Jaipur: 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.
“I’m a living proof that if I can write a book, anyone can,” said Swarup, 47, the writer of “Slumdog” and 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, Swarup still seems surprised at the success of his debut work, in which a poverty-stricken orphan wins India’s version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” by answering the quiz show questions from memories of his tormented past.
“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 said.
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 that premiers in Mumbai on Friday and won 10 Academy Award nominations on Thursday, including Best Film and Best Director.
Swarup says he’s “extremely happy” with the movie, even though the plot undergoes a thorough makeover in Boyle’s hands.
The biggest change was that the film-makers 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” but Swarup said he had liked the notion of the hero as an Indian “everyman”.
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 Bollywood legend 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, vehemently rejecting suggestions that he set out to show “the dark side of Indian life”.
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 said he 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.
He is the first to admit that his manner of writing is not intellectual in the style of many Indian authors who are long on adjectives and descriptions.
Swarup set the tale in Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, a sea of corrugated tin rooftops and winding alleys in Mumbai. But he had never set foot in Dharavi 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, you need empathy. I’m a firm believer that we’re all the same people, rich or poor. Once you get under our skins we all feel the same things -- the same emotions.”