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The filmmaker Danny Boyle encountered a novel and screenplay about a country he'd never seen, India.

Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Filmmaker): It's about this kid from the slums of Mumbai. He's not educated, he has nothing apparently, he's 18 years old.

INSKEEP: The main character is, in Indian parlance, a slumdog. But he's not going to stay that way. His ambition is what drives the movie that Danny Boyle made called "Slumdog Millionaire."

Mr. BOYLE: And he goes on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire."

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. BOYLE: And he wins it. He wins the top prize. And they can't believe how he's done it. So he gets arrested. The police torture him. They did all sorts of things to him.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Unidentified Man: Don't get clever. Or I'll get the electricity out again.

INSKEEP: The story unfolds as the slum kid named Jamal explains how he learned the quiz show answers during his amazing life. The British director of "Slumdog Millionaire" is known for the movie "Trainspotting." Now he's made a classic movie romance with a game show at its center. He also takes an excruciating look at India's overcrowded slums. And if it seems like two different movies, that reflects India as Danny Boyle found it.

Mr. BOYLE: When I started the film, I've never been to India. And of course, Steve, what's interesting about it is that you - what you're doing is you're not just finding out about a country. You're finding out about yourself as well.

INSKEEP: What is something that you saw that made you learn or look inside yourself?

Mr. BOYLE: Oh, my goodness, me. There's a terrible - I mean, in the film, tries to show some of them. There are extraordinary extremes there. Well, for instance, there's the deliberate maiming of people in order to make them better beggars, and that is - to a westerner, that is the moral horror that you feel when you look at that.

INSKEEP: All because a blind kid can get more money than a kid with sight.

Mr. BOYLE: Yeah, absolutely. But also there's extraordinary joy and spirit there. Everything's there all the time. And you have to live it all the time and accept it. It's linked to this idea of destiny there where you accept this whole spectrum and you have to find a way of balancing it within yourself, highs and lows, extraordinary actually what it does to you.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you how you dealt with one particular issue. You'd actually depict in the movie a couple of American tourists who were taken to see poor people and they're basically played for laughs, they're looking for the real India and they're obviously clueless about what that might be. Did you worry about being that sort of person yourself, coming to India for the first time and making a movie?

Mr. BOYLE: Oh, God. Yes. In a funny kind of way, you have to endure a bit of naivety. If you think about it too much, you wouldn't make the film because you're so unqualified to make it. But the thing that gets you off the hook in a way is how generous people are there. If you go in with the right attitude, and you trust people, they respect you for that and they begin to help you make the film really, and begin to introduce you to the film.

We're in the slums of Mumbai, one of the poorest places on earth and the people are just like people here. They're just trying to scrape enough together to make sure the kids get a bit of an education and get out of their background. It's an absolutely common trait that links so many nations whatever the differences you think that there are, you know.

INSKEEP: There's a great scene where the two brothers that you mentioned, the two Indian brothers who were trying to get out of the slums, Salim(ph) and Jamal, meet as young adults near the top of an unfinished skyscraper, in an area that used to be a slum. And they're looking around at all these new buildings and one of them says - Salim says, This is the center of the world now.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Unidentified Actor: (As Salim Malik) That used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh? We used to live right there, man. Now it's all business. India is at the center of the world of high(ph). And I, I am at the center of the center.

INSKEEP: You could have imagined them being up in the steel girdles of the Empire State Building under construction. You know, 70 or 80 years ago in the United States, in New York.

Mr. BOYLE: It was a bit like those amazing famous pictures of those workmen up at the top of those buildings I know. It is - it did remind me of that. It's a - the building, the city - it's just exploding. It's like Las Vegas or New York being built on the top of, you know, what was absolute abject poverty and the city is in fast forward. When you get there, you have to jump and start running with it. You know, you have this extraordinary contradictions which you just like that cannot be - he's like the fourth or fifth biggest nuclear power in the world and they don't have any public toilets for the people.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the public toilets, which is a sentiment I thought I'd never express on the radio but nevertheless, I've done it. Because in the movie, "Slumdog Millionaire," there was a scene early on in the film of public toilets there at the ends of little piers that go out into some kind of lake or pond and there's green plants growing out of the water. And what strikes me about this really basic grinding kind of awful scene, is that as you shoot it - like many things in the Indian slums - it's beautiful.

Mr. BOYLE: It's an amazingly seductive place. You have to - we tried to shoot the film with energy. And one of the reasons we chose that - there are all sorts of reasons you would do that obviously to make a film attractive and dynamic. But it also stops you being bewitched by India. You have to be very careful that you're not - you don't just gasp and go, oh, my God, look at that, you know, and hold the shots and wait and just look at this extraordinary mixture of colors and atmosphere.

The main issue, which is that these characters are - it's just part of their lives. They're just living their life and what matters to them is who they love, who they hate, what their ambitions are, you know, what their aims are, that's what matters in the film really, and you have to try to concentrate on that.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, when we follow these kids through the different episodes in their lives, we never have a sense of kids who were looking for a handout or looking for help as horrible as their circumstances are, jumping for a freight train, running away from gangsters, trying to not be mutilated.

Mr. BOYLE: The people there are so resourceful. And people were insistent that we didn't keep calling them poor. With incredibly limited resources, no running water and certainly no sanitation, they are leading incredibly descent, respectful, clean lives. And India, itself in a way, also, they have this expression, nobody starves in India. And it's true as well. There's been no mass starvation, you know, such as that you hear for instance in Africa, there's a communal self-support. So the guy whose destiny is staggeringly wonderful, you know, he wins the game show or he's a big Bollywood star, still remains deeply, deeply connected to the guy whose hands have been cut off in order to make him a better beggar. It's this extraordinary combination of contradictions that they have, that they embrace.

INSKEEP: Danny Boyle directed "Slumdog Millionaire," which is reviewed at It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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