Danny Boyle Looks Back on the Kids and Controversy of 'Slumdog Millionaire' (Q&A)
The director, who visits his young actors once a year in India, says he looked to "Harry Potter" as a shining example of how movie stardom doesn't need to ruin children's lives.
The formidable task of tracking down the six child stars of Slumdog Millionaire for The Hollywood Reporter's Oscars Issue would have been impossible without the cooperation of Danny Boyle. The director of the enchanting film -- which went on to gross $378 million worldwide and win eight Oscars -- helped facilitate the involvement of Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, the two children from the poorest of backgrounds. Natural talents discovered by Boyle when they were 9 years old and living in the slums of Mumbai, their difficult transition back to civilian life would later become the target of much controversy. Through his Jai Ho Trust, Boyle has ensured that Ali and Ismail are given education and housing and are provided for financially. But as we learned in this revealing conversation, it has been an ongoing challenge for the pair to fully escape their difficult pasts.
How are Rubina and Azharuddin faring these days?
We sent them to a wonderful school. They’re called the Aseema Schools, which are run by these women who take over abandoned state schools and offer a wonderful education, really. They’re benefiting hugely, but could benefit more by improving their attendance. [Slumdog producer Christian Colson and I] go to Mumbai at least once a year. We strongly believe that the fairytale stuff can come true for them, but comes true through years of education.
Are they anything like regular teens?
They’re bright kids -- she’s a very bright girl. And it's tough for a young girl from that kind of background. They’ve learned to speak English, which they couldn’t do when we were shooting and that will benefit them in terms of [future] opportunities. And we have provisions made for them to help them [when they graduate] as well, which we can't tell them, because her father will mortgage it off to some gangster.
To call it a hard road for those two would be an extreme understatement.
Azhar’s father died of tuberculosis quite soon after the movie was made, and Rubina’s father also caught it. It just shows you -- it’s part of their lives. We can hold the White Death at a distance, but it’s always there hovering around. Yours is a celebratory piece as I understand it, but it’s important to understand that it's complicated. We're very proud of them for making the best of their education.
You've also relocated them out of the slums and into apartments in better districts. How has that worked out?
We did this actually before the film was a huge hit. It made it easier in one sense -- the financial sense -- once the film was a hit, but more difficult in terms of application, because of the spotlight that was on them and the unrealistic expectations that were placed in the minds of parents that saw an opportunity to make money. You want that to benefit their children in a long-term way rather than just the excitement of the moment and indulgence. So we, yes, we got them apartments. It's very, very difficult to take people out of their backgrounds, even if their background is appalling to a Western eye. They don’t really want to move, you know? And then it gets all sorts of complicated.
Had you foreseen all of the difficulties and backlash that came with casting Rubina and Azhar?
No. We were certainly aware that we would have to make some provisions. There are some very good examples out there of productions that have taken very good care of their kids. Harry Potter is the most extraordinary example of them. How that guy [producer David Heyman] kept those three kids sane, the parents in the infrastructure over that extended period of time, with that kind of spotlight on that? Extraordinary. So there are lots of good examples out there and we tried to follow that to make sure that there were provisions for them, whatever happened to the film. Then it was just a case of trying to settle them back down in a hyper-intense country in terms of media attention, because it’s a marathon, obviously, life. We’re very proud of them.
And the other four, who weren't from poor families? How did things turn out for them?
The others are doing brilliantly. Tanay [Chheda], who played the teen version of Dev Patel's character, [Jamal] is going to be a filmmaker, I think. He’s a very bright kid. He’s off making movies. I see him occasionally in New York. And the weird thing is he’s six-foot-tall now. You have an image of them and then they shoot up! We’re off to [Mumbai to] see the others in March. We’ll catch up to them then. Now they might have the opportunity to make their own decisions about what they want to do and want they want to be and lift themselves, really, and that will be a wonderful legacy of that whole extraordinary journey we went on together.
How many kids did you look at before deciding on these six?
Jesus, lots of kids. You're looking for a certain quality, and what was particularly difficult about this was that because they were three different ages, they sort of had to make sense growing up into each other. So we saw lots of kids -- don't take me back there! Lotta, lotta, lotta kids.
When did you decide to look in the slums for some of your actors?
Initially we were going to do the whole of the film in English. But you quickly discover that you are excluding a whole raft of people who are the subjects of the film, which are slum kids, because they don’t speak English. [The slums are] an amazing place. They’re so full of energy and life. They’re appalling in one sense -- the sanitation and the crowding -- but my God, they’re exciting. I mean New York’s a bit like that, just 100 years ago. That’s the pattern of New York, which is that it’s sort of sophisticated, but it’s rat-overrun and this massive, overwhelming population is dictating what the city is like. And that’s what the slums are like. Attempts to clear the slums are not all successful, of course. They provide housing out of Mumbai and when you raze slums huge riots happen and people want to move back. You can understand why -- it may be poor, but you feel like you're at the center of things. And the dignity of the people is that their own dwellings are spotless, and it’s an outdoor life anyway because of the climate.
What are your memories of the madness and exuberance of the 2009 Oscars?
Fox Searchlight were amazing, bringing everybody there. Because that’s not an investment in success -- the decision whether we were going to get the Oscar or not had already been made by then. But it was an acknowledgement that this thing had become bigger than the film itself. Some of the kids don’t even know their birth dates, so getting them a passport was a nightmare! But they did it and got them all there so they were able to have a wild night. It’s something you hope that they will remember with great affection and also helped them carve a path for themselves.
You're currently at work on a sequel to Trainspotting. Would you ever consider doing a Slumdog sequel?
(Laughs.) It was an amazing experience, I have to say. Having Simon [Beaufoy], who wrote the script, and then Christian Colson and I adventure there in setting it up, the crew and cast -- it was a fantastic adventure. Whether you get to repeat anything like that in any shape or form, I don't know if you’d be lucky enough. But if you do, you’d be a very fortunate man.