How to write Slumdog Millionaire


Simon Beaufoy is the writer of Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty and The Darkest Light, which he co-directed and I loved, although I think I’m the only person who did. He’s one of our most passionate and committed writers, and has a rare ability to tell highly political stories without sacrificing character and story to polemic. From a terrific recent interview, here are five points that particularly stand out:

  1. I always think [The Full Monty] is only as funny as it is because it’s as sad as it is. And I think you need both poles to be working really well, to make that switch between funny and serious work. You need to kind of extend yourself at both ends.
  2. I always start from character, partly because of my documentary roots. It’s the people that interest me first, then the place, then the story. And they obviously all intertwine, but the place is key to everything I do really.
  3. An old documentary question that I was taught which has been the most helpful thing I’ve ever learnt was to ask people: If you had a camera what would you make a film about? And you get very interesting answers back. Jamal’s backstory [in Slumdog] isn’t from the novel but from stories that people told me in the slums.
  4. The crazier your idea the lower the budget. It’s really, really simple. When we first budgeted Slumdog Millionaire – which is with hindsight not a crazy idea, but at the time everyone thought was an absolutely crazy idea – we had subtitles, it was set in a weird place, it had torture scenes in followed by dance scenes… It seemed like a very unlikely scenario. We originally budgeted it at about twenty million dollars, and no one would touch it. It was a crazy idea that was too expensive. You cut five million dollars off that and suddenly people were going all right, it’s a crazy idea but it’s not so expensive, so it’s within our parameters of possibility here.
  5. I’ve done a few book adaptations, and what I tell the author every time is that I will change everything but the soul of it. And if I keep the soul of it the same then I feel I’ve done a faithful adaptation of their book. If you do a literal adaptation of a book I think you’re destined to fail. If you do a faithful sort of transliteration from book to screen, they’re nearly always a disaster. You have to take what the book’s really about, throw the rest away and rebuild it into something else.


Slumdog Millionaire


I’ll never forget coming out of the cinema after seeing Shallow Grave and thinking: “At last! A British movie to be proud of!” Danny Boyle’s debut feature was the first in a string of bold, confident movies that have spanned different writers, actors and genres but have maintained a number of very un-British attributes: they’re fast-paced, thrillingly-scored, beautiful to look at, unashamedly emotional and — with a few exceptions — loved by audiences worldwide. There are also a number of recurring tropes: urban chases, unexpected windfalls, sinister authority figures and bodily fluids, all of which make Slumdog a virtual Now That’s What I Call Danny Boyle.

Most British critics of the movie have seemed somewhat grudging in their praise: The Guardian called it “wildly silly but perfectly watchable”, while The Independent said, “I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but it’s a great audience movie”, as if the two are somehow incompatible. But here’s what I think they’re saying: it made them cry. Most British critics seems to have a horror of admitting the emotional power of art, whether in the gallery, the cinema or even on television. They’re happy to tell you the theme of the piece, to analyse the acting or to pull the script apart, but God forbid that they should tell you it affected them somehow. This is not, of course, anything particularly new: Dickens was dismissed as sentimental by many critics of the time. But it is unhelpful, and it inhibits a proper response to the work.

Because Slumdog Millionaire is pure emotion. As its writer, Simon Beaufoy, says: ‘Something strange [was] happening to my writing. The usual, mealy-mouthed English nuance and subtext [was] being replaced by something bordering on melodrama. What use subtext in a city of such total extremes? Nuance doesn’t stand a chance in the car horn symphony of a Mumbai traffic jam … Tonally it really shouldn’t work. In any other city in the world, I suspect it wouldn’t work. But in Mumbai, not for nothing known as Maximum City, somehow I [got] away with it.” Slumdog gets away with it triumphantly. Moving effortlessly from pathos to horror, from slapstick to shock, the film is a slap in the face to the stiff upper lip; I heard the audience I saw it with laughing, sobbing, gasping with suspense. 

But the film delivers on an intellectual level too. At its heart are two love stories: between Jamal and his brother Salim, and Jamal and his sweetheart Latika. Jamal and Salim represent two opposing approaches to the world: Salim’s is “take care of the money and the rest will follow”, whereas Jamal’s is “love will conquer all”. While no-one familiar with Boyle’s work will be surprised by the outcome, the story is more nuanced than this might suggest. There’s no romance to poverty in Slumdog Millionaire, and you’re left in no doubt about the brutality of life in the slums. But ultimately, absolutely, it’s uplifting, a hard-won happy ending that’s satisfying, bittersweet and — yes — made me cry.