“Slumdog Millionaire” is the best movie I saw in 2008, but afterward I couldn’t imagine how the company that produces “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” ever allowed it to be made.
Don’t worry. If you haven’t yet seen this unexpectedly thrilling film about a Mumbai street urchin who is accused of cheating while a contestant on the Indian version of “Millionaire,” I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
US theatrical: 12 Nov 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release)
But if you have seen it, surely you’ll agree there’s something strange about the producers of the world’s most profitable game show - who have always been fastidious about eliminating any appearance of impropriety - allowing a movie to depict even a suggestion of cheating and worse behind the scenes of any of the 100 versions it has licensed around the world since “Millionaire” launched in Great Britain in 1998.
I began by looking up a familiar name I had seen in the opening credits of “Slumdog.” It was Celador, one of the production companies behind the film and, as fans of the show might know, the name of the company that created “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
It turns out that the principals in Celador sold the international rights to the “programme” in 2005. (Local versions have aired in more than 100 countries since the format’s debut. Meredith Vieira hosts the American version.)
They then used the proceeds to focus on Celador’s movie business.
In other words, if there’s any backlash to the film’s fictional depictions of Indian “Millionaire,” the producers couldn’t care less - they don’t own the Indian version anymore.
However, I did find that “Slumdog Millionaire” faced at least one formidable obstacle on the way to Oscar contention. Its future was in doubt at one point, and perhaps only a fortuitous phone call saved it from direct-to-DVD release.
But before we get to that, you may be wondering who came up with this cockamamie quiz-show-meets-Dickens-in-Mumbai hybrid anyway.
So did Danny Boyle, the “Trainspotting” producer who was approached in 2006 by Celador to direct it. As he recounted recently to The Hollywood Reporter, he had no interest in making a game-show movie.
But then Celador showed him the script, written by none other than “The Full Monty” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, and Boyle was in.
Beaufoy, in turn, had adapted the book by former Indian diplomat and first-time novelist Vikas Swarup called Q&A.
And just how did Swarup cook up the story of an uneducated go-fer at a Mumbai call center being accused of cheating on “Millionaire”?
In a 2006 interview, Swarup said he had read a fascinating account about homeless kids in Mumbai who had become savvy users of mobile Internet services.
And as he was pondering that, something else came to mind. “This Major Charles Ingram episode was still current,” Swarup added, “and the thought struck me that no one had done a novel on the global phenomenon of the ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ shows.”
Major Charles Ingram?
And that’s when I learned there actually was a “Millionaire” cheating scandal. It was huge in Great Britain, though not so much here. In 2001, Ingram, a British army major, ran the table and won the show’s top prize, only to be arrested and convicted, along with his wife, Diana, and another contestant, Tecwen Whittock, of defrauding the show’s insurer for 1 million pounds.
The prosecution’s case relied on a theory of suspicious coughs from Whittock, who was seated in a “fastest finger” chair while Ingram was in the hot seat. The court case itself made for a highly rated, two-night TV special hosted by Martin Bashir (now an anchor for “Nightline”) and produced by ... you guessed it, Celador.
The would-be novelist put these two stories together and voila - the first great fairy tale of the millennium.
Yet “Slumdog Millionaire,” the would-be adaptation, almost didn’t get released in theaters, though it had nothing to do with these controversies.
Warner Independent, which bankrolled a third of the movie’s $15 million budget, gave up the ghost in mid-2008 after Time Warner decided that the deteriorating economic climate had made its indie film business too grim to continue.
But by then Doyle had the film almost done, and after seeing it, the head of Warner Independent decided to do something unusual. He called his counterpart at a rival studio, Fox Searchlight, and offered him a look at the film.
Needless to say, his reaction was the same as mine, and within weeks “Slumdog Millionaire” was on its way to Toronto for the film festival that put it on the map.