As he was dropping me at the Varsity Theatre in Toronto, the cab driver asked me what film I was going to see at 8 am. I said it was Slumdog Millionaire.
"And it starts at 8 in the morning?" he asked. "What kind of a film is it?"
I told him that the press show would start at nine.
"You are crazy," he said, in a good way. "Why are you here so early then? You don't have to buy tickets for the press shows.'
I said it is not uncommon for journalists to turn up early for a much discussed film at the film festival -- in this case, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). By the time I reached, there were already more than 100 people in the line. By the time the film started, every seat at the 580-seat theatre was taken, and there were more than 50 reporters waiting outside. They were hoping to grab a seat in case people walked out a few minutes after the film started (not an unusual occurrence at the film festivals that screen half a dozen films simultaneously starting around 9 am).
But there were no walkouts, and the film -- about a teenager from the slums, who becomes a champion of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and immaterially arouses the suspicion of a police inspector -- received a rapturous applause. Twice.
Oscar buzz for the film, which has an all-Indian cast led by Anil Kapoor, has already started.
'Fox Searchlight will try to mount another derby ambush like it did over the previous two years with those crowd-cheering indies Little Miss Sunshine and Juno,' The Hollywood Reporter wrote. 'Upon wild audience huzzahs to Slumdog Millionaire at the Telluride Film Festival where the film opened before coming to Toronto, the studio is excited about this tale. It is planning 'an elaborate campaign for the smart but feel good dramedy.''
Veteran festival-goers know too well that the critics and reporters at the major film festival are often very touchy about applauding a film, and just about 10 percent of the more than 250 feature films shown at the Toronto International Film Festival get the kind of ovation from the press that the Boyle directed comic drama Slumdog Millionaire received.
Some of the reporters had come to see the film because they were the admirers of Boyle's trendy hits Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Some had read about the new film and had been surprised that the London-based filmmaker had made the film entirely in India, with seasoned and new artistes. And that the film was based on a well-known novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup that was published in the West over two years ago.
Anil Kapoor -- in a career rejuvenating performance -- plays the manipulating and egotistical host of the millionaire television show in the new film and Irrfan Khan, the police investigator, who wants to know if the slum boy is cheating in the competition.
The film is often gritty and violent but the story of two boys and a girl, who are orphaned in the Bombay riots and who look out for each other (at least for most part), is full of heart wrenching moments and ends on a life affirming note. The theme song of the film, composed by A R Rahman and sung by Sukhvinder Singh, is one of the film's highlights. It is used, for the second time in the film, at the very end when the newly minted millionaire (a brilliant Dev Patel) and his newly reunited girlfriend (newcomer Freida Pinto) are joined by dozens of children in a glorious dance number. The film uses Hindi extensively but about half of the dialogue and comments are in English.
The movie also uses a new song from M I A, who grew up in London after living in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu with her mother fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Boyle has said she was a 'gift' to the film's soundtrack.
The film, one of the most popular movies at TIFF, opens in North America in November but it will be going to a number of film festivals before that. It will be the closing film at the London Film Festival. Boyle will be appearing at the festival to introduce the film, and give a career interview as part of the LFF's Screen Talks series.
At the public screenings of the film in Toronto, many people in the audience were cheering the film. It surely is one of the most popular films shown in the festival. Ecstatic reviews have already appeared in such trade publications as Screen International.
Fox Channel had a special note about the film which will be released in North America through Fox Searchlight. 'Believe it or not, a famous game show figures in another potential Oscar film for 2009,' the commentary said. 'Danny Boyle's stunning India-based film, Slumdog Millionaire is so sensational that the audience was hooting and hollering 'Bravo' on its Toronto premiere. Simon Beaufoy has constructed a beautiful story, using the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as a story hook.'
Boyle, who is in his early 50s, said at a press conference that while he was determined to cast Slumdog Millionaire in India, he could not find the right 'loser' for the leading role.
"We just couldn't find anybody. The guys there just didn't have the feel of being a loser really," said the director, who has been hearing stories about India from his childhood from his soldier father, and who was briefly stationed in India over six decades ago.
He then chose Dev Patel, a young actor from London, known for his role on the popular and controversial British TV series Skins which has a big following in America and Australia, too.
As he faces the questions from the host (Anil Kapoor), the flashbacks take us to the tumultuous growing years for the whiz kid and his buddies. The film reveals how he came to know the answers and how he rose from being an underdog to a near celebrity.
"I love the underdog idea," said Boyle. He feels though his new film is set in a very different milieu from the one seen in his other films, it has an universal appeal. "Here is a young man you can root for, believe in and belong to as he chases this dream," Boyle added.
The film's appeal is enhanced by the quality of the performances by the newcomers. 'A cast of incredibly talented young people including newcomers Dev Patel and the shining beauty Freida Pinto,' wrote Roger Friedman of Fox News. 'Neither of these kids has made a movie before or been to the United States. All of that is about to change. Handled properly, Slumdog could be the surprise of this film season. It's ebullient and moving, while at the same time quite thrilling.'
Slumdog was shot in Mumbai in the slums, train stations and posh buildings, and screenwriter Beaufoy (the Oscar nominated winner for The Full Monty') said his script used the location to recall the kind of bustling city life once depicted by Charles Dickens in such novels as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
'Mumbai is the modern version of Dickensian London,' he told Canadian Press. 'It gives a writer 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.'