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The Rediff Interview
From Full Monty to Slumdog Millionaire
Arthur J Pais | September 22, 2008
Simon Beaufoy, a writer and an occasional director, came to prominence as the writer of the hugely successful comedy of working-class life, The Full Monty. The film, about the lives of men in the United Kingdom forced to work as strippers when they lose their jobs, released in 1997 became a worldwide hit and led to a smash box-office hit on Broadway.
He also wrote yet another story of the underdogs adapted from Vikas Swarup's first novel Q and A. The movie titled Slumdog Millionaire began generating the Oscar buzz at the recent Toronto International Film Festival and was voted by the public as the best feature film at the annual event. It was chosen out of some 260 feature films from more than 60 countries.
The movie about a slum kid who is about to become the champion millionaire in a quiz show was shot in Mumbai and much of it in the city's slums. It was directed by Donny Boyle, a well-known and successful British director (28 Days Later, Trainspotting)
He is also the author of the acclaimed but little seen TV film Yasmin about a young Muslim woman (Archie Punjabi) who campaigns for the release of her immigrant husband from his detainment in a British holding centre. The film shown in 2004 is one of his movies he holds close to his heart.
How did you prepare to write this script?
I knew right at the beginning I was not going to take a deep look at the novel and distill from it. I wanted first hand experience of something of the life in Mumbai. So I decided to spend many weeks in the city.
When did you start working on the script?
Nearly three years ago. It was much before (director) Danny Boyle was attached to the project.
Had you been to India before?
Yes, to a very different India. I had been to India more than 20 years ago and was surprised to find some traces of the colonial period in the big cities. What I saw this time stunned me. I don't think people in the West are fully aware of what is going on in India and China. True, there is tremendous amount of poverty in India but perhaps the way things are changing could make us think about where India could do. Some times I feel that the West's days of being a dominant power in the world is finished.
Why did you think that your script would not be really ready if you have not experienced India?
I wanted to convey the atmosphere, the mood, the language of the slums as well as the urban India. I did not want the film to be a piece of tourism. I could have written the script completely relying on the novel. But that is not how I work and that is not how I was trained to work. I remembered when I was writing Yasmin, about a few Muslim women from the Indian subcontinent living in London [Images] in a 9/11 world, I spent many days talking and listening to the women. And they nudged me into choosing the stories for my screenplay. So it had become very clear to me long ago that I could not do justice to a contemporary story unless I checked out the real world where the story is set.
How did you go about doing it for this film?
I spent many days in the slums near Juhu in Mumbai, and with the help of the translators, I followed what people talked about the celebrities, how they negotiated their day to day challenges and crises, how they cursed.
Were they surprised to see you spending so many days there?
Many people in the West have this 'Oh poor them attitude about people living in the slums. I found many slum dwellers were ready to fight for their lives and they were ready to demand their rights. I went to the slums with an open mind. Some of them would ask me where I was from, and I would say, I am from London. They sort of gave me a look, asking where is London? I was a bit surprised by it and soon I wasn't surprised at all
And why was that?
I soon realized that India is so vast and the world around them is so interesting that some of them were not curious about other countries and cities like London. These people did not care for Julia Roberts [Images] or Harrison Ford. They have their Amitabh [Images] Bachchans and Shah Rukh [Images] Khans.
I am made of different attitudes. I was trained in England [Images] in the tradition of naturalistic cinema. I don't go around travelling looking for glamour.
What is the biggest discovery you made in Mumbai?
Mumbai is the modern version of Dickensian London. It would be a city that would delight any modern day Charles Dickens. It offers hundreds of stories of ugliness and beauty, stories of kindness and stories of hope and triumph.
Director Danny Boyle says he is tempted to make another film in Mumbai, and it could be a thriller.
(Chuckles). I can say this much for what Mumbai offers a writer. It gives someone like me access to the extreme level of storytelling that you get in Dickens. You get humour and tragedy and squalor and all those things packed in a very small space.
In a very small place?
Even though Mumbai is a big and sprawling city, it offers you many small places (localities) that encompass the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and hope, and great contrasts in lifestyles and attitudes.
When you look back at the whole process of researching and writing the script and now that you have seen the completed the film, what do you think most of your experience?
I wonder if I could have been able to make this kind of story work had I not set in India and in Mumbai in particular. If I had set this story in another country, especially in the West, people would have thought I was crazy and they would have laughed me off.
Why would they have laughed you off?
Look, this is operatic way of telling a story. It has larger than life characters and they have very powerful emotions. And they sing and dance. It is okay to make this kind of operatic film because it is set in India where it is okay to be intense.
Modernism has been telling us that we are too sophisticated for this kind of unembarassingly romantic cinema. But I am sure the audiences worldwide will respond to this film very well. They will have an idea that India of course is larger than life and so is the story of this film.
What was your biggest challenge in adapting the novel, Q and A?
It is a book with many sub plots and a lot of history. I wanted to tell a powerful but lean story, and that means choosing carefully episodes from the book.
What was your first reaction when you were offered this project?
I did not want the film to be about a slum kid who becomes a millionaire and drives away in a Bentley. I wanted to look deeply into the circumstances of his young life and how he had been shaped by them. I was also reminded of what I had said when Full Monty came to me many years ago.
Full Monty remains your best known film till now. What did you tell the film's producers when the project was offered to you?
I had said that I was not interested in writing a film about men who stripped before an audience. I wanted to examine the situations in their lives that made them strippers and doing that was more important to me than writing a sensational story.
What is the biggest change you made while adapting the novel, Q and A?
It is not just that what I kept out. I added the love story between the slum kids and love story continues right into the film's climate.
Why was this important?
I thought, how can we make a film set in India that has no love story (chuckles).
Did (director) Boyle ask for many changes when he came on board?
No. But he made an important suggestion. I had the whiz kid arrested soon after he becomes the champion. And he is accused of cheating in the contest. Danny said, why don't you have him arrested a bit earlier, and create some more tension. And I did so. It (the change) looks very good on the screen.
Did you any see Hindi films in Mumbai?
Many. Don't ask me for their titles right now. I saw them in the theatres, on these big screens with hundreds of people around me. Of course, I had seen a few Bollywood films on TV and they did not make much of an impact on me. I had asked myself while watching those films in London, what are these people singing and dancing about? But on the big screen, everything looked beautiful and powerful. And I could see the reaction of the audience. Suddenly, these films began to make sense to me.
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