The movie Slumdog Millionaire opens with my favourite line:
“Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? (A) He cheated, (B) He’s lucky, (C) He’s a genius, (D) It is written.”
In this book, however, Jamal Malik is known as Ram Mohammad Thomas (a satirical name combining Hindu, Muslim and Catholic names). 18-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas is in prison after answering 12 questions correctly on “Who wants to be a billionaire?” (Kaun Banega Crorepati in the Hindi version) to win one billion rupees. The producers have arrested him, convinced that he has cheated his way to victory. Ram did not cheat. It is pure serendipity that the 12 answers he provided came from the 12 extraordinary events in street-kid Ram’s life, i.e. he was found in a dustbin by a priest; came to have three names; fooled by a professional hitman; even fell in love – give him all the crucial answers.
I am going to provide a quick summary for Ram’s memory of the answer to the questions, just so that a few years on, I could still remember what I had read. You can skip this if you don’t want it to be a show spoiler.
1000 rupees question – Ram recalled childhood friend Salim and his adulation to movie star Armaan Ali.
2000 rupees question – question of letters that inscribed below a cross, remembers Ram of his days living with Father Timothy in service to the church. One day new comer father John came to the church, followed by the demise of the church.
5000 rupees question – a question about a planet in the solar system which is the name of a dog of a girl, Guriya, who is Ram’s neighbour in Dharavi slum. Ram avenge the wrong doings of Guriya’s father, extending his hand through a gutter to support Guriya by holding her hands.
10,000 rupees question- A worship song of Krishna for The bhajans of Surdas, recalled the time when Salim and Ram was picked from the Orphanage / Juvenile Homes by Maman and men, who run a syndicate of child beggars. This is the part most closely adapted in the movie.
50,000 rupees question – recalled a time when Ram worked for a man named Colonel Taylor, an Australian diplomat, who is a man who knows all, who knows every little misdeed that his servants do in his own home. Only that the Colonel is engaged in misdemeanour of his own resulting his status in the country as persona non grata.
100,000 rupees question – While working as a bartender, Ram listened to the story of Prakash Rao who married a woman, from Haiti, who practices voodoo-ism, against his own brother.
200,000 rupees question – recalls a time when Ram had a revolver in his hand while travelling in the Western Express with his hard earned money of 50,000 rps from the actress, Neelima.
500,000 rupees question – recalls a soldier’s tale during the India – Pakistan War in 1971.
1million rupees question – recalls of a time when Ram worked for an unscrupulous man who bet on every cricket games and followed every crime news that is reported on TV.
10 million rupees question – Game show host Prema Kumar led Ram to believe he is going to ask a geography question only to ask another question under the camera. Fortunate for Ram, because the question had to do with his ex-employer, the actress Neelima Kumari. Neelima suffers abuse by her boyfriend, and ailing mother. And Ram recalls the night when Neelima spent talking about her career with a thief who came in to steal the VHS player from her house.
100 million rupees question – recalls the time when Ram worked as a tour guide in Taj Mahal and live with a group of colourful characters in his rented abode called “Swapna Palace” run by a heartless woman, Swapna Devi. Ram befriends a boy, Shankar who can’t speak clearly, and no one understands anything he tried to say. It is also in this time Ram fell in love with a prostitute, Nita, whom Ram is willing to find a way to amass 50k rupees to redeem her freedom from the brothel, from her brother, the pimp.
1 billion rupees question – During game show commercial break, Ram bumped into host Prema again in the gents. Apparently Ram is in the game show not because he wanted to win the money, but for a more grandeur purpose. Prema told Ram the answer of the next question. As Ram tossed his lucky one-rupee coin into the air, would it be heads or tails, and what would be the answer to the 1 billion rupees question: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29,Opus 106, the ‘Hammerklavier Sonata’ is in which key?
Ram often dreams of a tall young woman clad in white sari with a baby in her arm, with every dream a different ending.
It is then revealed at the end of the movie that the correct answer to the opening question is “D) it is written”, implying that it is destiny.
I am ambivalent about the novel. I like it because the idea is a refreshing one. It is riveting and bite-size of Ram’s story keeps you in teh edge of your seat until the end. It is witty and humorous. Every flashback of his life tells of a tale of various types of harsh reality of poor Ram’s life. I didn’t like it because it is a little wishy-washy, crude, excessive introduction of tragedies, a loss of realism (ok, maybe tragedies really comes in overdose in Slumdog real life, Swarup’s vivid characterisation covers the full social spectrum (prostitutes, glue-sniffers, film stars, diplomats, slum-dwellers, hit-man, actors) portraying the harsh life of slumdogs), incredulous coincidences and lots of loose ends. I think the movie is a better, sophsticated adaptation of the novel, which the producers had rewrite the scripts and given the characters an endearing veneer of enduring childhood friendships and love. How much credit the writer got for the success of the movie, I wouldn’t know.
The fact behind the fiction is that indeed there is a youth from Mumbai middle class family, Harshvadhan Vinayak Nawathe, who win the Indian version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” game show. It is an entertaining read, if only it helps me to re-affirm, after reading The White Tiger, and this book; the antipathy Indian feels towards each other, the jealousy of not helping your fellow countrymen succeed, allows another human being to live in the existence of an animal, such as the people in the slum. Who else can explain this better than the evidence that Mr. Nawathe gave all the right answers to win the money in real life against all odds by not benefitting from his “lifelines”? The odds of using the first lifeline of asking the audience’s suggestions and he went against the audience poll, then he used the “phone a friend” lifeline only to have the friend said he doesn’t know the answer to the question. 🙂
Slumdog Millionaire is a 2008 British film directed by Danny Boyle, written by Simon Beaufoy, and co-directed in India by Loveleen Tandan. Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for ten Academy Award 2009 and won eight, the most for any film of 2008, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also won seven BAFTA awards (including Best Film), five Critics’ Choice Awards, and four Golden Globes.
About the writer:
Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat who has served in Turkey, the USA, Ethiopia and Great Britain. He is presently posted in the ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. Q&A is being translated into 25 languages.
To compare the plot between the movie and the book, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slumdog_millionaire