National Post, Canada
by Brad Frenette May 16, 2009 I recently spoke to Vikas Swarup, a diplomat turned writer whose debut novel Q and A was turned into the massive film Slumdog Millionaire. His second novel, Six Suspects, is now out in Canada. NP: Tell me how this book, Q&A as it was originally published, came to be. Where did the story come from? VS: I don't really remember the exact moment of inspiration, how the exact idea came to me, all I remember is that it came to me as a package. That I would write a novel based on a quiz show with a a contestant that would have street knowledge as opposed to book knowledge. And that the chapters of the books would relate to the sequences on the quiz show. Even some of the questions came to me at that time - the INRI question, you know, what's written on the cross - that would come from him living with a priest. The persona non grata - he would have worked with a diplomat. So really, the fact that I was able to write this book in two months really meant that the whole idea was completely formed in my mind. One of the triggers I suppose for the novel was for one - the episode of the cheating major in Britain. Major Charles Ingram He appeared on the British edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, won a million pounds but was subsequently accused of cheating. When they reviewed the tapes, they found that there was an accomplice in the audience who would signal the correct answers to him through coded coughs. NP: His answers were too good to be true. And it might appear that way in the novel as well. VS: it is a fairy tale in that sense, It's a rag to riches story. it can also be seen as a coming of age story. NP: It's interesting the examples you gave there - when he lived with the priest and so on – were left out of the movie. Danny Boyle certainly took some liberties with your book. VS: Yes.. NP: Did you enjoy the final product, the movie? VS: Yes I have enjoyed the final product and I knew from the very beginning that the film would be very different from the book. first we have to appreciate the fact that this is my debut novel. Second, Film Four approached me for the rights one year before the novel was even published. I wrote this book in 2003, the publishers loved it and said this appears to be a big book, we want to do a lot of marketing and promotion and we'll publish it two years down the line in 2005. And Film four approached me in 2004, because obviously they must have been tipped off by the publishers or my agent I don't know. So first of all you have to consider that it was not that I had a huge amount of control in my hand, that I am a J.K. Rowling, and I’m saying hey this is my 20th book and you’re making a film on it I want it exactly a frame by frame reproduction of my book. And number two Simon Beaufoy was to write the screenplay and I had seen The Full Monty. So there was a certain level of comfort in working with someone like him and the good thing was he consulted me. He told me, he met me in London in 2005, before he started working on the screenplay, before he made that trip to India. He said look I love your novel, it's a great novel but all of it will not work as a film. So we are probably going to have to change the title, and we're probably going to have to change some of the stories. But he made me a promise : I'll be faithful to the soul of your novel. And that is a promise he's by and large delivered on. Anyone who's seen the film knows instantly it's based on Q and A. It's not one of those adaptations that you can't even make head or tails of which novel it is based on. And I think much of the success of the film stems from the fact that it adapts the same narrative structure of the novel. the Q&A format, that's what keep the viewer engaged. NP: Were you consulted along the way? Was it a process you were able to contribute to? VS: Not all, no. What happened was that Simon consulted me at the beginning. Then he sent me the first draft. I gave my comments on the first draft, he incorporated some of my suggestions also and then I was shown the next draft as well. So there was that process of consultation but obviously when I saw the final product, you know it's very different what you read in a screenplay and when you see it on the big screen. NP: I guess that’s the case with most adaptations. VS: Exactly yes, I personally believe that in an adaptation, because the medium is completely different, the people who are doing the adaptation should have the right at least to bring something of their own to the table. And in this case Simon brought that whole love story angle. NP: You talked about the hype for your book as it was published, the book came out it was well received and this movie was being made. Then the movie came out, and it's great, now there's a second set of buzz. Then it catapults into a phenomenon. Were you expecting that? VS: When I was writing the novel I knew I was on to a good thing. In the sense that I knew it was a fresh idea, it was a unique way of telling a story, I mean these were given. But, at the same time, I also thought it’s a very Indian story. It's set entirely in India, and it deals with the underbelly of India. It doesn't deal with the exotic India of maharajas and yogas and palaces and priests. So I was really apprehensive that this book would appeal to anyone outside of India at all. So the fact that it’s been translated into 41 languages has come as a huge huge surprise to me. the fact that people in such diverse countries as Taiwan where it was born into 21 editions, Israel where it's been a number one bestseller - Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa. That people have related to a book which is completely alien to their own country and culture so to speak. That has come as a huge surprise to me. Certainly look, in hindsight, if someone were to tell me 'Mr Swarup, this novel of yours is going to be made into an Oscar winning film', I would have taken a much closer look at the final product (laughs), as to what I was signing off on. I really thought that this would be one of those films which comes, which gets released, does its run for about a week or ten days and quietly passes into obscurity. I mean, even Danny Boyle said as much at the Golden Globes - he said we never expected to be here. And he's right. I mean, it’s a 15 million dollar budget film, shot entirely in India with Indian actors that nobody had ever heard of, music is by an Indian, sound is by an Indian. I mean, who gave this film a chance in hell? NP: As this film got bigger, and as it got more publicity, we saw some backlash in the India media; there were protests. Did you hear any of that when the book was published? VS: No, no. Look, the fact of the matter is that Indians have been traditionally sensitive to the way their country is depicted. Either in cinema, or in books. The White Tiger [the current Booker winner by Aravind Adiga] for instance - many Indians hate that novel because they think that it presents a very negative and one-sided image of India. As far as my novel, you see the canvas of the book is much wider than the film. And that's clear from the title itself. My title was Q and A, Questions and Answers. The film's title is Slumdog Millionaire. The slum is India, the slum part forms the backdrop only of the last part of my novel where Ram Mohammed Thomas having done the thing in Agra comes and starts living in Dharavi. The rest of the novel is set in very different scenarios. So number one, it was not really perceived as being very negative or critical of India or things like that. And I think really that even though slums provide the backdrop to the novel, it really is a story of grit and determination. What it tells you is that even someone who has not had a formal education, someone who lives in the gutter, and someone who is given no chance in life, even he or she can triumph over the odds and emerge as the winner. So that to me is an empowering thought. It's an optimistic belief. It's not something to be carping about or to be pessimistic about. NP: And that came through in the film too, this idea of hope, and your novel, as you say, maybe it was more at the forefront. Did you have any trepidation when the title was changed to Slumdog Millionaire. Did you know that it might set off a couple alarms. VS: I knew when I read the script that some people would be perturbed by its portrayal of India. Believe me, I'm saying very honestly the scene of the communal riot where they kill the mother of these two boys, I was not very comfortable with that. Again, the broad tradition in India of tolerance and harmony. Yes, we have had our problems but if you look at the fact that Islam came to India in the 8th century AD, I mean how many religious conflicts can you remember? You can count them on your fingers, so to speak. So it's not as if India is a land where there's a lot of intolerance and the two religions are not co-existing properly and we have the riots. So that was uncomfortable but what took me by surprise was the fact that people objected to the title Slumdog. That I thought was quite surprising because maybe they did not understand. When Simon Beaufoy invented this word, it does not exist in the English language, he was really making a play, a pun on the word underdog. NP: So Simon actually invented this word? Because that didn't come through in the media reports - it was more like this was an offensive, almost taboo thing that was being exposed. So he's actually responsible for that. VS: Absolutely, Simon is totally responsible for the word and in fact when we met in Mumbai I said 'Simon, I hope you better have your answer ready as to why you chose to change the title of my book from Q and A to Slumdog Millionaire." NP: I would think so. There was that one particular protest where the protester had actually grabbed a couple of physical canines, some dogs and named them after Simon and Danny. VS: My god! (laughs) I didn't know about this. So there was a dog called Danny and a dog called Simon? I had no idea. You see, people should not pick on the first part only. They must also pick on the second part. He is talking about a slumdog who's become a millionaire, so I suppose only a slumdog who has become a millionaire should have the right to protest, I imagine. (laughs). NP: Are these characters that you might revisit in the future? VS: Well, this was suggested to me in fact. I don't remember if it was directly by my publishers but certainly by people around me and people connected to the publishing world saying look, now that Q&A has become such a good thing - and this was before the film was out - for your next novel, why don't you look at doing another Q&A where we'll trace the life story of Ram Mohammed Thomas from the age of 18 to the age of 25, where he's won the billion rupees and now you are telling the story of how his life changes as a result of that. And I thought about it and I rejected it. I said no. If I were to write another version of Q&A then it means I'm repeating myself and also it means that I don't have any other new stories to tell. And actually I had six different stories to tell and that's why I wrote this book called Six Suspects. NP: Right, perfect segue. Six Suspects comes out in Canada in May. So why don't you tell me a little bit about Six Suspect. VS: The problem with books is that they have to be put into a particular niche. In a bookstore, you have to look for it in a particular section, So they have classified it as genre fiction, crime thriller or a whodunnit, but I think it's really much more than that. In a traditional whodunnit, we all know what happens. There is a murder and the person you think is the suspect gets bumped off and then the third person gets bumped off and there are three or four deaths and finally the great detective comes and he cleans up all the mystery and tells you ok, this is the guy, this is the perp who actually did it. But in my book, there's only one murder, and there are six suspects, because for me the murder is not important from a forensic point of view, it's important from a sociological point of view. So I really in my own way, and I'm not trying to boast here, I'm really trying to push the boundaries, the envelope of mystery fiction. Can mystery fiction also enable you to take a look at society itself? What I have done is through the eyes of these six suspects, and the backstories of these six people, I tried to capture different facets of India through these six different eyes. One is a Bollywood actress, one is an American from Texas, one is a stone age tribal, one is a retired bureaucrat, one is an ambitious politician, one is a mobile phone thief. As you can see, the strata that they cover is quite different and quite diverse and four are insiders, two are outsiders. There is this dualism going on, and most of these people are wearing masks, And through their eyes the idea is to capture a sense of the times we are living in. NP: This book is again about India. set in India. Do you think this would also make a good film. Is it a process you’d want to examine again? VS: It's already happened. BBC and Starfield Productions have already optioned it. NP: Did you put something into that contract saying that you would have more control over this one, That if they change the title you’re going to have to run it by me first. VS: The contract is exactly the same. I had creative control over the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire as well, so if I wanted to I could have said, sorry I don't agree with this. I'm not going to sign off on this. And that could have created an impasse. But I was generous and I said they are doing this, they have a lot of money riding on this, good luck to them and if they think this is what's going to work let's give it a chance. For Six Suspects, again, this is a much more complex book than Q and A. Definitely much more complex. The characters are much more complex, the resolution is much more complex. So certainly I would take a much closer look at how they do it. Because first of all, I never imagined that my second book would become a film. I never wrote it from the purpose of one day it would become a film because then I would never have written a whodunnit, because as we all know, whodunnits are the most difficult to film. You can disguise the murderer in the novel, but how do you disguise it in a film, where everything is in your face? NP: It must be an amazing thing for an author to see what's going to happen, it's almost a mystery in itself. VS: That's the fun also. There's someone adapting this book now, and this person will bring his or her own perception of the book and interpret it in maybe a completely different way from what you might have imagined. Sometimes there's that trade also. Of course it can go horribly wrong if that person just does not get what I was driving at. So I think for the second one I hope there will be this process of consultation and mutual regard for what I have and for what the screenplay writer will do. NP: Celebrity diplomats are few and far between. You are now in a country, South Africa, with a couple of politicians who have the world stage. How did you become Deputy High Commissioner of India. Were you in that position before you wrote Q&A? VS: I am a professional diplomat. I am an accidental writer in fact. I've been a diplomat now for 23 years. I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1986 but never thought I'd be a writer. For 15 years after joining I never wrote a word of fiction. It was only when I was posted in London - this was between 2000 and 2003 - that this idea of "do I have a novel in me? Can I germinate it?" I still define myself primarily as a diplomat . A diplomat who writes. NP: Tell me about South Africa, your experiences there. VS: It's a great posting. You see, I used to handle Southern Africa way back in 1990-91 so in that capacity I handled Nelson Mandela's first visit to India. Since then it's been a dream. This is one of those countries where you had apartheid existing as late as the 1990s. No other country in the world you had this kind of institutionalized racial discrimination existing in the statute books. There was this aspect. Secondly the way Nelson Mandela, under Nelson Mandela, they went through a policy of reconciliation and forgiveness rather than revenge. To me that was really fascinating and I wanted to come and see for myself how this Rainbow Nation was faring, how they'd managed these race relations which were so fraught in the past. NP: Every country has its own history and tension, but India and South Africa have very complex histories. VS: I agree. NP: A lot of the writers have day jobs - some writers are teachers, some writers work at a newspaper. Are we going to see a novel at some point of a diplomat travelling the world? VS: (Laughs) Yes, if I were to write a cross-cultural novel then certainly the travel that I have done around the world, the places I have visited would probably figure into that. But what I find is that right now there is a hunger for novels about India. In fact there are non-Indians who are writing novels about India so why as an Indian I should not write about my own country and as they say you write best about what you know best. And I may live for three years in South Africa but I am still only scratching the surface of the reality here. I may live for five years in Canada and I would still not be able to think like you do, as a Canadian. So I think India is in my blood, and as they say, you can take an Indian out of India but you can't take India out of an Indian. Even though I have lived abroad because of my day job, I have always felt connected to my homeland and I wanted to write about that. Having said that, my third novel is probably not going to be set in India. It may be set in a fictional country. NP: There's no shortage of stories in India, though. VS: A nation of a billion people means a nation of a billion stories.