Talk about Jeopardy. After Jamal, a teenage orphan from the Mumbai streets, starts winning it big on India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, the cops grab him and work him over with waterboarding and electrodes to find out how he knew the answers. And you thought Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link was tough.
Nonetheless, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire aspires to be a feel-good film while remaining graphically honest about the corruption, poverty, and injustices of its setting. Maybe after the enraged flesh-eating zombies in 28 Days Later and the feral junkies in Trainspotting, Boyle found the mobsters and beggars in the sprawling shanty town of Dharavi downright life-affirming. Or maybe he just brings a kinetic rush to whatever subject he chooses, and a mordant humor that somehow stays upbeat. Whatever, you still have to ask, is he himself slumming by touring Third World misery for our amusement?
THE FILM STARTS WITH POLICE TORTURE, AND IT HAS A SCENE WHERE A KID'S EYES ARE PUT OUT. ARE YOU SURPRISED IT'S SUCH A CROWD PLEASER?
I do these Q&As and people say, "I nearly walked out when the kid was blinded." Yet they clearly forgive it by the end of the story. It's not like the movie avoids letting you know what it's like there, what things go on there, but still, people forgive. I think it's like India, because though some of it is unforgivable, yet you do forgive it.
There are some extraordinary things going on there: the police are corrupt, the infrastructure is inadequate, there's lot of things for them to tackle. There are these terrible extremes, and it's one of the reasons that good storytelling can go on there. But they are connected, not separate. We tend to separate our extremes. If they build a tower block [in India], at the bottom of it is a slum, where the people live who built it, and the people who live in the tower block don't try to chase them away, they feel connected to those people who live underneath. This idea they have, of destiny, can to our eyes look really passive and very accepting, but it doesn't actually work like that. You see kids who have had their hands chopped off to make them better beggars — you actually see people like that, people come up and knock on the car windows, and you can see that their hands have been cut off! But by accepting that, you are connected with that person. It's quite difficult to explain; you sense it when you're there, really.
ISN'T ACCEPTANCE ALLOWING THE INJUSTICE TO CONTINUE?
Yeah, I felt that, and that would have been my take before I had gone, definitely, that that kind of fatalism is a mechanism by which the rich control the poor. But I think that's too simplistic a definition of it, having been there. I was only in Mumbai, and I believe the film is an accurate-ish picture of the city, a story within the city, and I hope it's accurately told.
SO THE FILM IS NOT TO GET PEOPLE STIRRED UP ABOUT HOW UNJUST THINGS ARE IN INDIA BUT TO ENTERTAIN US?
Yes, if you like. The values of the story are universal: Jamal's romanticism, his underdog status, that dream he has that he will fulfill, whatever is put in his way.
I HEAR YOU'RE THINKING NOW OF DOING A THRILLER OR A GANGSTER FILM IN MUMBAI.
I'd love to do a thriller there. It's got a lot going for a thriller. It's pretty much unregulated, it's got a corrupt police and staggering amounts of money. The lifeblood of capitalism is expansion, which is why we have a problem here at the moment because it's hit the wall. If it doesn't expand, it contradicts itself. But it expands there. And so you've got this wealth and then you've got, as in Dickensian London, this massive underclass who are feeding it, being terribly impoverished but also having a slight spending power, all adding to the expansion of the system. And you've got a Bollywood system where the stars are both gods and gangsters at the same time, deities that the underclass aspire to. And the stars often team with the gangsters because the gangsters are obsessed with the movies. So you see, in terms of a thriller, it has a lot going for it.
IN OTHER WORDS, THE INDIANGODFATHER.
They've already done it. They remake all the Hollywood films. One of the crew members had a birthday party and there's five of them sleeping in this room and there's a telly in the background and on it I have this weird sensation of seeing One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was a shot-for-shot remake. Except it was an Indian cast led by Salman Khan playing the Jack Nicholson part.
HAVE YOU SEEN ONE OF YOUR OWN MOVIES REMADE?
That would be truly surreal. But they're not popular enough.
(Peter Keough posted a longer version of this interview on his blog, Outside the Frame. It's available in three parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.