Sunday, 5 December 2010

Slumdog Millionaire - key notes (in case you've lost them)

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2009)

a) CNN news item about the Hole in the Wall Project in Delhi giving street kids access to computers – kids taught themselves skills and enjoyed themselves
b) Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat posted to London, saw the news story about the ex-Army major who cheated on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Saw this was top-rated show in India too – recognised a global format and wanted to write a novel.
c) Most unlikely person to win - most likely to be accused of cheating if he won in India – uneducated kid from the slums
d) Had to be about hope, survival and redemption to appeal to a wide audience
e) Q&A published 2005 in UK and India. Success – Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4

First moves towards adapting it for the screen
a) Even before it was published Swarup’s agent sent a proof copy to Tessa Ross, Head of Film 4; saw possibilities, purchased it, pitched the idea to writer Simon Beaufoy.
b) Beaufoy is a known ‘name’ in the business, a writer with a successful track record – he was needed to secure more funding.
c) Beaufoy – scriptwriter of the Full Monty, one of the most commercially successful Brit films of all times, making $240 million worldwide on the back of considerable promotion by Fox Searchlight. Rather than go to Hollywood, worked with Bille Eltringham on small-scale Brit films about the Asian community, like Yasmin (2004) – much more in common with the films of Ken Loach – script arose from discussion and workshops among the Asian community in Keighley, Yorkshire. Not released in cinemas but broadcast on Channel 4.
d) Beaufoy – background contained elements that seemed relevant to Slumdog and his name would be attractive to potential backers and directors.
e) Q&A is a book comprising various narrative strands and Beaufoy saw the need for as strong narrative – visited Mumbai for research – decided on the idea of explaining the story through the answers the boy gives – which is in the book – but got rid of many of the subplots and extra stories to trim the narrative, making it streamlined to fit the Hollywood model and make it more filmable and, of course, widen its appeal.
f) Key change – instead of the central character being an orphan brought up by an English clergyman, Beaufoy changed him to a Mumbai Muslim slum dweller with a brother Salim. In the novel, Salim is a friend and Mumbai featrures later.
g) Stronger focus on the romantic elements came later at Danny Boyle’s request, as was the structural change that saw Jamal arrested BEFORE the final question, thus adding suspense and tension.
h) Beaufoy certainly introduced some elements to appeal to the UK audience – the call-centre scenes and the way the staff have to soak up elements of British culture, but overall he remains faithful to the spirit of the novel.

Novel – British or Indian?
a) Indian characters, Indian setting, Indian cultural content, so…
b) BUT, not a literary novel in the same way as those Indian novels that win literary prizes and praise in the UK (i.e. the books of Vikram Seth); this is more of a deliberate attempt to write a novel that would be popular, using a recognisable ‘global standard modern English.’ The writing assumes an understanding of global culture rather than specific regional Indian culture – increase its appeal overseas – something reflected in the film itself.

Funding Crisis
a) Film 4, the Channel Four film unit has only 11 staff and a budget of £10m; Tessa Ross had to find partners to help fund the film.
b) Key decision – took the film to head of Celador Films – Christian Coulson. Experienced producer with several important credits (Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Descent (2005) and Eden Lake (2008)). More than that, Celador International owned the rights to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Though Swarup had been inspired by the cheating scandal in millionaire, he had used a fictional quiz in the book.
c) Ross wanted the rights to use Millionaire – think of how the film would be an advert for the quiz worldwide – it’s an excellent example of cross promotion – people who are familiar with the quiz (and it is known worldwide) may be more likely to se the film; people who see the film may be more likely to watch the quiz.
d) Problem – Celador International was breaking up but Coulson ensured Film 4 would get the rights. The deal put in a small amount in equity and a TV rights payment. Celador Films then added £8m for the production budget with the assistance of a UK tax credit. Still small budget – average Hollywood film costs about £30m.
e) Coulson, as producer started preparing the film even without any overseas distribution deals in place.
f) Six months later, March 2007 – Celador and Film 4 offered the film to Danny Boyle who read the script and accepted it.

Danny Boyle and British Cinema in India
a) Long history of ‘British’ films made in India – many American using British actors.
b) More relevant to are ‘Diaspora' films – made by Indians not living in India or by British Asians – funded by the UK - Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (UK/France/India, 1988) and Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK/US, 2004).
c) Boyle – a ‘name’ director – Trainspotting (1996), The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), but necessarily someone whose name guarantees box-office success. Had a bad experience on The Beach – didn’t have control and had problems with the British and America crew on location; this time, he wanted complete control and wanted to use Indian cast and crew, though with British heads of departments.
d) Style is obviously European/American – lots of moving camera shots, slow-mo, sped up shots, tilted camera, atmospheric lighting (it could, I suppose, be argued that he makes the slums look photogenic, even the bit when the boy is covered in shit).
e) He had no obvious Indian/Asian connection and for preparation watched Indian films like Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) and those by Mira Nair, such as Salaam Bombay! (1988), which was part funded by Film 4.
f) Insisted on Anthony Dod Mantle, whom he’d worked on 28 Days Later as Cinematographer and who had worked on the Dogme films for Lars von Trier and had recently worked on Wallander for the BBC.
g) Tabrez Noorani - Line Producer who had worked in India and who had worked with Loveleen Tanda, who is credited as co-director (India) and Casting Director and who had worked with Mira Nair
h) Heads of departments were British but most of crew and cast (with the exception of Dev Patel) were recruited in India. Lots of the second unit crew and assistant directors were well-respected Bollywood technicians.
i) Two of the cast were major Indian character actors – Amil Kaur and Irrfan Khan.
j) Film was shot with combination of 35mm and digital film with a ratio of 40:60. Smaller, lighter digital films were useful in action scenes in narrow streets and alleys; some cameras were in fixed positions to catch action from different angles; second unit work was carried out by Bollywood crews in different locations.
k) Shooting took place between Nov 2007 and Feb 2008.

a) Boyle sent a rough cut on DVD to A. R. Rahman, major composer on the World Music scene who has scored many Indian films of varying styles and who has a huge fan base in India, so he could write a soundtrack – another selling point for the film.
b) Rahman teamed up with M.I.A. for two tracks, thus adding to the movie’s appeal to an audience interested in World music. One track, Paper Planes, was nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year.

Festivals, Release Pattern and Distribution
a) Coulson sells film negative pickup rights to two distributors – Warner International (for distribution rights in North America) and Pathé International (a French company) for the rest of the world. These deals accrued $13m which covered the budget and the equity costs of the producers.
b) Feb 2008 – Pathé sold international distribution rights again to more partners at Berlin Film Festival
c) May 2008 – film promoted at Cannes BUT Warners closed their specialty divisions – looked like they would cut their losses and release the film straight to DVD in North America (but cinema release would still have gone ahead in the UK and the rest of the world because the distributor for those regions was Pathé).
d) Warner allowed Coulson and Ross to show film to Fox Searchlight, which distributed much of Boyle’s earlier work, and an agreement was reached that left Warners with a stake but allowed Fox Searchlight distribution rights for North America.
e) Fox deal just in time for Toronto Film Festival – a major international festival and one which is crucial for the success of non-Hollywood studio films in North America. Fox had a history of recent success with the American indie film Juno in 2007 and this became a platform for its Oscar campaign. Slumdog won audience award – a sign of how popular it would become.
f) Platform release in US and Canada – started in 10 screens on Nov 16; by Christmas week – 589 screens; 1500 by late January. 2900 in March after Oscar success.
g) Wide release elsewhere – 324 screens in UK on Jan 9, building on success in US and Canada. Increased box office takings in first three weeks – number of screens increased as did takings – due to word of mouth and promotion on TV, radio, press.
h) Release in India on Jan 23rd – English language prints (still with 1/3 of the film in Hindi) in multiplexes in city centres; Hindi-dubbed prints in traditional cinemas in suburbs and in the country. English language version more popular and Hindi-version has been listed as an ‘average’ box-office performer – though this is quite an achievement as many Bollywood films are ‘flops’ or ‘disasters’.

a) Most British films that have done well abroad have been made by companies with direct Hollywood studio connections – like the films made by Working Title which is owned by Paramount; Slumdog looks set to be the most commercially successful British independent film of all time – earned approx $300m at the box office so far.
b) Won eight Oscars and nominated for two more; won seven BAFTAs and nominated for another four; plus a host of other awards in the USA and around the world.
c) At the time of writing, still a release of 2000 prints in China, Japan and Korea.
d) Success in Britain. In a proportionate way, Slumdog has been the biggest success in the UK, making $45-50m. Possible reasons why – appeals to the multi-cultural society that the UK has become; the appeal to mid-teen-early20s audience of a young British lead actor known for his role in Skins; the use of the very recognisable and popular Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; plot elements with universal appeal – hope, love story, rags to riches; the film features some aspects of India we’re familiar with – Millionaire, scenes in the call centre, cricket; flashy kinetic camera work with unusual angles and tilts; dramatic lighting, narrative style – appeal to a cine-literate audience A lot of it may down to its success in the USA and Canada, the press coverage this received (British films that do well in the USA always receive a lot of press coverage – there seems to be a feeling that when a UK film does well, we’re putting one over on the Americans but there’s also the feeling that we’ve achieved something to be proud of culturally which is not an everyday event!
e) Success in the USA. Many of the same reasons (including Millionaire, which is a hit there too) – the rags to riches story resonates with the idea of the American Dream where anyone can make it as a success, no matter your background. However, flashy as the camera work and editing are, there are none of the explosions or special effects that are normally associated with big box office hits in the US (though there is the romance), nor are there any actors the bulk of the audience would be familiar with. The key to its success may be down to the ethnic diversity of the audience – there are large southern Asian populations in many North American cities, especially in the northeast, including Toronto, where the movie first took off and New York; however, the film received heavy promotion in the US – Boyle and Patel devoted themselves to hundreds of interviews on TV channels across the US (especially on Fox subsidiaries) as well as in print media and there is a mass of promotional material on the official Fox website. It should be noted, however, that the trailers in the US didn’t play Indian music. The platform release strategy, picking up momentum as it received nominations which were widely covered in the media, also boosted audience interest and you could say its success was driven by awards and nominations.

Slumdog as a British film
a) A key issue about the British film industry is what defines British cinema
b) Slumdog – set in India; source material was by an Indian writer, although not written in traditional Indian literary style; many of the film’s crew were Indian; all but one of the principle and the majority of the supporting cast were Indian; almost a third of the dialogue is in Hindi.
c) Director, writer, lead actor, key members of the film crew were British; two-thirds of the dialogue was in English; the initial funding for the production was British; the production company and producer were British.
d) It was passed as British by the UK Film Council and thus received tax allowances. However, this has fairly stringent criteria, based on cultural content, cultural contribution, cultural hubs and cultural practitioners and films have to score at least 16 points out of a possible 31 to pass. On cultural content it may get 5 or 6 – the subject matter has some British cultural connection and the dialogue is mainly in English; cultural contribution – it uses British creativity; cultural hubs – although it was filmed abroad there was post-production work in the UK , cultural practitioners – most cast and crew are Indian, but key figures are British. Be lucky if you could award it 12 or 13 points. However, it is believed it passed on the strength of a letter of support written by Christian Coulson, in which he argued the film was a meaningful contribution to British culture.

It could have received tax allowances had it been a co-production with an Indian company as the UK has co-production agreements with certain countries; or if it had qualified as British under European conventions (for which it could’ve received support for screenings, distribution etc.). However, it was a wholly UK-financed production (US money was only involved for distribution) and it was not a co-production with an Indian company.
Influence of British production background as opposed to British/American like Working Title films – no American star.

Slumdog as ‘Global’ film
What are global media?
I’ve taken global media to be concerned with media forms that are produced in several different production contexts around the world, which then circulate in more than one market and in so doing influence production in the second market. In this way the medium is increasingly globalised as domestic industries mutate through a process of interaction.

In terms of film, up until now the predominant form of change in the international film industry has been of a hegemonic Hollywood across most markets slowly absorbing new talent and ideas thrown up by smaller commercial industries, which have in turn often imitated and stolen Hollywood material. In this paradigm, Hollywood has had little contact with the major film industries of India and has recently found itself to a certain extent rebuffed by renascent industries in Japan, South Korea and the ‘three Chinas’. This challenge to Hollywood has been met by the activities of the major US studios in seeking production deals with South Asian and East Asian producers. In historical terms, this represents something of a return to the 1960s when Hollywood studios attempted to create co-production deals in Europe, especially in Italy and with Japan, but the current engagement with India and China is new. However, the early attempts to engage directly with Indian producers on films such as Chandni Chowk to China (2008) has so far proved strikingly unsuccessful. It is in this context that the distribution and exhibition of Slumdog Millionaire has been so striking.

What makes Slumdog Millionaire so different?
• An Indian property – an Indian novel, Q & A, written in English by Vikas Swarup;
• A UK production company, Film 4, and its partner, Celador, the owner of the rights to the TV format at the centre of the novel, WWTBAM;
• A UK scriptwriter, Simon Beaufoy and UK director Danny Boyle
• Indian musical composer, A R Rahman
• UK dept heads and Indian crew
• One UK actor plus stars of Bollywood and parallel cinema plus non-professional actors
• An Indian shoot and shared post-production India/UK
• A Hollywood studio as North American distributor via its specialist label
• A British/French distributor in the UK
• An Indian subsidiary of a Hollywood studio (Warners) as distributor in India
• Appearances at international film festivals, culminating in awards in the US and UK
• Given a budget of either $10 million or £10 million (sources vary), Slumdog has been a major commercial success. As of 3/3/09 box office grosses were as follows:
US $100 million; UK $37 million; after these, the biggest markets have been France, Australia, Italy, Spain; India (Hindi) $2.6 million; India (English) $3.4 million.
Note that the film has not been a big hit in Hindi markets, but has done very well in English language markets (don’t forget it is still a third Hindi in the English prints). Since tickets for Hindi halls are generally likely to be lower priced than the English language screens, it still means a sizeable audience of around 8-10 million Indians (plus pirated DVD viewings etc.).

Cinema in India
There are many myths about Indian Cinema, not least the confusion between Hindi Cinema, Bollywood and Indian Cinema generally.

• There are around 800-1000 films produced each year in India.
• The largest number of films are produced in the four South Indian languages of Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. These four regional industries account for more than half of all Indian films.
• The highest profile films with the most promotion and usually the biggest box office (by revenue) are the 200 or so Bollywood films made in Hindi.
• The remaining 200 films are produced in other so-called ‘regional’ languages, including Bengali, Marathi, Bhojpuri etc.
• Some of the films made in Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam plus occasional Tamil and Telugu films and several made in English are classified as artfilms, specialised films or ‘Parallel Cinema’.
• Bollywood film producers increasingly export films to the diaspora of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) in the UK and North America as well as Africa and other parts of Asia. Other Indian film industries also export films, especially the Tamil industry to Malaysia, Singapore and again to the UK and North America.
• Indian cinemas in most major cities play films in several languages – usually Hindi, English and the regional language.
• Slumdog Millionaire was released in English and Hindi versions. American films such as March of the Penguins have also been dubbed into Telugu and Tamil.
• What makes Slumdog unique is that its typical Danny Boyle style was influenced by several Indian film industry characteristics including Parallel Cinema and South Indian films as well as Bollywood.

Slumdog style
Danny Boyle built up a reputation, largely based on his successful British pictures (Shallow Grave (1995), Trainspotting (1996) and 28 Days Later (2002)), for stylised cinematography and fast cutting. A feature of his work has been partnerships with cinematographers and editors prepared to work in his style (much of which recently has been developed using digital cameras). Anthony Dod Mantle, Director of Photography on Slumdog was with Boyle when he experimented with early digital cameras on UK television films in 2001. Mantle was also a major player in the so-called Dogme movement starting in Denmark with Festen in 1998.

A distinctive UK/Danish approach was adapted on the Slumdog shoot after Boyle had studied a range of Indian filmmaking styles. These included Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (all of her Indian films in fact) and Aamir Khan’s films as actor and director and Ram Gopal Varma.

Slumdog and Reception Studies
Slumdog has quickly become one of the most discussed films of recent times. This is perhaps less to do with the film in terms of its narrative (although audiences seem genuinely entertained by its ideas and their presentation) and more to do with its status as a cultural object. The critical and industry discussion of the film started as soon as it was released in the US in December and at the time of its UK release in late January this intensified into a debate in the press and the media more generally. This in turn was revived and extended at the time of the 8 Oscar triumph in February. At the same time, the film created a mixed response in India (again affected by Oscar success with some Indian commentators caught between wanting to condemn the film for being ‘not Indian enough’, but at the same time wanting to celebrate Oscar success for A R Rahman (twice) and sound recordist Resul Pookutty.

Range of debates around the film which make it a candidate for a global or possibly ‘globalising’ product. One focuses on ideas about realism – is the film denigrating India by showing the reality of poverty or denigrating it by offering a ‘Western view, a tourist’s view rather than a realist view? These are mutually exclusive arguments frequently presented.

A second argument surrounds the extent to which the film draws on existing Indian Cinema (in all its manifestations) and mixes it with Western styles. This is my position, but others argue forcibly against it. Much depends of course on the width of viewing experience of the critic. It is worth remembering that some Indian commentators may not watch any other Indian films outside of Bollywood. The extent of the release in both English and Hindi versions of the film is important, as is the success of the soundtrack album in reaching a wider Indian audience.
• What kinds of audience behaviour and consumption are increasingly global?
• What are the arguments for and against global media, in relation to content, access, representation and identity?
I would contend that Indian cinema audiences are moving towards a mode of cinemagoing that is more closely aligned to that of North America, Europe and East Asia, i.e. through the new-build multiplexes, now with digital projection. However, there is a distinct divide between the poor and the new middle class and between the rural and urban audiences. There are thousands of traditional cinemas in India in which audience behaviour will be much slower to change (see Indian research into audience behaviour quoted in Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry, 2007: 158). At the same time, satellite TV (often pirated), VCDs and DVDs (also pirated) may be supplying poorer audiences with greater access to films (as well as ‘World Cinema’ to upmarket audiences).

Is this a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’? Cultural imperialism? Hollywood is approaching the newly emergent Indian media conglomerates with rapidity, but also some trepidation. (DreamWorks was effectively bought by the Indian major, Reliance, not the other way round.) In an Indian context, issues over identity may be played out much more in a Hindi v Tamil/Telugu stand-off or fears that a ‘globalised’ and unified Indian national identity might threaten as a regional power to overwhelm Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Other aspect of debate - is the role of the Non Resident Indian audience in the UK. To a large extent, Bollywood films in the UK are still playing to a ‘diasporic (i.e. Indians living in the UK) audience’. Both Hollywood and Bollywood seek that potential crossover hit – an Indian produced film that attracts a general UK and US audience. Slumdog is arguably nearer to that goal than the Hollywood co-produced Indian films so far released.

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