From City of God to Slumdog Millionaire: Filming ‘underbelly’ of nations…

From 'Slumdog Millionaire'

From 'Slumdog Millionaire'

“Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?”

In his long years of journalism in India, my friend Darryl D’Monte had faced all sorts of questions and situations. But this was one question that stunned and left him speechless for a while.

A visiting Canadian TV crew made this request in the 1970s, when Darryl was resident editor of The Times of
India
. He was giving them some insights on the extent of poverty in his city of Bombay, since renamed as Mumbai. The crew had heard of the deliberate maiming of street children, before being employed as beggars. A disabled child would evoke more sympathy, increasing the daily collection for gangsters operating them from behind the scenes.

Darryl wasn’t willing to be associated with this ‘staging’. “Well, it’s going to happen anyway,” was the film crew’s cynical answer.

Now, fast forward 30 years to the present. At one point in the British-Indian movie Slumdog Millionaire, we see a young girl being blinded by a gangster who shelters and feeds a small army of children — all unleashed on Mumbai on a daily basis to tug at the heart strings of its teeming millions.

The film’s protagonist Jamal escapes the same fate by making a mad dash for freedom with his brother, Salim. But years later, they cross the gangster’s path again, with devastating results – for him.

Look what I've started...

Vikas Swarup: Look what I've started...

Set and filmed in India, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young uneducated man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian TV’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and does so well to reach the final question that the game show host and the police suspect him of cheating.

Some Indians feel their country’s ugly underbelly has been magnified by locating and filming part of the story in the slums of Mumbai. But director Danny Boyle, who sees his film as a Dickensian tale, says he shot in real, gritty locations “to show the beauty and ugliness and sheer unpredictability” of the city.

Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who wrote the 2005 novel Q and A on which the movie is based, has a similar view. “This isn’t social critique,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “It’s a novel written by someone who uses what he finds to tell a story. I don’t have firsthand experience of betting on cricket or rape or murder. I don’t know if it’s true that there are beggar masters who blind children to make them more effective when they beg on the streets. It may be an urban myth, but it’s useful to my story.”

To me, Slumdog Millionaire feels like a cross between the acclaimed Brazilian slum movie City of God (Portuguese name: Cidade de Deus, 2002) and Quiz Show, the 1994 American historical drama film about TV quiz scandals in the 1950s.

City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

City of God (2002) was filmed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

City of God is a Brazilian crime drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, released in its home country in 2002 and worldwide in 2003. It was adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins.

The film’s depiction of narcotic drug rings, hold-ups, street violence and police corruption may not have been what the upper middle class Brazilians wanted to showcase to the rest of the world, but the film’s stark if grisly authenticity resonated with movie audiences around the world. Most of the actors were residents of favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, such as Vidigal and the Cidade de Deus itself. City of God became one of the highest-grossing foreign films released in the United States up to that time.

The makers of Slumdog Millionaire adopted a similar approach. Its co-director Loveleen Tandan says she likes to get as close to reality as possible. This drove her to the slums of East Bandra to look for young children who resembled the protagonists in the story.

As she recalled in a recent interview with Tehelka: “I was very keen to get real slum kids, which is why I convinced them (producers) to do one-third of the scenes in Hindi. I made a scratch tape with real street kids. The team was surprised that Hindi actually made it brighter and more alive.”

Indeed, Slumdog doesn’t feel like a ‘foreign film’ despite it having a fair number of English subtitles, which only enhance the overall cinematic experience.

But how realistic should films try to become, before the local realities are distorted or local sensibilities are affected? Where does documentary end and drama begin? These questions will continue to be debated across India and elsewhere while Slumdog enthralls millions on its first theatrical release.

Feature film makers can exercise their creative license far more than factual film makers. I doubt if the creators of authentic, close-to-the-ground movies like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire set out with any specific social agenda. They are in the business of entertainment, and just happen to find plenty of drama in real life in places like urban slums. We might argue that in the right hands, dramatised movies can draw mass attention to development issues and challenges far more effectively than the often dull and dreary documentaries.

Eyes wide open

Kalpana Sharma: Eyes wide open

“If through (the movie) the world gets a peek at an India inhabited by millions of people who continue to live their lives without clean water, sanitation or electricity, what is the problem?” asks another Indian friend and long-time Mumbai resident Kalpana Sharma.

In a perceptive essay titled Shantytowns of the Mind, written in The Indian Express in early January 2009 before she saw the film, Kalpana flagged important concerns: “Slumdog Millionaire’s success raises some deeper questions. How do we depict poverty as writers, filmmakers, journalists? Is it fair to expect us all the time to give a full, balanced, sensitive portrayal? Or is it inevitable that we write, film, for our audiences? And if, as a byproduct, people are sensitized, so be it. Also, if they are annoyed, so be it. If we are considered exploitative, so be it.”

Kalpana speaks with authority, and not just because she lives in the megacity of Mumbai (population: 13 million and rising) which, she points out, is half made up of slums. In 2000, she wrote a book titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. Far from being a cold, clinical analysis of facts, figures and trends, it’s a book about the extraordinary people who live there, “many of whom have defied fate and an unhelpful State to prosper through a mix of backbreaking work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity”.

Kalpana ends her essays with these words: “In the end you realise as a writer, a journalist or a filmmaker, that the best you can do is to shine a torch, a searchlight, on an entrenched problem. But the solution will not be found merely by that illumination. For that, there are many more steps to be taken.

Slumdog Millionaire has focused its lens on the children of India’s slums through a work of fiction. What we do to change their future is the non-fiction that has yet to be written.”

Read Shantytowns of the Mind by Kalpana Sharma, Indian Express, 14 January 2009

India rising...but not for all slumdogs?

India rising...but not for all slumdogs?

Final Question: Who’s Afraid of a Slumdog Millionaire?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

“All the world is a quiz, and all the men and women merely players.” That’s how the late Magnús Magnússon, iconic host of BBC TV’s long-running quiz Mastermind, once described the scope for his line of work.

These words came to my mind as I watched the new Danny Boyle movie Slumdog Millionaire in New Delhi on its opening night on 23 January 2009. For two hours, it held me spellbound and transported me, alternately, to the rough world of Mumbai slums and the glitzy world of television quizzing in Bollywood.

It’s a feel-good, rags-to-riches story about Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win a staggering 20 million Indian Rupees (a little over US$ 400,000) on India’s version of the popular TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? . The story, adapted from an award-winning novel Q&A(2005) by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, resonated strongly with me given my own, long-standing association with the overlapping worlds of quizzing and TV hosting.

As the story unfolds, we find out how and why Jamal – who has had little or no formal schooling and lacks ambition to win the quiz – got on the show: for a very personal reason. Through a series of amazing coincidences, well known in the movies that often ask us to suspend disbelief, the answer to each question he faces is deeply etched in his memory from his tumultuous past.

When the show breaks for the night, Jamal is only one question away from winning the show’s grand prize, which can make him a multi-millionaire. But the show’s organisers just can’t believe that an uneducated street kid (or a ‘slum dog’) has made it thus far on his own. So they call in the police.

As the police inspector says: “Doctors… Lawyers… never get past 60 thousand rupees. He’s on 6 million.” The question for everyone is: how does he do it?

Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating, and police torture him overnight to find out how. Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother Salim grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions…

Watch the official movie trailer for Slumdog Millionaire:

Jamal returns the next evening – straight from police custody – to face the final question. The right answer would earn him 20 million; giving the wrong answer would lose all his winnings so far. By this time, his meteoric rise to the final question has made news headlines and tens of millions of TV viewers across India are watching the show and cheering for him. Among them is the young woman for whom Jamal got on the show in the first place…

The dramatic story ends on a happy note, in true Bollywood style, when boy meets his long-lost girl. One of its sub-plots offers insights into the high adrenalin world of quiz shows, which are now being played for high stakes.

Is that your final answer?

Is that your final answer?

The film uses the actual set of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the Indian version of the globally popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? which offers large cash prizes for correctly answering 15 (or in some countries, 12) consecutive multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. It represents the highly commercialised end of the quizzing world, which traditionally shunned cash rewards for performance. For example, the winner of BBC Mastermind receives nothing more than the coveted title.

I can’t remember exactly when I first took part in a general knowledge quiz — that is now buried too deep in the sediments of my memory. But I have been an active participant in the fascinating world of quizzing for at least three quarters of my 42 years, first as a quiz kid and then as a quiz master.

Slumdog Millionaire reinforces a point I have been making for years: not to equate knowledge with intelligence. Quizzes of every kind only test the general knowledge and quick recollection ability among participants — but not necessarily their intelligence. Measuring intelligence (that is, determining intelligence quotient, or IQ) is a specialised and complicated process. In any case, scientists acknowledge that such measurements are not always accurate because of cultural diversity and other variables. Although someone excelling in quiz would, in all likelihood, also have a high level of intelligence, quiz performance by itself is no measure of someone’s IQ.

Similarly, there is also no direct co-relation between the level of educational attainment and performance at general knowledge quizzes. While good quiz kids generally tend to be high achievers in their curriculum studies, that is not always so. I remember a London taxi driver once beating dozens of academics and professionals to become the overall winner in Brain of Britain, the BBC’s long-running radio quiz show. Apparently he used to read a great deal while waiting for hires.

Finally, I know of serious quiz enthusiasts who frown upon game shows like KBC as a dumbing down of the cerebral art. But there’s no denying that, by invoking popular culture, the new formats have hugely enhanced the audiences following quizzing on TV. For the true aficionados, there’s always Mastermind and other ‘pure’ forms of quizzing that remain above the fray of commerce. For the rest, there are shows that mix the quest for knowledge with the pursuit of happiness through material rewards.

Who’s afraid of the lure of 20 million Rupees?