On Nov. 26, Danny Boyle had a few hours to spare. He was at a film festival in Wales, in between screenings of his rags-to-riches drama Slumdog Millionaire, so he decided to switch off his cell phone and go to the movies. It was an indulgence, sure. But how much could happen in a couple of hours?
A lot, as it turned out. The moment Boyle turned his phone back on, it started buzzing with terrible news: Mumbai, the Indian city in which the British director filmed Slumdog last year, was under attack. Terrorists had infiltrated 10 locations, including the Victoria Terminus train station, where Boyle and his team had filmed numerous scenes. One of them was a jubilant dance number. Now the terminal bore the bloody scars of a massacre. ”When I saw those pictures from the station, that was the toughest thing for me,” says Boyle. ”It’s one of those great symbols of the city, and it’s heaving with people of all religions: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. Everyone’s there. So for a guy to open fire with machine guns…” Boyle trails off, still speechless nearly a week later.
As Mumbai attempts to heal from a three-day siege that claimed at least 172 lives and injured 293, Boyle now finds himself in a delicate position: promoting his exuberant, life-affirming indie amid unfathomable tragedy. Since winning the Audience Award in Toronto this fall, Slumdog has been on a fast track to becoming the year’s biggest breakout hit — the Juno or Little Miss Sunshine of 2008. (Perhaps not coincidentally, all three are Fox Searchlight films.) It has grossed $3.5 million on just 49 screens in three weeks of limited release — despite being roughly one-quarter in Hindi and boasting an almost entirely Indian cast. Oscar prognosticators, meanwhile, have predicted that the $13 million movie about a street urchin — or ”slumdog” — who rises from destitution to compete on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire will land a Best Picture nomination.
The good news is that Slumdog is still likely to fulfill that destiny. The film’s box office has held steady, and Fox Searchlight has no plans to alter its marketing or awards campaign in the wake of the attacks. ”I don’t think this will adversely affect the Academy’s consideration of the film in any way, shape, or form,” says an awards-season expert.
Still, it seems inevitable that audiences will experience Slumdog with a greater level of solemnity in the weeks to come. When asked about this possibility, Boyle had yet to wrap his head around it. ”It’s a difficult thing to speak about because in one sense, you want to keep the two things separate,” says the director (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). ”One is entertainment and one is a terrible event in real life. But it shouldn’t stop anybody going to Mumbai, because it’s an incredibly openhearted and welcoming place. It certainly welcomed us.”
While that image of the city may be difficult to reconcile with recent news reports, it is the Mumbai that Boyle wanted to capture on film: the confounding, frenetic, joyous, seedy metropolis that 20 million people call home. Boyle’s vision of life there is hardly fairy-tale innocent — many of the scenes depict unconscionable violence — but it is, ultimately, an optimistic one. And in that respect, Boyle hopes people see Slumdog as he intended it: a love letter to Mumbai in happier times. That’s a comfort to Freida Pinto, the 24-year-old Indian newcomer who plays the sweetheart of British actor Dev Patel’s ”slumdog.” The Mumbai native was too shaken by the attacks to speak with EW on the phone, but she did send this message via e-mail: ”Danny Boyle’s film…has portrayed my city in its truest light. It is the Mumbai that we all love and relate to. It still makes me ecstatic that I danced the final number at the VT station, Mumbai’s lifeline, with a thousand backup dancers from Mumbai.” Hopefully, others will find some consolation on screen as well. ”Our film is a celebration of life,” says Boyle. ”So if it contributes — even the tiniest little drop — to help rebuild spirits, that’ll be wonderful.”
Danny Boyle and Dev Patel talk about Slumdog Millionaire
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