THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008)

In 2009, the 81st Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008, the awards were held on February 22. The ceremony was hosted by actor Hugh Jackman, who brought a whole swag of razzle-dazzle to the ceremony, with several song-and-dance numbers, including an epic opening number.

After voting for the awards had closed, a supposed list of winners was leaked online. The list stated the winners of the four major acting awards were Mickey Rourke for Best Actor, Kate Winslet for Best Actress, Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress, and Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor, with Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture. A spokeswoman for the Academy condemned the list as a “complete fraud,” given the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers had only just begun to tabulate the ballots. This was proven to be true when the awards were announced, and two of the winners on this list were wrong.

With his win for Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger became only the second performer to win an Academy Award posthumously, after his tragic death in January 2008. Ledger’s award was accepted by his parents and sister, in the most emotional moment of the ceremony. Ledger’s Oscar is being held by his ex-wife Michelle Williams, and will be presented to his daughter, Matilda when she turns 18.

With her win for Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Penélope Cruz became the second Spanish-born performer to win an acting Academy Award, and the fifth performer to win for a performance from a Woody Allen-directed film. In a strange twist of fate, the first Spaniard to win an acting Oscar, Javier Bardem, would become Cruz’s husband in 2010.

With six nominations in total (albeit not one for Best Picture), WALL·E tied with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast as the most-nominated animated film in Oscars history. With his win for Best Actor for Milk, Sean Penn became the ninth performer to win Best Actor twice.

Leading the way this year with an incredible 13 nominations was David Fincher’s sweeping fantasy romance The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But the night belonged the Danny Boyle’s crowd-pleasing adventure Slumdog Millionaire, which took home eight Academy Awards from its 10 nominations including Best Picture, Best Director for Boyle, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. With eight awards, this made Slumdog Millionaire the equal-fourth most-award film in Oscars history, tying it with films like Gone With the Wind, On the Waterfront, and My Fair Lady. The film also became the 11th to win Best Picture without any acting nominations.

The nominees:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

The winner:
Slumdog Millionaire

Based on Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q & A, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a young man who rose from the slums of Mumbai to become a national hero. As 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) answers questions on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, flashbacks show how he got there. Part of a stable of young thieves after their mother dies, Jamal and his brother, Salim, survive on the streets of Mumbai. Salim finds the life of crime agreeable, but Jamal scrapes by with small jobs until landing a spot on the game show.

Why did it win?
Bollywood was, and still is, the biggest film industry in the world, consistently producing more films than any other region in the world. For all its mammoth stature in the film world, a Bollywood film had never achieved success at the Academy Awards. Even in the Best Foreign Language Film category, India has only received three nominations in 89 years of the Oscars. It had always been a rather baffling anomaly for the most esteemed awards ceremony in the film industry to essentially ignore one of its major players. Yes, Bollywood films are often fairly inaccessible for those outside Asia, so it came as no surprise the “Indian film” to finally breakthrough at the Oscars came from a British filmmaker and featured a predominantly English-speaking script. Not quite a Bollywood film, but close enough.

Even so, Slumdog Millionaire was still a highly-unusual Best Picture winner. Films with an almost exclusively non-white cast do not win Best Picture. Sure, there was The Last Emperor, and, to a lesser extent, Gandhi, but those are the rare examples in the 80-plus years of the Academy Awards. In fact, the producers were so unsure about the film’s prospects with an American audience, they considered bypassing a theatrical run, and instead releasing the film straight to DVD. But it soon became clear they had a true crowd-pleaser on their hands that broke down racial barriers, and had the ability to inspire, entertain, and dazzle audiences the world over. And after four years of heavy, emotionally-draining dramas taking home Best Picture, the Academy were clearly looking for something a little lighter.

Slumdog Millionaire struck a chord at just the right time. With its gorgeous love story and giddy narrative, it was exactly the warm and charming piece of cinema the Academy were looking for. With the election of Barrack Obama bringing new hope for the future, there was positivity in the air around awards season. In a time where America was looking to the promise of change with its new leader, Academy voters were clearly not in the mood for another bleak, dark, or miserable film to win Best Picture. Maybe that explains the snub of The Dark Knight (more on that later). They had just seen the rise of a person-of-colour underdog who went on to become President. Is it any wonder a film featuring a person-of-colour underdog overcoming incredible obstacles to succeed and win the girl became the unstoppable frontrunner for Best Picture?

People simply fell in love with Slumdog Millionaire. That’s really the simplest explanation for its overwhelming success at the Academy Awards. Even the most hardened film critic or awards watcher could not deny the film was loveable. It was a rags-to-riches story you couldn’t help but admire. The most-beloved contender doesn’t always win, but every few years, a piece of cinema becomes so universally adored, the Academy get just as swept up by that film as audiences were. And considering the response from the general public, it’s unfathomable to think this film almost never made it into cinemas.

On a tiny budget of only $6 million, Slumdog Millionaire became a box-office sensation and the most unlikely cultural phenomenon of the year. The film would earn $141 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year as the 16th highest-grossing film of 2008. But it was internationally where the film truly soared, taking a further $246 million in international territories to bring its worldwide total to an astonishing $377 million. This made the film the 14th highest-grossing film worldwide of 2008 and the highest-grossing Fox Searchlight Picture’s film of all time. For a film once considered for the DVD bargain bin at your local Kmart, this result was a resounding success.

Adding to its incredible box-office result, Slumdog Millionaire also received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it one of the year’s best films. The Chicago Sun-Times called the film “a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating,” the Los Angeles Times hailed it as “a Hollywood-style romantic melodrama that delivers major studio satisfactions in an ultra-modern way,” and the Boston Globe got right to the point by stating “I’ll keep this simple: Cancel whatever you’re doing tonight and go see Slumdog Millionaire instead.”

For the second year in-a-row, Slumdog Millionaire all but swept the precursor season, making it the unstoppable frontrunner from the beginning of awards season. During its Oscar campaign, the film was awarded Best Picture by the critics’ groups of New York, Phoenix, San Diego, Washington D.C, Boston, and Florida, as well as the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. It swept the Golden Globes, taking home Best Motion Picture – Drama, Director, Screenplay and Score, and scored six BAFTAs including Best Film. From here, Slumdog Millionaire would also take the major guild awards, winning the PGA, DGA, WGA, and even the SAG Ensemble prize for its predominantly amateur cast. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the film, thanks to some crafty backlash created by, you guessed it, Harvey Weinstein.

As the film started looking more unstoppable in its quest for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire was hit by a sudden wave of negative and damaging press, regarding the film’s treatment of its young Indian castmembers. Reports began to surface accusing the filmmakers of exploiting the child actors by not paying them appropriately and leaving them to live in the slums of Mumbai where they were discovered. Given the film was currently raking in millions of dollars at the global box-office, the filmmakers were accused of failing to share those profits with the young stars who made it such a success. Many in the industry believed these reports and false rumours were being circulated by Weinstein, given The Weinstein Company’s The Reader was also in Oscars contention.

The “controversy” became so intense, Danny Boyle and the film’s producer, Christian Colson were forced to release a statement denying these allegations, stating they had set up trust funds for the film’s main stars to access in the future, as well as paying for their education and helping to find new housing for their families. The filmmakers also stated they have arranged and paid for transportation for the children to an English-language school for the next eight years, and their parents would receive a monthly allowance for school supplies and food for the duration of the children’s education. This completely shut-down Weinstein’s pathetic mud-smearing campaign, and the film was then able to sail to victory. Perhaps the industry’s hatred of Weinstein and his unscrupulous Oscars meddling actually further boosted the film’s chances, with many now able to see through his dirty tactics. Take that, Harvey.

Did it deserve to win?
The most-lovable film takes home Best Picture. It’s a narrative we’ve seen many, many times before, and will likely see again in the future. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a film that boasts fever-pitch levels of admiration taking home the Academy’s top prize. The Oscars are a populist contest, and being the most popular film is the easiest path to Best Picture. That’s the path Slumdog Millionaire took, and it’s hard to argue it didn’t deserve to get there, particularly given the two best films of 2008 weren’t even nominated. Yes, it’s time to get a little snarky.

The Academy’s failure to reward The Dark Knight and WALL·E with Best Picture nominations still stands as one of their most frustrating and baffling decisions of the last decade. And I’m not alone in thinking this. Don’t believe me? The backlash to these snubs was so severe, the Academy were forced to expand their Best Picture nominees from five to ten the next year, in the hopes of further chances of recognising films outside the usual Oscar-bait genres. For these two films to receive eight and six nominations respectively, and not find themselves a Best Picture contender is utter nonsense.

The Dark Knight is still the gold-standard of the superhero genre, and WALL·E still stands as Disney Pixar’s defining achievement. Yes, they’re both “genre films,” but the Academy’s ignorance to overlook this fact showcased how backwards they could be. Of course, it was admirable they made steps to avoid this happening (even though, ten years on, it hasn’t really worked), but that doesn’t absolve how shocking it looks to see two of the year’s best not featured in the Best Picture line-up.

As for The Reader being included in the Best Picture nominees over these two, well that just stands as another foul memory of the time Harvey Weinstein held dominion over Academy voters. Much like Chocolat, he bullied The Reader into Best Picture contention. Plain and simple. And, frankly, he bullied the Academy into putting Kate Winslet into the Best Actress category, when SAG, the Golden Globes and the BFCA had deemed this a supporting role. And a winning supporting role, at that. Don’t get me wrong. She earned that Oscar, and it was sublime to finally see her win, but it was not a lead performance and the film was not good enough to be a Best Picture nominee, especially over such brilliant competition which shamefully missed out.

With that rant out of the way, back to Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, it’s always a shame for a film to win Best Picture when it’s not up against the strongest competition, but let that not take away from the majesty the film ultimately was. A little on the light and breezy side, maybe, but still a damn beautiful and glorious film. Danny Boyle crafted something truly dazzling with a genius structure, insanely frenetic editing, and glorious visual style. The dizzying way he’s not only filmed but edited this film is remarkable, and it makes for such a terrific ride. Its ingeniously simple but wonderfully unique narrative of a boy knowing all the answers to a game show because of his past experiences creates such an engaging piece of cinema. Yes, it’s awfully far-fetched, but sometimes, that’s just the magic of film.

Slumdog Millionaire is the ultimate underdog story, and you cannot help but cheer for Jamal and desperately want to see him triumph. That’s largely thanks to the brilliant performance of Dev Patel, who made his film debut in the most impressive way possible. As the shy and kind-hearted slumdog, Patel emits so much warmth and heart, and, in his capable hands, Jamal becomes a true hero audiences will undoubtedly root for. It was an extremely competitive year for Best Actor, but room should have been made for Patel. He deserved recognition for essentially carrying this film, much like his later work in Lion.

The supporting cast is also terrific, particularly the luminous Freida Pinto as Jamal’s lost love Latika. Pinto is one of the most gorgeous women to ever grace the screen, and, as an actress, she’s someone you cannot take your eyes off. As the devious game-show host, Bollywood legend Anil Kapoor is a riot, with his bombastic screen persona contradicted by his aggressive and bitter off-screen presence. But it’s the kids who will truly steal your heart. As the younger versions of Jamal, Salim, and Latika, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, and Rubina Ali are too damn adorable for words. And surprisingly, their acting happens to be top-rate, as well. It was no stunt Slumdog Millionaire won that SAG Ensemble prize. It earned it.

But the film’s finest triumph is Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography. Despite filming the slum areas of India, the film never once looks anything but beautiful. Somehow, Mantle finds the majesty in every aspect of these areas, and the results are utterly glorious. Mantle also manages to film in the tightest of corridors and smallest of rooms to create such an intimate and voyeuristic style. You feel the streets of Mumbai like never before. It makes for a truly impressive visceral experience. The film’s colour palette is a dream, and almost every single sequence truly leaps off the screen.

You add in A.H. Rahmen’s gorgeous score, which mixes Hollywood with Bollywood and a dash of modern hip-hop, and that phenomenal finale featuring an elaborate and energetic dance number, and you truly have a phenomenal film. Is it possible any other year Slumdog Millionaire may not have won a single Oscar, let alone eight? Sure. But who cares? It hit the mark at just the right time, and reaped the benefits. Hollywood was in a positive mood after Obama’s triumph. Along came a film overflowing with positivity and a never-give-up attitude, and they ate it up. Nothing wrong with that. Slumdog Millionaire may not be a heavy, groundbreaking drama, but it’s still a damn fine film and a worthy Best Picture winner.