April 2, 2009
A Diplomat’s Unlikely Rise to ‘Slumdog’ Acclaim
By MARK McDONALD
HONG KONG — It’s an impossible story, really, how a modest fellow from a family of lawyers becomes a back-office diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, writes his first novel in a feverish two months, finds a clientless agent over the Internet and has a British director turn his mid-list book into a movie that wins the best-picture Academy award and seven other Oscars.
The recent career trajectory of Vikas Swarup is nearly as preposterous as the plot of his novel, “Q & A,” the tale of an uneducated waiter from a Mumbai slum who wins a billion rupees on an Indian quiz show. Mr. Swarup, 47, recently found himself onstage at the Academy Awards, celebrating in the joyous scrum of young Indian actors from “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“Quite amazing,” he said in an interview here. “This kind of thing happens to Tom Cruise, not to authors. But I console myself that this too shall pass and life will return to normal.”
Any return to normal for Mr. Swarup, if that’s even possible now, could begin in Osaka, Japan, where this summer he will take over as consul general. His wife, Aparna, a painter, and their two sons will soon start packing for the move from their current posting in South Africa.
Mr. Swarup, during a brief Hong Kong vacation, was staying at the home of the Indian consul general, a longtime friend from the foreign service. During a long, animated conversation at the official residence on The Peak, an upscale neighborhood, the writer seemed genuinely amazed by his good fortune — with the film, with a renewed interest in his novel, at his luck in even being published at all.
And it’s luck that animates his novel, which is substantially different from the film. Mr. Swarup allows himself the occasional grimace in talking about the numerous changes in the script. But, ever the diplomat, he says the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, and the director, Danny Boyle, stayed “faithful to the central narrative structure.”
That narrative is a series of flashbacks from the young waiter’s life — episodes that are by turns poignant, violent, whacky, woeful — that explain how he knows the answers to each of the quiz-show questions. Set against the poverty and predations in the slum of Dharavi, the novel (and the film) amount to a kind of docu-fable.
The word slumdog, an invention of the filmmakers, caused an immediate furor, as they no doubt expected, and criticism of both the novel and the film was deep and angry. It was particularly acid from within India.
“Poverty porn” has been a commonly heard label, and nationalistic critics have assailed the book for portraying some of India’s darkest sides — poverty, crime, violence, police torture, incest, child prostitution. The novelist Salman Rushdie savaged the novel as “a corny potboiler” and “the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.”
Mr. Swarup was certainly stung by the criticisms, but said he understood the strong reactions.
“Indians are sensitive to the way their country is represented, but the film was not a documentary on slum life,” said Mr. Swarup. “Slums provide the backdrop to the story of the courage and determination of this boy who beats the odds.”
Beating the odds in “Q & A” required correct answers to a set of questions. So, in that spirit:
You arranged to get passports at the last minute for the two youngest kids in the film — who actually do live in a Mumbai slum — so they could travel to Los Angeles for the Oscars. They had no birth certificates?
They had no documents of any kind. I spoke to the head of our passport office. These two kids, acting in a film, traveling in a plane for the first time, standing on the stage with Steven Spielberg — that really moved me. The message of that night was plain: It doesn’t matter where you come from, from the slums or a five-star family. And that was the point of the book.
An intrinsic theme of the book seems to be captured by the Hindi word “jugaad’’ — ingenuity, perseverance, fix it.
Exactly, jugaad means to get the job done, somehow or other. It’s really the spirit of India. My phone recently had water damage and I gave it to the Nokia dealer. He said, “No can do. Can’t be fixed. Just buy a new phone.” If that had happened in India, some local guy in a little shop would have cloned an old Samsung or Motorola or whatever, and five minutes later, “Here you are Mr. Swarup, it works!” They would never say it cannot be done. Jugaad is the spirit of whatever-it-takes. That’s India. And that’s the spirit of those kids.
You’ve said you never went to the Dharavi slum for research, or any other slum. Did you do any scouting or interviews as research?
No. None. Because I wasn’t trying for that level of realism. That’s the great thing about fiction. In my invented universe, I make the rules. Google took me wherever I needed to go. Without Google I couldn’t have written the book in two months.
I heard you were incensed over the change to “Slumdog Millionaire.’’
For the name of the book, not for the film. I was very annoyed. I immediately said, “I need a lawyer! Can they do this? How can they change the title of my book without my consent?” They explained to me that this new edition of the book was the film tie-in. I’m actually quite happy with it now. Now when someone has seen the film I say go and read the book. It’s different. A different pleasure at a different level.
The filmmakers changed the three-dimensional name of the lead character from Ram Mohammad Thomas to Jamal Malik. They cut out the gay, tattooed, cocaine-snorting priest with a leather fetish who dies in a murder-suicide with another priest. They changed a lot. What changes bothered you the most?
The name of Ram Mohammad Thomas is a unique name and I would have loved to have it in the movie. They also were interested in this heavy-duty love story. The opera scene in Agra in the movie still makes no sense to me. These are some of the issues, and I’d love to have a detailed conversation with Danny about it one day.
You’ve described the book-to-film process as giving away one’s daughter in marriage. But you consulted with Simon Beaufoy over a couple of preliminary drafts. Did you have major input on the screenplay?
I only made a few suggestions. They had $20 million riding on this film. My comfort level was high. If I tinkered with it too much and the film didn’t do well, they might say, “You scuppered our chances.” Simon told me he loved the novel and would remain faithful to the soul of the book. But when somebody tells you they will be faithful to the soul, you know the body will get mangled.
Did you watch any of the shooting or do rewrites on the set?
No, I had no direct role at all. I was not consulted. That’s not my film. It’s Danny Boyle’s film. After the screenplay was done, they said, “O.K., the author’s work is over. Thank you, Mr. Swarup. See you — or not see you.”
You signed over the global film rights perhaps too cheaply, which happened a year before “Q & A’’ even came out. But do you get royalties from the film? Are you wealthy now?
As a first-time author, if they say sign on Page 72 of the contract, you sign on Page 72. You don’t say, “Hey, what about Clause No. 1.2, subsection (g)?” Honestly, about royalties, I don’t really know. I can confidently say I’m not a dollar millionaire.
Your initial publishing deal was for two books, and the second book is out. So now will you really cash in, with your third book and a film deal? Why not skip the books and go right to writing screenplays?
Cash in? I don’t know. But I’m a free agent and I can go with whoever I want. I am getting lots of offers from Bollywood. But screenplay writing is by committee. One chap says , “I want sex.” The second chap wants action. And on and on. With books you’re free to write what you want.
The second novel, ‘‘Six Suspects,’’ seems like a nod to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, plotted like a guess-the-murderer whodunit.
No, neither of those, not at all. I had read “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell, a series of six stories that suddenly stop. I liked the conceit of that, and I tried for something similar, with an overarching narrative that ties everything together. I was trying to punch the boundaries of the murder mystery. I’m a sucker for the genre.