As he was wandering around the slums of Mumbai, Simon Beaufoy, a very pale, smallish, blondish English screenwriter, noticed packs of stray dogs lining the tiny, crowded alleyways.
"The dogs would sit in the sun, apparently asleep," he says. "They were really mangy. Absolutely rabies-on-legs-type dogs. And you had to tread carefully over them. Man, if you trod on their tail, you'd be dead. They always appeared to be asleep, but if you looked closely, you'd see one of their eyes a tiny bit open. They were watching everything.
"It was a nice metaphor for the lowest of the low," Beaufoy recalls, "for this person who apparently knows nothing, who is worthless, but actually he's been watching all his life, and he knows everything."
That's why Beaufoy coined the title "Slumdog Millionaire" for the name of his new movie, directed by Danny Boyle. Slumdog -- a word that doesn't exist in Hindi -- refers to the title character, Jamal, a street urchin who claws his way into adulthood and winds up a contestant on the Indian version of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Jamal is poised to win 20 million rupees when he's summarily arrested and accused of cheating.
The Boyle-Beaufoy collaboration has already stormed the film-festival circuit this fall and brought awards attention back to Beaufoy, who was nominated for almost every writing award a decade ago for his first produced screenplay, "The Full Monty."
"Slumdog Millionaire" is based loosely on "Q & A: A Novel," which is more a collection of short stories, by Vikas Swarup. Aside from the original conceit, the operatic, kinetic narrative of the film -- along with its intricate structure -- springs from Beaufoy, who deftly balances a fusion of memory and reality, of Jamal's nerve-racking stint on the TV show, his brutal police interrogation, the story of his hardscrabble life and the idiosyncratic fashion by which he's come to know the answers to the "Millionaire" questions.
The film evokes what Beaufoy calls "the rapacious development" of modern India. "The place is on steroids," says the writer, who immersed himself for weeks in the neighborhoods of Mumbai, hunting for stories, listening to conversations at tea stands where patrons were imbibing "sweet tea that burns the enamel off your teeth" and discussing gangsters with them, and catching wondrous, weird sights that wound up in the movie, like a row of pay outhouses lined up by an airfield where Indian movie stars would land in their planes. "It's the most amazing Dickensian city of extremes. It must be like New York in the 1890s or Victorian London, with all the extremes crammed in one place, the extremes of wealth and poverty.
"You have to be careful making that kind of film that you don't parachute yourself in as a middle-class white guy from London," Beaufoy says. "It's a much more authentic way to work, pulling the stories from inside."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Beaufoy started out as a documentary filmmaker. The son of a pair of Yorkshire English teachers, Beaufoy began his film career directing a BBC documentary about a Scottish mountain rescue team. After the project fell apart, he turned to screenplays. His first was about Yorkshire men who paint electrical towers, and so he was approached to write another about unemployed Yorkshire steelworkers who form a male striptease act.
The filmmakers were shocked when their $3.5-million indie, 1997's "The Full Monty," turned into a worldwide sensation, grossing about $257 million. Before the film's release, Beaufoy was so broke that he sold his share in the project -- for a mere 500 pounds -- an interest that wound up being worth millions.
"I can't talk about that. It's so awful," says Beaufoy, before telling the whole story, which he remembers in excruciating detail, though he adds philosophically, "I always thought I'd be a penniless documentary director. I never did a film for cash, though it would be nice to be very rich." He also didn't go Hollywood. "I didn't come here because I wasn't good enough technically. I felt that I had to go away and learn to write."
Beaufoy stayed in England making small films that interested him, like the 2004 effort "Yasmin," which he researched for a year, about a Pakistani British woman caught between her two worlds.
When Beaufoy was first given the "Q & A" manuscript by producer Christian Colson, he was leery. "The idea of somebody poor getting rich at the end of the movie and driving off in a Bentley doesn't really do it for me. The get-rich mentality is something I'm allergic to," says Beaufoy, who was nonetheless enticed by the free trip to India. He was ultimately transformed, creatively, by his visit.