Monday, February 23, 2009
Danny Boyle told TIME Magazine that he had a whole line-up of picture perfect male Indian actors recommended for the lead role – and lots of pressure to cast a young man from the subcontinent to portray the nineteen-year-old Jamal K. Malik. But to everyone’s surprise, Boyle went with his gut instinct. He chose a Brit. Boyle was asked, “Why didn’t you go for a Mumbai lad?”
Here’s the director’s reply –
We did. I saw a lot of very talented guys, and the problem I had is that they all looked like heroes-in-waiting. I wanted somebody who looked like a loser. My daughter said, “You want a loser? You should see this guy in this TV show Skins in the U.K.” We auditioned him a few times, and he earned the right to play the part.
It’s a curious thing to think about. Boyle certainly didn’t go with the loser look when he selected Frieda Pinto to play Lakita, Jamal’s childhood pal and then love interest. But Boyle’s instincts for the leading man were spot on. In casting Dev Patel, he gave the story credibility. The young boy who grew up a Muslim in the rank slums of Mumbai endures unspeakable abuse, all the way up to the night before he hits the colossal jackpot. The question that looms over the entire film is this: how could a street kid who grew up in the cruel poverty-ridden neighborhoods and gutters of Dharavi answer the obscure multiple choice questions of the nation’s favorite game show correctly? Was he a cheat? A genius? Or was it destiny?
If the leading man had looked like Hollywood’s – or Bollywood’s – ideal young male Boyle explains, there would be something lost in the translation. Patel’s Jamal appears to be the shy, quiet sort who is more comfortable hanging in the back of the room and deferring to someone else than advancing to take the lead. But behind the reserve – the hesitation, the thoughtful pause – is a lightening quick, street-smart mind ready to take on anyone. He knows what he wants. He engages the opposition – ranging from a human trafficker, to an American tourist, to a brutal inquisitor, to a game show host. Every encounter is a poker game. No one can be trusted. Assume they are lying. And somewhere in the cool intelligence of an ordinary guy the wheels turn, the hand is dealt, the cards are played, and he trumps them all. He even wins the pretty girl.
The movie earns its rating from the language and intense scenes that depict life in the underworld of India’s overcrowded, underdeveloped cities. It is a superb piece of story-telling. There are four or five story lines running in parallel, from beginning to end. And you are never quite certain where it’s going. A timid young man, groomed enough, appears on the stage of a televised game show stage that looks like the Indian version of So Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? meets American Idol. If he answers the questions correctly, he moves to the next level. As he makes his way up the ladder, the show’s ratings skyrocket. The whole nation tunes in. But early on in the film, we see the same young male contestant in a sweltering back office interrogated by a couple of thugs. They rough him up. Berate him. Humiliate him. Why? What’s going on? We won’t know until the end. We care about this kid. He may look like a loser, crooked nose and oversized ears, but we’re rooting for him from the start.
On Wednesday, I get on an airplane with twelve others, and we’ll fly to Dubai and on to Hyderabad in the state of Andrha Pradesh, India. We’ll meet some of the people who are very much like those portrayed in the film that perhaps this weekend will be celebrated as Movie of the Year – Best Film. The Oscar buzz permeates the media; all around this little independent film that no one expected would strike such a resonant chord in post-economic-collapse America. But did.
We will greet some of those children who grew up in the slums of Indian cities. We’ll meet some of the people who believe that discarded children are fearfully and wonderfully made and deserve an education, good nutrition, affection and love. We will be a witness to a graduation ceremony in which a collection of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds will be recognized for their achievement and launched to new opportunities that would never had been possible if not for the school built by folks who cared enough to give.
I’ll be gone for ten days. I’m preparing myself for deep transformation. I fully expect that my life will be marked in powerful ways.
It’s Monday morning. We are leaders. They keep telling us – it’s getting worse. It will take a long time. There is plenty of fear and gloom out there.
I’ve been listening to a new (to me) young preacher named Francis Chan. He seems to be a voice designed for this post-Wall-Street world of hours. He talks about community. The dangers of material abundance. The pulsating and beckoning life of the city. His passion permeates his story-telling – it’s a passion for authenticity. For connecting with the heart of Jesus, who said “blessed are the poor.” Poor in currency. Poor in spirit. And there’s plenty of that all around these days.
And out of the poverty, God gives life, declares Pastor Chan.
The ordinary slumdog who is now a major motion picture star maybe typifies something that goes beyond Hollywood glitz. He was a loser. But he endured.
And in the end, he dances.
Care to join me?
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009