'Slumdog Millionaire' controversy: Is there a there there?

Dannyboyle_lBack in November, when Slumdog Millionaire was just starting to heat up, I interviewed director Danny Boyle for a feature in Entertainment Weekly. At one point, we chatted about the challenge of hiring and directing three small local children who spoke only Hindi. One, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (who plays the youngest Jamal), comes from a middle-class background, while the other two, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail (who play the youngest Latika and Salim), are from Mumbai slums similar to those depicted in the film. Boyle mentioned that he and the producers, cognizant of how a movie like Slumdog could change the kids’ lives for the worse if proper care wasn’t taken, had set up a trust fund for Ali and Ismail, accessible only if they enrolled in school — a first for both of them. “They’d never been to school,” Boyle said. “So they have to stay in school until they’re 18. When they reach 18, and if they’ve passed all their exams, a quite substantial sum of money — extra money [on top of their salaries] — will be released to them.”

Boyle wasn’t presenting this in a Look at what a good, moral Westerner I am! See how I take care of the less fortunate! kind of way. Rather, he was explaining a course of action that, to me, seemed logical, responsible, and just. But now, an article printed in Britain’s The Telegraph earlier this week has stained those good intentions with accusations of exploitation. In the story, Ali and Ismail’s parents accuse Boyle and producer Christian Colson of stiffing their kids out of a decent wage, alleging that their payment for a year’s work was “less than many Indian domestic servants.” This article comes on the heels of earlier reports that many Indians are taking offense with the title of the movie. Consider the flames of the inevitable Slumdog backlash duly fanned. 

The movie’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, as well as Boyle and Colson, all have responded to the Telegraph story with statements, asserting that “For 30 days’ work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary,” and that the families have been given funds to cover “basic living costs, health care, and any other emergencies.” A subsequent Reuters news clip shows the father of one of the kids back-pedaling on the accusations, but is it possible the damage is done? The kids’ lives are now disrupted, with camera crews busting into their classrooms. Moreover, concerned that such public talk of money could make Ali, Ismail, and their families a target for local Mumbai criminals, Searchlight has moved them into private housing. For now, it seems this mess isn’t as out of hand as what happened with The Kite Runner kids in 2007, but how does the situation sit with you, PopWatchers? Who, if anyone, is at fault here? The media for stirring up drama? Searchlight? The Parents? And does the controversy affect how you feel about Slumdog?

addCredit(“Ishika Mohan”)

More ‘Slumdog Millionaire':
‘Slumdog Millionaire': To Mumbai, with love
Oscar Watch: ‘Slumdog Millionaire': The honeymoon’s over


Comments (64 total) Add your comment
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  • Dot

    Of course I can’t be sure but it just seems like the press is trying to show one bad thing about Slumdog which is really hard to find.

  • arryana

    i think everyone (children and their families, director, and movie studio) took a gamble – one that paid off in spades and it seems like the families are trying to get more than what they initially bargained for. but that does not mean that i am placing the blame on their shoulders. it’s just so unfortunate that the children are the ones who end up paying the price for all this because they get caught in the crossfire.

  • ZS

    I dont wanna sound rude, but i think its just the Indian families wanting more money.. i mean with all of these money affairs happening in India, it takes a while for the real news to be given in America, so right now i think that everything is being blown out of preportions and if there are threats from Mumbai criminals on the lives of the children, then the media is at fault for making such a big deal!.. and nonetheless, Slumdog MIllionaire was still the best of the year for me! These kids should be embracing their wonderful creation and not picking out the negatives

    • Praneeth

      Media just doesn’t use commnonsense-What to expose, what not. It works on its own theory of prejudice (TRP ratings)

  • Andre

    As Slumdog picks up steam going into the oscar race as the frontrunner for best picture, why does the media play up this angle? It’s just lame and mean-spirited.

  • Bobbi Miller-Moro

    This was one of those movies you take one breath through out the film. I personally didn’t like the gruesomeness, but the realism was nail biting. Great job.
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  • Stacey

    It’s always a risk to work with those who are live in such a way that it’s a major shock to give them a different life. Or any big sum of money. I don’t know if they stiffed the kids out of proper payment. It’s possible they did them minimum thinking given the lives of the families of the kids; anything above is good. But now that the movie is a hit and could win the Oscar. Maybe the payment looks tiny in comparison than if the movie was a little indie favorite that didn’t make any big movement in the industry. Hard to know. But I don’t necessary believe that the producers gave the families more than a enough. I can see them thinking they did. Especially if it’s in a trust only accessed for education. But they could have tried to give as little as possible given if they aren’t big characters in the movie. But then I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know how big a part they played. But I can believe the families. Slumdog better be careful; getting dragged down like this isn’t good

  • Mike Honcho

    It’s unfortunate side of success. The greed and ignorance surrounding the good fortune of these children that will so greatly prosper by an intelligent move from Mr. Boyle is deplorable.

  • Anonymous

    I really hope a PR firm from one of the other studios isn’t responsible for the bad press the movie is getting. They wouldn’t do that, would they?

  • LisaMama

    Every time I’ve seen or heard an interview with the director, Danny Boyle, he’s been respectful of the Indian people and their way of life. He seems to have done the best he could to not disrupt their lives while filming, and to portray the slums as they really are, not better and not worse. The backlash against the movie is sad but predictable, and these accusations by the parents fall into that same category — sad and frustrating but not that surprising.

  • Jean

    Ordinary people – regardless of socioeconomic background or country of orgin – are seldom prepared to negotiate performance contracts successfully. That’s why professionals have agents.
    Appearing in one film – no matter how sucessful – is not anyone’s total “ticket out”. Nor is an entirely successful movie career. Ask Mickey Rourke about how hard it was to come back.
    When the people in question are, in fact, economically and educationally deprived – and culturally very different – the difficulties are simply multiplied and magnified.
    And stage parents from all over the world have tried to glom on to their kids’ “success”. Ask all those McCulkins – ask Diane Lane.
    In some countries, their children are ceratain adults’ only “asset” – so they sell them, indenture them, marry them off, etc. I’m not saying they “enjoy” doing those things – but they are done every day in some parts of the world. From child brides to child factory labor – there are many other issues.

  • Ken A.

    I really don’t pay much attention to these manufactured controversies; however I do ask whether there is any there there. When I saw “Slumdog” I thought it was fun and a good solid 3-star film. What I don’t get is all the fuss about it being the “Best” of the year. Not even close! And if we’re going to nitpick, are we really to believe that the Indian police would respond to a nutty TV host and torture someone who is winning money on a show…waterboarding and electrocution? Does anyone else think that this whole premise of the film is ridiculous? Even suspending disbelief, it’s a decent film; but let’s not get carried away by all the hype.

  • kenny

    Once again it is the media. Good stories don’t drive web hits like bad stories. It’s like the economy, some politician may say 100 positive things about the economy and one negative, and the headline of that article will pertain to that one negative comment.

  • Die You Scum

    Bunch of tabloid scumbags sticking their nose in other people’s money are going to hound these kids or maybe get them robbed or killed. Their families don’t help but journalists don’t mind exploiting undereducated, naive people for a story.

  • JC

    It’s funny, same article at a different site painted Fox and Mr Boyle in a bad light. I personally liked the idea that the company and people involved thought ahead to provide a different picture for the two kids. With a good education who know where they will be in a few years compared to how it would be if they got a larger payout.

  • Avoid India

    “are we really to believe that the Indian police would respond to a nutty TV host and torture someone who is winning money on a show…waterboarding and electrocution? Does anyone else think that this whole premise of the film is ridiculous?”
    The Indian Police Force is pretty corrupt. I was surprised they didn’t sodomize Jamal.

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