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I loved Slumdog Millionaire, it is one of my favourite recent movie. I still do, even if slightly diminished now after reading Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (republished as Slumdog Millionaire). I mean, prior to reading the book, I had low expectations. Jamal Malik of the movie is Ram Mohammad Thomas–and I figured the suspension of disbelief would be harder.

Turns out no. It presents a much starker picture of India, and how the poor are institutionally disadvantaged. Ram Mohammad Thomas, for example, runs between Delhi, Mumbai and Agra just to avoid the police, just because he doesn’t trust them to be fair. Ram contrasts starkly with Jamal, though. Jamal is a unlucky saint in love, who catches a lucky break. Ram’s character has a lot more shades of grey – he steals more than shoes from the Taj Mahal, and his involvement in murder is a lot more than merely being in the same room.

The concept of the movie and the book are quite similar – Jamal and Ram answers questions based on their past experience, narrated through flashbacks. The movie is based on a police interrogation, the book is based on a client giving his account to a lawyer. The movie has the narrating occuring after the penultimate question; the book is after. There’s some suspense in the movie because of this. The book makes up for this loss of suspense with its gripping tales and the unexpected twist at the end. So which do I like better? Well, its beyond the break, chokeful of spoilers.

  • The game show: Initially I thought using Who Want To Be A Millionaire was inspired. Swarup instead creates a new game show, Who Wants To Win A Billion (W3B). This creates a backstory that ultimately creates a twist in the end – W3B isn’t being fronted by the most solvent producers, who didn’t expect such a huge cashout so early in the game show. The host, Prem Kumar, is presented differently this way–manipulation (feeding wrong answers, and later, switchin questions) is led by the producers of the show, not a spiteful host.
  • The suspension of disbelief: How did Jamal and Salim Malik, between escaping Maman and arriving in Agra, learn English? Ram Mohammad Thomas was brought up by an English priest, who was killed when he was 9–forcing him into a juvenile home, and later, the streets. Encounters with strangers seemed more likely as portrayed in the book (rich man with a Haitian wife, hitman from the underworld) than in the movie (blinded beggar knowing the presidents on US dollar bills).
  • Supporting characters: Jamal’s main friend was his older brother, Salim, who betrays him repeatedly from the very beginning (I guess it adds to the realism). He has no father-figures in his life, unlike Ram (Father Timothy), no mother figures (Neelima Kumari), no faithful friends, however flawed (Gudiya, abused by a drunkard father, Salim, orphaned by communal violence, and Shankar, autistic child abandoned by his mother).
  • Love interest: What disturbed me was how a prepubescent boy can fall in love with a girl (Latika), who was treated like a sister when all three of them were orphaned by communal violence – making it a lifelong goal to get Latika back. Ram’s love interest, Nita, starts only when he’s 17, when he visits a brothel and falls in love with a prostitute. Granted, Latika was also forced into prostitution (but rescued before she’s touched, only to be violated by Salim), but Jamal fell in love with her before all that.
  • Primary objective
  • : And seriously, stop reading if you haven’t read the book or watched the movie. It will completely spoil it for you. Jamal Malik joined the show to get the attention of Latika. Ram joined the show to exact revenge on Prem Kumar, who abused Neelima Kumari and Nita badly (Nita was hospitalized for four months), but instead spares Kumar to free Nita from her pimp/brother.
  • The book doesn’t really translates well into film – too many subplots, it will be too confusing. And I don’t fault Slumdog for this. But if Danny Boyle stayed more faithful to the text, I think we will have a far better movie.

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    1. […] As much as it is a good book simply for the story and story-telling, the language holds it back a bit. There was nothing objectionable about the writing, but the fact that the flashbacks were written in present tense. As the non-flashback bits were also written in present tense which cheapens the quality of the book. (More gushing review and comparison with the movie – with bonus spoilers – here) […]

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