Commentary: 'Slumdog' crew took to the streets of Mumbai


You'd think that because Bollywood has a bigger film and television industry than Hollywood, shooting Danny Boyle's Mumbai-set rags-to-rupees tale "Slumdog Millionaire" would have been a walk in the Taj Mahal. After all, the filmmakers would be able to take advantage of a massive infrastructure that churns out more than 900 films a year, many of them fancy spectacles as shiny as a classic MGM musical.

But Boyle, producer Christian Colson and a crew headed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle didn't shoot their adaptation of the unpublished novel on soundstages. For authenticity purposes, they took their production to a place unheard of in Indian film production: the streets.

"Bollywood does not film on the streets," Colson says. "It knows better than to do that."

Mumbai, with a metropolitan population of more than 19 million, is a teeming mass of humanity piled on top of one another in ways that are vibrant and inspiring as well as soul-sapping and disconcerting. The production discovered that some days, traveling a distance of three miles to a location took -- no joke -- three hours. During some shots, Dod Mantle found himself separated from Boyle by dozens of people even though the director was only a dozen feet away.

"It was bonkers," Dod Mantle recalls about the constant crush of flesh.

The city and country are no longer just about Gandhi and cricket but rather are examples of capitalistic growth on crack. A location chosen six months earlier during preproduction could be the site of a sparkling new tower by the time the film crew arrived.

Some of the more challenging shoots took place in the city's infamous mega-slum Dharavi and the shantytown known as the Juhu slum. "Slumdog," which Fox Searchlight will release Nov. 12 in the U.S., used production service outfit India Take One Prods. to help negotiate access to locations, but in the slums, a certain amount of finesse was involved.

"You tell the relevant authorities in these communities what you're doing, reassuring them you are not doing anything bad or exploitative, and they kind of make sure nothing bad happens to you," Colson says.

Even with approval, the production was keen on keeping intrusion to a minimum and used multiple cameras to make that happen. Because walking around with a photographic camera was more accepted than a movie camera, Dod Mantle sometimes used a Canon Cam -- a high-res stills camera that can shoot up to 12 frames a second -- for scenes that required a heightened sensibility. He also used the SI-2K, a tiny digital camera he could hold the lens of in the palm of one hand and a minuscule monitor in the other; wires went up his sleeve and into a backpack carrying a hard drive.

"It was incredibly inconspicuous," Colson says.

But if you think Boyle was running with a skeleton crew, think again. "Slumdog" quickly discovered the Indian version of movie insurance: per orders, every lens, every light, every piece of equipment came with one or more guards who would lie on mats and keep an eye on the assigned gear.

"In Mumbai, you don't get insurance, you get six guards to guard your camera," Colson says. "With that kind of setup, it's hard to keep your crew small."

The production shot in dozens of locations around the city, including several nights at the historic Victoria Terminus train station, making the most of the time between the last train leaving at night and the first one departing the next morning. And yes, it was even granted access to the Taj Mahal.

But it was the slums that had perhaps the most impact on the crew, who stayed at the secure and luxurious Marriott, then were driven to the slums for a 15-hour work day, then shuttled back for a good night's rest.

The contrast did not escape the filmmakers. Dod Mantle still recalls the excrement, the smell and the often oppressive heat and humidity as his hands worked with cables and wiring on the ground.

"You know that you will come out of it. The people there will not," he says. "They will be born there and never leave. At least you will be leaving and getting out. It reminded me of how lucky we are and how complicated the planet is."