‘Slumdog Millionaire’ success: Yes, it was written

By Dipankar De Sarkar,IANS,

London : “Slumdog Millionaire”, the India-themed film that swept the 81st Academy Awards, almost ended up not being made as a movie.

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So, how did it do it?

A. The filmmakers cheated

B. They got lucky

C. It’s a work of genius

D. It is written

As the ‘Slumdog family’ – all 50 of them – turned up at the glamorous Oscars ceremony in the style of, well, an extended Indian family, they would have known that they almost didn’t make it at all.

The film was made for $13 million – a tenth of the production cost of its Hollywood rival “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

It had none of the publicity budget of its fellow-nominees: just flying “Benjamin Button” star Brad Pitt around the world cost its producers nearly as much as the entire primary shooting budget of “Slumdog…”.

There wasn’t even a recognisable star for non-Indian audiences – no Sean Penn or Angelina Jolie here.

Instead, “Slumdog…” had Dev Patel, a lanky, slightly geeky-looking lad from the Indian-inhabited London suburb of Harrow as its male lead. And Freida Pinto, a Mumbai model in her first movie role, was picked to play his love interest.

The film was based on a book written by a part-time writer – Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who made the best use of his free evenings to come up with “Q & A”.

Finally, a quarter of the movie is in Hindi.

If there was one movie that was destined not to sweep the Oscars, surely it was “Slumdog Millionaire”.

When British producer Paul Smith was sent a copy of ‘Q&A’ by author Swarup’s agent Peter Buckman, he noticed that it had come with a note informing him that the movie rights had been sold to Film 4.

Smith, the man behind the British production company best known for the hit television quiz show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, wasn’t entirely pleased.

“I said, ‘Peter, you’re an ass’,” Smith recalls now. “If Film 4 or anybody wants to incorporate Millionaire into a movie they have to seek my permission and I would be inclined not to give it.”

Smith, who had been involved in producing the movie “Dirty Pretty Things” on a shoestring budget, later thought: “That was fun and we made some money – shall we do it again?”

That hurdle crossed, the odds still seemed stacked against “Slumdog…”. Distributors Warner Independent, an arm of Time Warner, folded up in May 2008, leaving the film’s hapless producers considering the graveyard option of making a direct-to-DVD movie without a full cinema release.

But just when it looked like curtains for “Slumdog…”, up stepped Fox Searchlight – a tiny arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. known to back the small boys – with an offer to distribute.

Warner Independent, which had put in $5 million to distribute “Slumdog…” in North America, thought the film could be sold to small Indian-origin communities in the US and Canada, as well as art-house theatergoers, and hoped to gross $12 million to $16 million.

With the eight Oscar wins, it is now expected to make twice that amount.

“Slumdog Millionaire” begins with its underdog-hero Jamal Malik one question away from winning 20 million Rupees in a TV quiz show. The movie asks, “How did he do it?”

A. He cheated

B. He is lucky

C. He is a genius

D. It is written

As the movie ends in the happy reunion of Jamal and Latika, the woman he loves, it answers: “D. It is written”.

With Sunday night’s success, life imitated art in spectacular fashion.