Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Class: Slumdog Millionaire

Pear-Apple Chutney w/Goat Cheese on Toasted Naan
Karahi Chicken w/ Tomatoes and Chiles
Shrimp Biryani
Coconut-Chai Sorbet

Once again, a great class. I'd like to thank everyone who came out and the staff at Central Market for their awesome work. After three classes in a row, I'm taking a litte summer break - though I'll be continuing to post on the blog. Next class will be on August 11 - The Harder They Come with a Jamaican menu. Stay tuned for tickets.

I feel very lucky to have gotten to see this film shortly before it was released at a screening during the Austin Film Festival. This was before all the hype, all the nominations, and all the pundits got to it. I was sitting with an old friend who teaches screenwriting at USC. I hadn't seen him for about 15 years and we didn't have much time to catch up before the movie began other than the usual recounting of our successes and missteps and in general being slightly wistful about our lives.

We had no idea what we were going to see other that it was a new Danny Boyle movie. But we both were absolutely just blown away by it. I remember saying something like, "It's a film about everything - love, politics, religion, class. It touched on every issue I could think of." He felt it was maybe the best film he had seen in a decade. Whether those strong feelings lasted by morning aren't so important. It's just what good story-telling does. When a filmmaker is able to have us walk out of a theater and a little elated about life even for a fraction of a moment... they've done something right. Sure, by tomorrow, reality sets back in and maybe we see it as nothing more than a stack of clichés, and think it nothing more than a fairy tale. But just because something is a cliché, doesn't make it false.

In all the interviews I read with Danny Boyle and others involved in the film, they kept repeating "It's a love story." But honestly, it can't just be "a love story." It's not made in a vacuum and thus it touches on issues of our time - the disparity between rich and poor, police brutality, the power of the media, our obsessions with fame and fortune. Romeo & Juliet is also "just a love story," and it also confronts social issues, such as prejudice. Just look at how it could so smoothly turn into West Side Story. All stories take place within a context, but Slumdog Millionaire was not made to be a political or social commentary film, though it can't help but do so. Some complained it did too much of that, and others complained that it didn't do enough. All these people have agendas that seems to cause them to be unable to simply enjoy a simple bit of entertainment.

I keep going back to this quote from a review by Ed Yealu at Cinema Without Borders which, to me, cuts through to how I see this film. "[U]ltimately I believe that the film is not so much about India as it is about the endearing qualities of love, friendship and how life experiences have a lasting effect on who we are and who we are to become," writes Yealu. "Ultimately the film could take place anywhere on earth and still contain the same messages and be interpreted in the same manner. Slumdog Millionaire is not an 'Indian' film about poverty, love, and dreams, but it is rather a cinematic fairy tale that happens to take place in India. Audiences should not go into the film expecting to find a commentary on politics or the human condition, but rather appreciate the film for what it is; a simple story with typical characters, and a solid beginning middle and end."

I was telling a a another friend that I was planning a class on Slumdog Millionaire, and until I had started to research it, I had forgotten about all the backlash, criticism, and complaints that erupted around the film. She said, "Anytime you make a film about a disenfranchised population, there are going to be complications." I agreed, adding that there will always be people chirping up, claiming to be speak for those who have no voice, and often those "spokespeople" have their own agendas based on maintaining their status as "official spokespeople," with the actual needs of the disenfranchised secondary on their agendas, if that. Or, it could just be Harvey Weinstein causing trouble.

But let's get to it. You can stream or purchase Slumdog Millionaire at Amazon, and is home-rentable via NetFlix.


"Sir, what if he did know the answers?"
"Professors, doctors, lawyers, general knowledge-wallas never get beyond 60000 rupees.... He's on 10 million. What can a slumdog possibly know?"
"The answers?"

This bit of dialogue, in the first few minutes of Slumdog Millionaire, takes place between the two policemen who are interrogating Jamal, our hero. But it is also the question which inspired the story to come into being.

Vikas Swarup, a career diplomat from India, had been stationed in London and had a couple of months free time before his next post. He had been dreaming about trying his hand at writing a novel, when he started musing over a recent stir caused by a British Army major who was accused (and later found guilty) of cheating when he was a contestant on the UK edition of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

"If a British army major can be accused of cheating," Swarup thought to himself, "then an ignorant tiffin boy from the world's biggest slum can definitely be accused of cheating."

"To me, the thing about Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was how it changed the rules of the game, so to speak," Swarup said, who used to go on quiz shows himself in India when he was younger. "[E]verything became about money. It’s not whether you know the answer or not. It’s whether you know the value of money or not.... That’s what motivated me to write the story based on a quiz show but with a contestant who does not aspire to appear on the show for the money. In fact, he has not even gone to school. I thought that’s the best antidote to this kind of rampant commercialism promoted by this game show."

And so, in those two months, he, amazingly, wrote (and at the same time writing he was submitting to agents) his first novel - Q&A. But while Swarup thought he was writing an attack on the show, the show's creator, Paul Smith, liked the book so much he decided to have his company, Celador, co-produce the film version of it.

Writer Simon Beaufoy, whose first film was The Full Monty, was brought in to adapt the book. But he realized right off the bat that turning it into a screenplay was going to be a challenge. "Each chapter of the book explained how he happened to know the correct answer: in effect a series of short stories. But while some of the stories linked together, others fired off into fascinating but unconnected tangents," he wrote. "There was no single, unwavering arrow of narrative to take an audience all the way through apart from the game show. And somehow, a game show just wasn't enough for me. I just can't get excited about money as a motivation in a film. It leaves me cold.... So, how to make a rags to riches story that doesn't revolve around money? There was only one way to find out: go to Mumbai."

"I learned a 1,000 different things [when I was there]," Beaufoy said who had first visited India in his teens as a backpacker. "You can’t come as a middle-class White guy from England and sort of parachute yourself into a slum and say ‘We’re going to make a film about you chaps, line up.’ You just can’t do that. So what I did was that I went as a documentary maker really and I hung around, and I chatted. I listened to people in tea shops, and I sort of learned what 21st century Mumbai is really like. And I wanted to write about that because it’s an extraordinary place."

And so Beaufoy wandered through the slums, "apparently aimlessly," he wrote, "chatting to the children, community leaders, school teachers, beggars, rag-pickers, picking up gossip from the tea-stalls, snippets from the papers, gathering a patchwork of stories that might, goodness knows how, knit together. A gangster trial is never off the front page of the Times of India. Hindu/Muslim tensions are bubbling up again and the gang of beggars at one of the road underpasses tell me as much as a Dickens novel ever could about the pay-scale of mutilation. Misshapen limbs good, blindness better.... Again and again, all my preconceptions are overturned. They may be living on the hard-shoulder of a motorway, but the last thing these people are looking for is pity. In this city of 19 million people hurtling into the future, there is still, very present, an ancient sense of destiny, a word I find hard to define - even though I seem to have written a film about it."

"[I]t became very quickly apparent that it should be a love story because India is such a passionate, such a generous place," he continued. "It’s heart is very firm in its sleeve as a country, as a people. I thought ‘Only a love story will transcend this very seductive money-double your money each question kind of narrative that was going on.’"

"[So,] I invented Latika - invented a lover for him that he loses, and loses again," he said. "I had to build a whole new world for the characters while keeping this very seductive core of it - that you've got this guy on a game show, and the money is doubling each time, and he keeps getting more into it. So, I kept that from the book, but pretty much reinvented everything around it."

"It's classic storytelling, isn't it? The first thing Simon said to me after I read the script and we met was, 'It's Dickens. It's classic Dickens,'" recalled Boyle. "You can't avoid the shadow of Dickens. It's absolute fable. Highs and lows, slight hysteria, convenience, coincidence, good brother, bad brother, impossibly beautiful and unattainable girl taken away whenever you get close."

The producers had sent Beaufoy's early draft to director Danny Boyle to look at, but upon hearing it was about the TV show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, he thought, “Why would I want to make a film about that?” But then he saw Simon Beaufoy's name on it and then thought, "I should read it out of respect for him and then I can write him a note or something."

But by page 20, he recalled, "I was like in. I just knew, I – what I say is you get this kind of like, the really great decisions you make, you get this common sense amnesia, like, then it just goes out the window. It’s like they say women after childbirth, what this drug is released in them that makes them forget all the pain they’ve been through. It’s a bit like the pain of making a film is nowhere apparent. You say, 'Oh, I’ll do that, that’s amazing. What a great story.' And I was in, I could feel it. And then your job is to try and get– make the audiences feel like you felt when you first read that script, that feeling you got, wow, the journey. It’s unexpected and it kind of evades you, and then suddenly you realize, I love the complexity of it like that and the big high it has, the underdog story and the love story."

The two then worked more on the script and Boyle began to consider how he wanted to visualize the movie. Boyle also found inspiration from several other sources.

"The main book I read, the only book you need to read is Maximum City, the Suketu Mehta book. It’s just a drop dead book. I read that all the time and half the time I thought I was adapting that, not Q&A, the book we were meant to be adapting," said Boyle. "So that was my main research. There were 3 films that I watched that I’d never heard of and they do influence the film in some way. One was called Satya and it’s as good a film as I’ve seen and it’s written by and stars our fat police constable, he’s called Saurabh Shukla. He’s an amazing writer and terrific character actor. So there was that film and there was another film called Company which is a very good film about gangsters, and there was another film called Black Friday, which is about bombings in Mumbai, made by a young guy called Anurag Kashyap, which is a fantastic film, made with very little money, but a really good film. They were like inspirations while we were making it. It’s good to know it’s not all Bollywood musicals, it’s not all the kind of standard stuff that they do."

The film was cast with almost all actors from India, except for Dev Patel who plays the lead, Jamal, and is from England. The child versions of the leads were actually cast from kids who lived in the slums.

"We got out there and started auditions," recalled Boyle, "and of course the only kids that speak English at seven - and even then not very well - are the middle-class kids. Very highly educated kids. And they were so wrong. They've got a fast-food problem in India, and the middle-class kids look chubby. I'd be going location scouting with Loveleen around the slums in the afternoons, and the kids look completely different. They're skinny, they're lithe - they're survivors."

Boyle is speaking of his co-director Loveleen Tandan. "She started out as casting director, but helped me in every way it's possible to imagine," he noted. It was she who realized that once casting the slum kids in the lead roles, it was going to impossible to have them speak in English, which they could barely speak, and convinced Boyle to have them speak in Hindi.

"And, of course I thought, 'Oh my God, what are Warner Brothers gonna say if I ring them up and say we’re gonna do it in Hindi, instead?’” he said. "But she adapted it and as soon as we did it - the kids, it was like, oh my God, it lives. It just suddenly came alive. It felt so real suddenly."

Boyle elevated Tandan first to 2nd Unit Director, but in the end decided to give her a co-directing credit for all her assistance and because he knew she had aspirations of becoming a director herself. Later, when the various award nominations were coming in, there was a campaign by a member of the Women Film Critics Circle who felt she wasn't getting proper recognition for her contribution, because she was woman. "If she's co-director during the filmmaking and marketing process, why isn't she co-nominee when the awards are passed out?" wrote organizer Jan Lisa Huttner. Tandan wrote a letter stating she was not a party to the complaint, "I can't tell you how embarrassed I am by this.... The suggestion is highly inappropriate, and I am writing to you to stress that I would not wish it to be considered."

This was but a little smoke bomb compared to the other grenades that were tossed by the film's detractors. But before we get to that, let's go back to what happened when Boyle telephoned Warners, the American distributor, to ask them permission to shoot the first part of the film in Hindi (as the contract was to deliver a film all in English)....

"So I did ring Warner Brothers," recalled Boyle, "and [said] we’re gonna do the first third in Hindi with English subtitles. And there was just silence. Silence. But it wasn’t because of the Hindi."

There was silence because Warner Independent, the little indie child of the Time Warner empire, that had aggressively sought handle the North American distribution rights, was about to be shut down by their parent. By the time Boyle was in the editing room, Warner Independent was no longer.

"It was clear that [Warner's] understood that it was a good movie," said Christiain Colson of Celador. "But it was also clear that they had shut down the infrastructure to release it."

There was some talk that perhaps the parent could do the job, but they were in over-caffeinated mode launching The Dark Knight.

"[W]e were dead and buried in Central North America really," agonized Boyle. "We were dead and you couldn’t really see any way out of it because Warner Brothers is a big studio. They don’t know how to release this kind of film."

It was like showing it to a brick wall,” he said elsewhere. “They told us afterwards they were thinking of sticking it out on DVD.”

Eventually, a deal was struck with Warner's sometime nemesis, Fox, to have its Fox Searchlight division distribute the film for a 50/50 split.

I’ve got to thank everybody at Warner Bros for having the great grace to pass the film on to the extraordinary guy at Fox Searchlight, Peter Rice, and all his team,” Boyle said when he took the Oscar for Best Director.

The film was more successful that anyone would have imagined. Not only did Boyle take the Best Director Oscar, he also took home the Director's Guild, the British Film Academy, and the Golden Globe awards for Best Director. The film also won seven other Oscars, and a slew of other awards ranging from the Screen Actor's Guild to the Grammies.


When the film was first released, it toured the festivals and seemed destined to be remembered as a sweet feel-good art house movie. But then it seemed the marketing kicked into hyperdrive. More and more people started talking about it. Suddenly, cast and crew members were being interviewed constantly and everywhere. I think Danny Boyle did an interview on every movie blog in existence at the time. It got to a point where it just became too much. You couldn't turn on a TV or radio without hearing MIA's Paper Planes playing. It was like the media beast was trying to suck every bit of joy you might have gotten out of the film and you started to forget why you liked the thing in the first place. Then the Oscar buzz kicked in. Overload. Tilt. It was inevitable a backlash would appear. And so it did.

First, there were the protests in India. "Referring to people living in slums as dogs is a violation of human rights," said the leader of the protests, Tateshwar Vishwakarma, general secretary of a slum dwellers rights group. "We will burn Danny Boyle's effigies in 56 slums here." And there's no better way to make a statement about human rights than by burning effigies.

Then the guy filed a lawsuit because he felt the word "slumdog" was that insulting. Of course, the only people who use the term in the movie, intend it as an insult to Jamal. But granted, it is the title of the film. However, as Simon Beaufoy explained, "I saw a dog and, of course, I was in a slum. I remembered the word 'underdog'.... and I combined the two." See, it's a story about an underdog from the slums, get it? If you can't be bothered to understand the difference between the words "dog" and "underdog," you invalidate your right to be insulted, in my opinion.

But perhaps there were other forces at work here. "By protesting the title of the film, the people from the slums and poor regions are expressing their discontent with a modernizing India in which their lives have not been bettered. A legitimate grievance, to be sure, but these controversies must not be seen as simply a protest against cultural insult. They are part of a greater effort by some of the most conservative, communal elements in India," said Amresh Sinha, who teaches media studies at New York University. "Many other political groups have now joined the feeding frenzy around the controversy to promote their own political agendas in the coming election in India by whipping up anti-Western sentiments among the slum dwellers, who constitute a major voting bloc."

And speaking of human rights, there were voices angered by how India's commitment to human rights were shown in this film made by Westerners. "The torture scenes do not add much to the story, but denigrates India even more than the slums do," proclaimed India's former UN ambassador, TP Sreenivasan.

True, the film opens with a pretty graphic depiction of torture by a police officer. But as Danny Boyle reflected, he had to submit the script to the Indian government for approval prior to shooting. “They said you must make sure there’s nobody above the rank of inspector involved in the torture scene... and that was it.” So much for being denigrated by outsiders.

The plight of the actual slum children who performed in the movie was also a topic of contention. But let's not forget we're not just talking about India, we're also talking about Hollywood. And word around Tinseltown at the time was that the stories were being planted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein whose own film The Reader was also vying for Oscar consideration, as mentioned above.

What seemed to have been lost in all of this was that between the time the film was made and released, India suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks of our time. The train station in Mumbai where the final dance sequence takes place in the film would now be remembered for the dozens who died there.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy was interviewed about the attacks shortly thereafter. “For a day it made me think we’d done something very naive about Mumbai,” he said. “That we’d showed it as joyful, as generous, as a kind of gritty, difficult but ultimately warm place where dreams might well be fulfilled. And I suddenly felt very naive and a little bit stupid that I’d written a film where cynicism, god, had it come to town. And then I sent an email to the crew saying that I hope everyone was all right and that none of their family was there. And the flood that came back were these really fervent, spirited emails: ‘They will never get us down. Mumbai will be back tomorrow.’ And I thought, ‘No. We did make the right kind of film. These people will rise above that immediately.’

I've got nothing else to add to that.


When a Westerner says he or she wants "chai tea," an Indian (or Pakistani, Afghani, Iranian, or Bangladeshi) hears a redundant plea. For "chai" is their word for tea. It would be like saying you want some "pollo chicken" in Spanish-speaking countries. When a Westerner says he or she wants "chai tea," what they are really asking for is a Masala Chai.

But to make matters even more confusing for Easterners coming to the West, as Wiki explains: "Some coffeehouses in the United States offer a version of masala chai augmented with espresso, but this beverage does not have any one universally recognized name. Depending on the establishment, it may be called "java chai", "red eye chai", "chai charger", "tough guy chai", "dirty chai", or many other different names. However, despite the common tendency in many countries to use the term "latte" to mean "cafe latte", the term "chai latte" does not generally imply the presence of coffee in the beverage" and may only refer to a spiced tea with frothy hot milk from an espresso machine in it. You might also hear it referred to as "yogi tea" which capitalizes on the ongoing yoga craze in the West. Then there is the "Starbucks® Tazo® Chai Crème Frappuccino® Blended Beverage," which has too many words and trademarks in it for me to ever consider trying (plus, I only support locally-owned coffeehouses).

While tea is known to have been growing in India since the 1st Century A.D. (though we don't know whether it was indigenous or had been brought from China), it wasn't something brewed and consumed for the most part by Indians until the 20th Century. In the mid-1800's, the British discovered a variety of tea growing near Calcutta and by the 1840's many Brits were thinking they were going to make fortunes with a tea plantation in India. Of course, that caused a lot of ecologically-damaging land clearing and colonial-style oppression of the locals who were pretty much enslaved to work on these plantations. By the 1860's, however, the whole "tea boom" went bust (lots of workers dying was a big problem). Ten years passed, and the surviving growers figured out how to make good tasting tea and went on the attack against the growers from China (who were supplying 80% of British consumed tea at the time). They also sold it cheaper than Chinese tea and by 1900, according to author Lizzie Cunningham in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerers, they were so successful that China was now only supplying 10% and India 50% (33% was from Ceylon).

But like with tomatoes in Italy, tea in India was too expensive for the locals to consume. They also didn't especially care for it. As Cunningham writes, "At the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of Indians did not know how to make a cup of tea and were reluctant to drink one.... [T]he conversion of the population to tea drinking was the result of what must have been the first major marketing campaign in India. The British-owned Indian Tea Association set itself the task of first creating a new habit among the Indian population, and then spreading it across the entire subcontinent."

The Association promoted "tea breaks" at factories for workers and trained chai wallas (street vendors who make and sell tea). As Cunningham notes, "Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored the advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar." By the 1930's, the Association heralded their campaign a success: "[A] better cup of tea could in general be had at the platform tea stalls than in the first class restaurant cars on the train."

There is a popular legend on the Internet that the original Masala Chai recipe was created by a king (or the chef of the king) in ancient royal court times, either 5000 or 9000 years ago. But if it was, the tea was used as medicine, not as a beverage. If there is any truth to this legend at all, it is not ancient, but probably that Ayurdevic practitioners, "one of the world's oldest medical systems" that dates back to 1500 BC, began mixing their herbal remedy with tea in the 20th Century for their patients. Certainly, if I was given a choice between taking pills or drinking a milky/sugary hot tea with my medicine in it (and considering that medicine included cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger), I know which I'd choose.

In her book Nirvana in a Cup, Oregon Chai co-founder Tedde McMillen recounts a meeting with the curator of the Tea Board of India in Calcutta in which he also promotes the legend (which I suppose sounds better than it all being forced upon them by their then colonial overlords).

Masala chai was invented by Ayurvedic doctors who tended the Indian raja and his court.," he tells her. “The ingredients in chai were chosen for their beneficial properties. Ginger and cardamom are good for digestion, especially after a supper of hot Indian curry. In the morning, the tea in chai helps you wake up, milk provides nourishment and you get a rush of energy from the sugar.”

While his history may be romanticized, his explanation of the Ayurvedic believed benefits of these spices and herbs is correct.

There is no actual recipe for the quintessential chai," the curator continues. "Some Indians report that their grandmother made if for them as children using whatever spices were available. Recipes were often family secrets. Depending on the availability of spices or old family recipes, the flavors can vary quite a bit.”

This is also true. Take a Google tour of chai recipes and you won't find two alike, so feel free to change up the ratio of my blend below. Whatever tastes good to you is the right recipe.

This recipe dates back to a business I tried to launch three years ago. I had this grand idea of opening a artisan sorbet food trailer. But as with many grand ideas, this one ran into a mess of really messed up problems and people and then the economy crashed. So I cut my losses, but am still stuck with a $10k commercial gelato machine in my house I can't unload. Say la vee, as they say. If you know someone who wants to buy it, lemme know. As always.... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Coconut-Chai Sorbet
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes about 1 quart

2 1/2 cups water
1 cup sugar
4 Darjeeling tea bags or teaspoons loose leaf
1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/4 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

NOTE: If you have access to fresh whole spices, by all means use them.

Bring water to quick boil. Turn off heat. Add sugar, stir to dissolve sugar. Add tea bags and spices and let steep 15 minutes. Remove tea bags, if using, then strain liquid through double-layer cheesecloth. Add coconut milk, and place in the refrigerator to get cold.

When ready to make sorbet, add coconut flakes. Follow your ice cream machine manufacturers instructions and freeze.

Official Slumdog Millionaire site
Vikas Swarup Official site
Video Interviews with Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, @ Channel 4 UK
"The Challenges of filming Slumdog Millionaire" @ NPR
"Life on the Hard Shoulder," by Simon Beaufoy @ The Guardian UK
The Why of Chai Tea website

Slumdog Millionaire DVD
Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack CD
Slumdog Millionaire (aka Q&A), a novel by Vikas Swarup
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta

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