neurotic and paranoid because it is the only work they have done I six months.
Also it is just so natural for people to act here – it seems to be part of the DNA – that is something you don't get in the west. An untrained actor can often act better than a trained actor if you get the right one.
Is that why you cast Freida Pinto and not a renowned Bollywood actress as the lead heroine?
With Freida it was instinct. The first time I saw her I had the right feeling about her. It was the same with the girl I cast in Trainspotting. It was just instinct. Your brain says: "I bet that's her", then you give everyone a good chance at it. I'm so glad I did that (cast unknowns).
There is something about these nine kids (that play the three central characters) being out of nowhere, which is appropriate for the story.
Didn't the carpenters complain about shooting at a rubbish dump on the edge of the Neru Nagar slum in Juhu?
A lot of people complained about the circumstances of shooting.I just thought this is exactly what we are – as humans we eat, shit and have sex and this is the base of what we do. It's the base of humanity – it was all there.
You have Amitabh Bachchan, the highest elevation if humanity flying in a helicopter over it and then it comes crashing down with these two extremes and that is life – the highest and the rest. In the west we have taken away the edge of life , for various reasons, whether it be political correctednes, health and safety and all these kinds of things have taken away the edge of story telling.
There these extremes can only be found in sci-fi and in visual effects whereas in Mumbai you actually get these extremes, there is a rawness of life, and it creates thrilling cinema, without the need for special effects or stupid costumes.
What was the worst part of filming here?
Having to stop filming because the work permits were expiring and the foreign crew had to go home. You always want to carry on shooting but I carried on shooting anyway with a local crew. I couldn't see why I had to go home. But the producer told me the money had been spent and we had to edit the film.
Why is there a Bollywood dance at the end? Was it a compromise to appeal to an Indian audience? Not at all. If you don't include a dance in a film about Mumbai there is no way it can be a complete film. You have to have dance if you spend a year in Mumbai. It's like breathing here, it's the natural thing to do.
Is it an English or an Indian film? I would say it's a bit of both.