Slumdog set report [Issue 1]

[This looked better with the pictures and inserts.]

Oscar Special: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

                                   [Голливуд ест идею или идея ест Голливуд?]



 Finally, India has discovered how to make real films. No more of that singing and dancing crap. No, their British masters have returned to teach them the basics, while cautioning them not to try too much in case they “get ideas”.


Our reporter was invited to the Mumbai set last year by director Danny Boyle and was pleased to find that British-Indian ties were stronger than ever. Over two days he was given access to everything; the local cast, the director, the producer, the filming and the sets. This is his report.

I am met at the airport by the film’s star Dev Patel. A tall, almost regular looking Indian at first sight, it isn’t until he opens his mouth and guides me towards the filthiest taxi I have ever sat in, that I realize he has the intelligence and manners of a normal British thespian. Well, he tells me he was on some British TV show I have never heard of, but he is still a thespian in my eyes, and almost a complete Brit.

As the taxi driver tries to maintain control of the machine in his hands, Dev Patel tells me about life on set:

“It’s great, really. I have to pinch myself when I wake up, just to remind myself that this is really happening. And Danny, he’s a genius. He really knows how to push his cast. I would never have had the confidence to carry a film like this if he hadn’t helped me. I would’ve shat myself just reading the script, but Danny talked to me and put me at ease right from the off.”

I butt in and ask what methods are being used to encourage the rest of the crew, who have probably never even seen a real camera before.

“Well, he carries the whip most days. But don’t get me wrong, he never uses it on me. No, I’m practically British so I think I pleased him on that level. But the others, it’s hard to really make them, y’know…understand. He has to show them, and, honestly, they do get it bad sometimes. I felt kinda bad for them at first, but what can I do? Danny is the guy in charge and they have to respect that. I do wonder sometimes if he should be whipping them quite so much, but it seems to get results. I mean, they may shake a little around the set, but they never make the same mistakes twice. They learn, y’know, which is kinda surprising actually as I thought regular Indians found that kind of thing hard to do, but no, they can do it if you tell them what to do. They just needed training, that’s all.”

The taxi pulls up outside a large building. This is one of the sets, apparently. The building itself is without decoration. Just bare walls, a little graffiti and one or two security guards. They look a little odd holding such large guns, in the same way that our driver looks alien against the backdrop of his taxi. I wonder how much these people understand what they have in their hands.

Dev leads me into the building and, a few floors higher, onto a floor of regular Indians moving past and between cameras. Everyone has a smile, seemingly aware that they are serving a part in something special. Over the next few days I would learn, to your probable disappointment as a reader, that this is utterly true.

Sure, we’ve all heard of anxious studios covering up mutinous sets with false stories of unity and all round backslapping, but in the case of ‘Slumdog’ it seems to ring true. I ask as many of the cast as I can find, British, British-Indian or regular Indian, what they think of their time on set and I hear the same sentiments as the ones sung to me by Dev Patel. Not literally sung, of course. I assure you Boyle is not making one of “those” Indian films. But, the point is, the feeling of goodwill on this set astonishes me.

Take Inept Kapoor, for example. After years of toiling through those silly song and dance flicks in his own country, he now has the satisfaction of knowing that he has a chance to make it in Hollywood, a place where the measuring stick of greatness is just a little bit higher than these other third world film playgrounds.

“Everyone knows him in India,” another actor tells me on set. “But that doesn’t mean shit, really. It’s America that needs to know him, not us. They’ve got people who know about film, whereas we’ve just got people who have to be told what’s good.”

In a show of good faith by the studio and the director, I am granted some of Inept’s time, and, after being brought to me by Boyle himself (a lovely, affectionate symbol of the closeness of the cast and crew), he is good enough to show me around the set. “Have him back in an hour,” Boyle tells us firmly, still playing the paternal master.

On our quick tour, I am taken around the fake “millionaire” studio where Inept has already shot most of his scenes and then outside to the slums of Mumbai, which are uncomfortably close to the studio building. As we walk through the shitty streets and the houses that I suspect are literally made of shit, several extremely ugly and bedraggled urchins approach us and ask for money. I tense up and prepare to run, but Inept is quick to swat them out of our path. “The little shits usually piss off if you smack one of them hard enough,” he tells me as the urchins flee. I congratulate him on his effective slapping and ask him how it feels to be on set with a true great like Danny Boyle.

“The thing about Danny is-…” he breaks off abruptly. His face tightens and his whole body seems to spasm. I look behind him expecting to see an urchin with a cattle-prod, but there’s nothing there. In the distance I see Danny Boyle standing in the street with his hand held out in front of him, and some kind of device in his grip.

Inept composes himself and tries again.

“The thing about Mr. Boyle is that he knows how to get the best out of his crew. And not just the actors, I mean, everyone. The sound techs, the camera guys, the lighting guys, even the caterers. Everyone listens to him because of all the great films he’s done, like ‘Life less ordinary’ and ‘Alien love triangle’.

“How exactly does he get the best out of them?” I ask.

Inept hesitates, looks around then answers.

“On the first day, he gathered us all together and told us that there had never been a great film about India. He told us that we had neither the experience nor the tools to make proper films ourselves, but that it was ok because we could learn. Obviously, there would have to be rules and limits to what we could do, but the point was we could make a good film, if we were willing to learn.”

He goes on to tell me about these rules and limits.

“First of all, no Indian was allowed near the cameras without gloves. It seemed strange at first, but it made sense after he explained it to us. You see, we didn’t know this, but regular Indians have naturally dirty hands that attract and incubate diseases; that’s why they’re not the same colour as yours.”

We compare hands and I am in no way surprised to see that his hands do look a lot dirtier than mine.

“You see. Mr. Boyle is a biologist too. He said he researched it on ‘Sunshine’, that Space film he did. He said he had some of those Chinese actors and he had to tell them about their hands too. Apparently they pick up nearly as many germs as we do, probably more if you ask me. He’s a very smart man, there’s no doubt about that.”

We head away from the slum and back towards the studio, with Inept telling me about some of the other rules, most notably the whippings.

“It seems crazy, right? But it worked for me, it really did. The first scene I did, Mr. Boyle told me that I was too confident, too calm and untroubled for a regular Indian. I listened to him, of course, and tried to follow his direction, but I couldn’t seem to lose my confidence. So, Mr. Boyle very kindly took me to one side and slapped me in the face. I was a little shocked but after he backhanded me and sent me to the floor, I began to understand.”

“Did your work improve after that?” I ask.

“No, not quite. I was still a little too sure of myself, but Mr. Boyle really helped me get over it. I mean, he actually took me back to his trailer and whipped me on his own time, just to help me get into the right frame of mind for my scenes. That’s the measure of the man. He is willing to use up his own free time to help his actors.”

Back inside, Danny Boyle joins up with us again and gives Inept a playful slap in the face.

“What’s this piece of muck been telling you then?”

“About your genius, of course, Mr. Boyle,” Inept offers nervously.

“Go get us a coffee, Inept.” Mr. Boyle says without looking at him. Inept moves away quickly, and Boyle shouts after him. “Don’t forget the gloves neither.”

He turns to me and shakes his head. “They always forget the gloves.”

We relax into two of the only four chairs on the set while the other regular Indians stand around eating food off paper plates. Two of them approach with large fake leaves, but are waved away by Danny, who mutters, “we’re fine, we’re fine. Go fan the producer.” He points at a fat, white man slumped in a chair across the floor, and the two men hurry towards him.

“This has been a real eye-opener for me, doing this film,” he comes back to me. “I never knew it was like this here, this poor, I mean. When I first stepped off the plane, and I saw this…Krist, what a shithole, I thought. How are you gonna make a film here, Danny? What have you let yourself in for? But, then I had a counter-thought. These little people with their dirty faces and shit all over their hands, they were so desperate, and that’s when I understood something about them and what we could do. Is this making sense?”

I nod politely but I don’t really understand. I look over at Inept, who is now shouting at one of the regular Indians pouring out two cups of coffee by the lunch table. The man eventually succeeds, but gets a clip across the head from Inept anyway.

“You see, people back home, they think these people can’t make films. They see the dancing films they make and they laugh at them. But, when I got here, I saw people who were ready to learn, and all they needed was someone better than them to teach them what to do. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that each country should have its independence and it was generally a good thing what happened here fifty, sixty years ago, but with these guys, in the modern age, it’s different. They had all our technology and our political systems and ideas and all that, but they didn’t know what to do with them. They were just kind of existing and messing it all up on their own. They still needed us, you see, and they still need us even now. They were waiting for us to come back and help them. So, when I realized this, things really fell into place and the film became a real mission to help these lost people.”

“It sounds like you really want to make a difference here,” I tell him.

“Oh yes, completely. And I believe I can. Listen, these people aren’t stupid. They’re not dumb and they can do things the same as us. I honestly believe that. They may look a little different, and there are things that you have to watch out for, like the hands and…you know, you’ve talked to them right? You know when they talk, they kind of spit at you sometimes and you have to be careful not to look at them when they do, otherwise you might-…well, you might get something a little nasty.” He leans back and laughs. “Trust me, I got put in hospital the first day I was here. The sound tech, the first one we hired, spat right in my face. We fired him and got a new one in, a slightly cleaner one and it was all better, but still…Krist, that first one was a dirty little man.”

Inept returns with the coffee and places it carefully into our hands.

“Thanks, mate.” Danny lifts the coffee up to his lips then stops. “What’s this, Inept?”

Inept peers into the coffee and flinches.

“It’s a piece of fucking dirt, isn’t it?”

“I think-…”Inept stumbles. I follow his eyes to the whip lying on the floor by Danny’s feet.

“Did you use the gloves?”

“I told one of them to use the gloves. He did, I watched him. I’m so sorry, Mr. Boyle, please, I don’t know how that got in there.”

Danny shakes his head and looks at his watch.

“My trailer, one hour,” he says. “And don’t keep me waiting this time.”

Inept gives up and nods then walks away to have words with the coffee pourer.

Danny turns back to me and throws his coffee onto the floor.

“Krist, it’s hard sometimes, it really is. Where was I?”

I tell him about the spitting sound technician.

“Oh yeah, a dirty little man. But apart from him, there is so much potential in this country. A lot of potential, really. All my crew has been first class, all my actors too. They’ve really stepped up to the plate on this one. It’s like they know this is the only shot they’re ever gonna have to make something of themselves, and I think we’re gonna take it. Obviously, it’s mostly in my hands, but they’ve done as much as they can, in their own little way.”

But it isn’t completely in Boyle’s hands. There have been rumours in the trade rags that the studio is less than pleased with Boyle’s spending and his requests for more money. It has been whispered that they might bury it on its release as payback. I ask Danny if he believes this film will have a good run when it’s released next year

“If it’s sold right, sure. If they tell people that, yes, this film is set in India, but it’s not made by Indians, it’s made by British film-makers, then I think people will accept it. If it was all-Indian and the director was some clown called Jatinder Boyle or something then it wouldn’t have a prayer. People just don’t accept real Indians, and that’s the way it is. Hopefully, we can help to show that it’s a falsehood and that, y’know, Indians can be people too. That’s if we can finish it with the money we’ve got. We’re down to our last few rupees now.” He laughs out across the floor. No one dares look.

Time is almost up so I make one last enquiry.

“Are the four chairs and the paper plates an attempt to tighten the spending?”

“No, no. God, no. The four chairs, clearly, are for the main players. And the paper plates are just disposable so there’s no chance of us getting the shits or malaria or something nasty, y’know?” He leans across the space between us, smiling. “I was toying with the idea of getting a chair for Inept, but…I realized I couldn’t be seen to be playing favourites. Dev gets one because he’s kinda British, but I have to draw the line somewhere.”

I shake his hand, wish him the best of luck and leave the set later that evening, with no portents that this film will be anything other than a moderate seller on DVD. The prospect of eight Oscars and a huge international box office assault seems ludicrous.

Ten months later and we’re at the Oscars and Danny Boyle is standing with sixteen members of his cast and crew on stage, with the fat, white man making the acceptance speech. Inept stands behind him, smiling like sunshine along with the rest of the regular Indians, all of them retaining that alien feel against the very Hollywood environment surrounding them. I wonder as I watch if they have ever been on a stage as remarkable as this one, and if they’ve ever stood in front of people this important. Probably not, I conclude.

After the ceremony is over and all the Indians have been sent away, I manage to get a few more words from Danny backstage.

“Congratulations. You really did what you said you would.”

“Did you see them all up on stage? Unbelievable! You know people told me before this, they said, ‘Danny, you can’t bring Indians to Hollywood, they just don’t travel well.’ But now I’ve shown them. Now, everyone knows about India.”

“But I heard some critics saying that you had exploited some of the cast and crew. I know it’s not true, but they seemed quite vociferous…”

“It’s bullshit, isn’t it? They’re just idiots. You see, you know who these people are, don’t you? They’re the Indians with money, the middle class tossers. They’re the ones telling me that I’m not showing the truth of a slum or I’ve used these people or whatever other shit they’re spewing. Well, fuck them. Do they live in a slum in Mumbai? No. Then shut the fuck up. I know what it’s like, and myself and the studio and others have done a fucking lot for these people we worked with, we’ve saved them in a big way, and we’re getting shit for it. I just don’t have time for people like that…”

I nod and offer my hand. He shakes it and tells me I’m one of the good ones.

“One last thing. Did you have the whip with you tonight?”

He grins and pulls out the small remote control I had seen back on the set.

“This is better for these kinds of events. Direct to their nervous system, Bam!” He presses one of the buttons and I imagine somewhere nearby Inept, or one of the sixteen others, being crippled by spasms. “I was a bit reluctant to hook it up to the young ‘uns, but it had to be done. And they did really well, didn’t they? Did you see them? Yeah. I only had to use it twice on them. Brilliant, they were. And they really deserve it.”

One of his gang of publicists calls over to him and he tells me it’s time to go and celebrate. I shake his hand again and wish him the best of luck.

As he walks away he shouts back that he might need that luck as his next film will be even more of a headache. “It’s gonna be set in Nigeria, mate. Bigger whip, extra strength gloves and we’ll see how we go.”


Words by Oli Johns



                 ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is in cinemas now and was reviewed by everyone else ages ago

  1. ‘…after the ceremony is over and all the indians have been sent away….’ LOL!

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