Slumdog’s about triumph: Author Swarup
Vikas Swarup is extremely modest for an author whose novel inspired the hit film Slumdog Millionaire that has won four Golden Globes and 10 Oscar nominations — but then he’s a diplomat.
Swarup, 47, the writer of Slumdog is the deputy high commissioner at the Indian mission in South Africa. He says he has no intention of giving up his day job to be a full-time author despite Slumdog being translated into 37 languages and a film option already having been taken out on his second novel Six Suspects.
In fact, he still seems surprised at the success of his debut work. “I was writing to prove to myself that I could write a book. I only thought it might appeal to Indians — not that it would have this worldwide appeal,” he told AFP.
But Slumdog, originally titled Q&A, not only won a wide readership, it is now gaining worldwide fame through British director Danny Boyle’s film adaptation.
Swarup is “extremely happy” with the movie, even though the plot undergoes a thorough makeover in Boyle’s hands.
“They had to simplify and change it. A film can’t go into the detail that a book does,” he said in an interview at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, where he was mobbed by autograph hunters.
The biggest change was that the filmmakers swapped the protagonist from Ram Mohammad Thomas — whose name could be Hindu, Muslim or Christian — to Jamal Malik, a Muslim whose mother dies at the hands of Hindu vigilantes.
The idea was to make the narrative “more dramatic”.
He hotly rejected suggestions by critics that both the book and the film were “poverty pornography” seeking to exploit the misery of India’s destitute.
The topic has become so sensitive that on one recent Indian TV show, a panel debated whether “selling of Indian poverty” was the ticket to success in the West.
Meanwhile Amitabh Bachchan has been drawn into the fray, denying he
accused the film of glorifying India’s seamy underbelly. “The film is about life. The hero is the ultimate underdog who beats the odds. It’s a story of triumph,” Swarup said.
Slumdog was conceived when Swarup was on the last few months of a London diplomatic posting. His wife and two sons had returned to India and he was left with time on his hands and turned to his laptop on which he typed out the novel’s dramatic first line — “I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”
Inspiration for the story came from a tale of a British major who was found guilty of cheating his way to victory on Britain’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Swarup thought if a British major could be accused of cheating, “it would be most likely that a slum boy would be accused of cheating if he won the show.”
The result was a fast-paced page-turner turned out at astonishing speed.
He completed the 382-page novel in four months and the editors demanded no rewrites.
Swarup set the tale in Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum in Mumbai, where he had never set foot before he wrote the book.
“I’d been to other slums and I researched Dharavi,” he said. In fact, he said his representation of the slum was so authentic someone who knew the place intimately asked him how many years he had lived in Dharavi. I thought it was a great compliment,” he said.
His characters range from prostitutes to film stars, slum-dwellers and glue sniffers. “You don’t need to have lived these things, you need imagination and empathy. I’m a firm believer that we’re all the same people, once you get under our skins we all feel the same things — the same emotions.”