Published under Oscar Outsider.
Picture this: A very white, very British screenwriter has been hanging out in the slums of Bombay (also known as Mumbai) doing research for a screenplay he’s adapting from an Indian novel. He’s been haunting little chai shops, listening to the tales of the locals, absorbing as much as he can about their everyday lives. The ongoing Hindu-Muslim tensions have been bubbling up again. There’s abject poverty all around him, and absolute humanity. He takes a walk one day and comes across two long piers, with outhouses at the end of them. These crude latrines are the common toilets of the slum around him — walled on three sides, with the fourth wall open, “so you sit there doing your business, and watch the planes landing.”
From that moment, the opening scene of Slumdog Millionaire was born: a small boy, covered in sewage filth, raises his arms in the air in triumph, having succeeded in securing the autograph of his favorite action movie star; this scene, in turn, sets the tone for the rest of the film, which tells the tale of a brave young lad from the slums who overcomes all odds to succeed. This is the story of the creation of that screenplay: a tale of how a British screenwriter traveled to India, looked at the culture in which the story he was assigned to adapt was set, and turned an excellent, rather dark, narratively disconnected book into an excellent, rather comedic, beautifully woven film.
Like Virus Swarup‘s novel, Q&A, from which it was adapted, the film Slumdog Millionaire is drawn around the conceit of the questions asked of a contestant on a game show. With the exception of a few other bits and pieces culled from the source material, the rest of the screenplay is the invention of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who previously penned the memorable characters of The Full Monty). Beaufoy went beyond merely picking and choosing which scenes from the book would fit into his screenplay template; he looked at the source material, added new ideas gleaned from his time spent in India, created entirely new scenes and characters and, in essence, found a far more effective way to translate the source material to the screen than a more literal translation would have been.
In writing the screenplay, Beaufoy said he was keenly aware of being a Brit writing a screenplay about characters who live in the slums of India, and he felt he had to be authentic for them. “It’s more important to be true to the place than to be true to the book — and I don’t mean that as disrespectful to the author, but as an outsider going in, you have to be true to that,” says Boyle. “The authenticity is very important, especially if you’re making a film in a different culture, a different place.”
The other thing Beaufoy felt certain about was that the theme of the movie had to be bigger than just a poor slum kid who strikes it rich. So he looked at the culture around him to find his answer. “I went to Bombay; it’s a very passionate place, a very romantic place, and I suddenly understood those weird Bollywood films — the singing and the dancing and the romance — and I thought, that’s it, it’s got to be a love story. That’s what will override this money thing. I just didn’t want to write a story about a guy getting rich, and I knew that was it.”
And so Beaufoy set out to give his hero a heroine to love and to pine for, which gave him the means to build a scaffolding of classical-hero narrative structure over the foundation of the game show story. Once he determined that the love story would become the central thread, he had to go back to the source and decide what from the original story would fit in with the romance angle, and what had to go. And he knew that the tone of the film was crucial: this would be a melodramatic film, with moments of comedy and mirth interwoven with brutal violence, scenes of crushing poverty and torture. “Indian cinema isn’t concerned with being authentic as a rule. That’s a broad generalization, but it’s largely true,” Beaufoy says. “In England, you couldn’t get away with torture and comedy in the same movie, but here you could.”
When Beaufoy decided to incorporate the Hindu-Muslim tensions into the film by having a conflict between the groups result in the death of the main character’s mother, he had to change the hero’s entire personal background. In the book, the boy is called Ram Mohammed Thomas; in the film he is Jamal Malik. The book character was named by the priest who took him in as an infant and raised him after he was abandoned by his mother; the priest christened the boy with both Hindu and Muslim names to appease the villagers who were irked by the idea of an Indian boy being raised by a white man, and since there was no way to know whether the boy’s mother was Muslim or Hindu, the priest gave him names with both origins. In the film, Jamal is not an orphan at the start of the story; he becomes an orphan when his mother is killed. This crucial decision also allowed the far earlier introduction of the love story thread that ties the film together: Jamal meets his love interest, Latika, when they are both young orphans living on the streets of Mumbai.
Now our hero had a name — Jamal — and a heroine, but she needed to be put in danger, and Beaufoy needed some bad guys to keep the star-crossed lovers apart. He molded one bad guy out of the main character’s best friend in the book, Salim, turning the friend into our hero’s brother — a brother with street smarts and survival skills, but lacking the moral compass that guides Jamal. For another he took a character from the book who preys upon street children, taking them to his “orphanage” where he has them blinded or crippled so they will earn more money begging in the streets.
Other characters he omitted entirely or shaded differently; in particular, the game show host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) had a much darker side in the book that tied in more with the hero’s determination to get on the game show. In the book, Ram is motivated to get on the show not just for the money, but by his desire to get revenge on Prem Kumar for acts of violence he committed on two female characters; in the film, the revenge thread was eliminated. In its place we have a sweeping melodrama about love and destiny, about these two characters who surpass overwhelming odds in order to be together; the money is just a side benefit.
Slumdog Millionaire is a strong contender for Best Picture at the moment, and deserves to be. The film works on every level, from the casting, to the performances by the nine actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika at various ages, to the way in which director Danny Boyle captures the wildly frenetic energy of the streets of Mumbai, to the fantastic use of music (which includes one of the few instances of an appropriate usage of M.I.A.’s song “Paper Planes”). Visually, Slumdog is a stunning film; it’s gorgeously shot, with a palette of bright colors (in particular, yellow is used throughout the film) overlaying the grimness, the shit and dirt and filth of the slums. This film is about as far removed from poverty porn as one could hope to get; it examines the lives of its poor characters without exploiting or sensationalizing them, and finds the humanity and hope amid the poverty and desperation.
Strong as the film is in its execution, though, it was built around the script penned by Beaufoy, a masterful piece of work that should be a strong contender in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars. Although the script remains true to its source material in certain key ways, overall, the script is composed largely of original material that’s the brainchild of the writer; the result is a film that is far better than a more straight adaptation would have been, and in this case, the screenwriter deserves as much credit as the director for what we see on screen — an entirely unique blending of melodrama, classic hero story arc, romance, adventure and Bollywood, that feels true to the culture of its setting.
by Kim Voynar