Saturday, January 23, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)

Scene from Slumdog Millionaire
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Slumdog Millionaire
Release Date: January 23, 2009
Director: Danny Boyle
Written By: Simon Beaufoy (Screenplay), Vikas Swarup 
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Saurubh Shukla
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 120 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score
-Best Original Song ("Jai Ho")
-Best Sound Mixing

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Original Song ("O Saya")
-Best Sound Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
-The Reader

And the winner is...

In the history of The Academy Awards, there have been constant complaints about the Best Picture winners' lack of diversity both on screen and behind. By some chance, director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire managed to win over audiences with what is likely many viewers' first taste of Indian culture. It's a drama infused with Bollywood elements and the familiar underdog story that audiences like to cheer for. With arguably one of the best uses of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the film manages to be one of the feel good movies that not only managed to impress audiences worldwide by raising awareness of slum conditions in India, but also happened to upset those it was depicting, who believed that it reinforced stereotypes. For a film that is wildly diverse in cast and crew, this British film by way of India is a standout in a decade of winners who were mostly geared towards western culture.

The story began with the idea by Vikras Swarup, whose book "Q & A" chronicled Professor Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" initiative, which set up computer kiosks in Indian slums. The idea became so popular that it became Hole in the Wall Education Limited, used specifically by students. Writer Simon Beaufoy became intrigued by this concept and began to write a screenplay based around this. He claimed later that he wanted to capture the fun and laughter of the people in the slums. During his writing process, he visited India three times for research - even interviewing children of the area. By 2006, it was being pitched around. Director Danny Boyle initially turned it down, but came around to it when he discovered that Beaufoy had written one of his favorite British movies The Full Monty. From there, he read the script and became impressed by the execution.

It was encouraged before production began to do it partially in Hindi, for the sake of authenticity. Boyle promised the financiers that he would do only 10%. However, translator Loveleen Tandan helped them to triple that number in secret. The film was also inspired by Indian cinema, and specifically Bollywood. Boyle would note that he was intrigued by the fantastical nature of some scenes, referencing the idea of two children jumping from the train and aging seven years. He also liked the underdog nature, and even felt that it was crucial to the nation's cinema between 1950 and 1980. When many found his title (specifically "slumdog") a little offensive, he explained that it was actually a joint use of the slums and underdog. For the most part, the film was shot in Mumbai. 

There became an immediate conflict regarding a crucial character: the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, by which the narrative's plot was interwoven. Boyle approached the show's host from India, Shah Rukh Khan, who immediately turned it down on the grounds that he didn't want his fans to think that the show was fictional. Despite his refusal, Khan still remained passionate about the movie and doesn't regret his decision. Instead, contestant Anil Kapoor too the job. Many of the younger slum kids were played by actual children that Boyle and the crew met in Mumbai. They were promised to have a trust fund in their name for when they turned 16, and were also given a chauffeur to drive them to school. Since filming, there have been many conflicts regarding whether Boyle actually did anything, as some of the children were still living in slums. However, the slums were torn down in 2009, and the families have been given new homes. Boyle chose A.R. Rahman to do the score largely because he was able to transfuse Indian music with hip-hop, house, and various other styles.

The film had a pretty good thing going for awhile. When it premiered at Telluride Festival in 2008, it received unanimous praise. Of course, it hadn't been long since the financiers, Warner Bros. Independent, had filed for bankruptcy, leaving the film's future in peril. Fox Searchlight bought half of the rights to the remaining films and even contemplated sending Slumdog Millionaire straight to DVD due to its conflicting subject matter. By some luck, it picked up steam and slowly began to have an impact internationally. Its only major issue was that it was reviled by audiences in India, who believed that it gave into the western stereotypes that audiences perceived them as, even claiming that it exploited the poverty issues. They also took offense to the film's limited use of Hindi, which they felt was unrealistic. By coincidence, a fully dubbed Hindi version was later released to far much more success.

The film would go on to receive a variety of conflicts during its awards season, specifically in the way to credit. Tandan, who was deemed co-director, was upset when she wasn't labeled as a co-director at The Golden Globes. While producers deny her impact to be of high importance, it created a general backlash among women's groups (and kept her from becoming the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars, where she was also ignored). Meanwhile, choreographer Longiness Fernandes failed to receive credit for his work on the memorable closing dance number. Boyle atoned for the matter when he won Best Director by making a note of it. Slumdog Millionaire was also the first "de facto" Best Picture winner since The Last Emperor to not be financed by a major American studio. It was also the first Best Picture winner to be shot predominantly on digital, and later the first to receive a digital release. A.R. Rahman became the first Asian to win two Oscars, both for this film (Best Original Song and Best Original Score). 

The film became the first since Titanic to receive a major box office boost (45%) following its Oscar wins. During its initial home video release, the film had a manufacturer error which caused rental versions (no special features) to be shipped in retail packages (advertising special features). This caused an immediate recall. Since, the film has been mistaken by less informed audiences as being a Bollywood film. Its reputation has also been skewered, thanks to many thinking that it was too much of a happy fairy tale. This was also the last year that The Academy had the Best Picture field in the long held 5 nominations. Many attribute this to The Dark Knight being unable to get into the race over more "boring" selections. While it hasn't impacted the film's legacy, many could attest its as a safe bet. While the film has helped to make India more of a prominent location in pop culture (mostly in boosting Rahman's career in American film), it doesn't necessarily have much else to its credit that makes it stand alone.

Slumdog Millionaire is a film that was meant to be a happy underdog story for audiences internationally. For most, this was true. While the film may have received little credit in the Indian community, it helped to spread awareness of slum conditions and helped to popularize Indian music in ways that weren't as prominent in years past. For a film that almost ended up going straight to DVD, it's impressive to see it have any reputation, and with an ability to bring awareness to such compelling issues. While it may not be the greatest Best Picture winner in history, it is definitely a welcomed and diverse film that shows what a melting pot of talent can pool together with enough effort.

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