‘Slumdog’ novelist’s final answers
A. I am an “accidental” writer. I never thought I would be a novelist and did not write a word of fiction for almost 15 years. It was only when I was posted in London that I got inspired to try my hand at fiction, motivated by some of my contemporaries in the Foreign Service who had written novels.
I wrote this novel in the last two months of my diplomatic posting in London in 2003. I have always been interested in the psychological processes which are at work in quiz shows. As one of my characters in the book says, “A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.” And our memories are produced by various things, by our experiences, our dreams and desires, not just by what we are taught in school. In fact, I have always been impressed with the knowledge that even a common man possesses. I had also read a news report, a decade ago, of how street children, who had never gone to school, had begun using a computer entirely on their own. (It was called the Hole in the Wall project, started by a group of scientists in a slum in Delhi). This told me that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of the school-going elite. There is a tremendous awareness, even amongst people that you would normally consider disadvantaged. So the basic idea behind Q & A was to show that privilege and wealth are no bar for ingenuity and that sometimes “street” knowledge can be as important as “book” knowledge to win a game show.
The book did not dwell on slums, and the film is also not a documentary on slum life. Dharavi just happened to be the backdrop of telling a compelling human story about the ultimate underdog. Eventually it is a story of hope and optimism, which conveys the message that even someone who is given no chance in life can beat the odds and triumph. Indians have, by and large, embraced the film, and the Oscars for [composer A.R.] Rahman and Resul [Pookutty, sound editor,] have been the icing on the cake.
You wrote the book in only two months before your next assignment as India’s director of relations with Pakistan. How could you finish the novel so fast?
I was able to finish it precisely because of the job waiting for me in New Delhi. I knew that with that kind of high-pressure job, I would find no time to complete the novel in Delhi; so it would be best for me to finish the novel in London itself.
The story of an underdog who wins out made the book a hit across the world. After that, one would think that it would be harder to write another book as you try to outdo your previous success. What do you think, and can you give us an idea of when the film of your second book is coming?
My second book, “Six Suspects,” came out in August 2008 and is now being translated into 23 languages including Korean [by the same publisher who brought out Q & A, Munhakdongne]. BBC and Starfield Productions have optioned it for a film, and the screenplay is being written by John Hodge, who wrote scripts for films like “Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave” and “The Beach.”
Six Suspects is the tale of six different people who are all suspects in a murder investigation. I wanted to experiment with a polyphonic narrative. So using the anatomy of murder as the framing device, I have tried to plot a narrative with six different voices - the voices of a retired bureaucrat, a Bollywood actress, an ambitious politician, a mobile phone thief, a credulous American and even a stone-age tribesman. It is my attempt to capture the dissonant pitch of our times. This one took a year and a half. I think we are all waiting for the script by John Hodge to be finalized and then the director will be chosen.
I heard you really liked the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” even though it has some twists and changes from the book. What did you like the most about it?
I think the film is visually dazzling and packs an emotional punch. The acting by the child actors is marvelous and A.R. Rahman’s music is spellbinding. The way Danny Boyle has captured the throbbing, pulsating life in Mumbai has never been done before. He brings an outsider’s perspective to Mumbai, but one imbued with love and respect for the city and its residents.
Simon Beaufoy, the screenwriter, gave you a warning there would be changes. Sometimes authors get really picky about such things and refuse to budge. How was it in your case? Did you have any specific points you told yourself that you wouldn’t compromise no matter what?
Film 4 optioned the movie rights one year before the book was even published. I knew at a very early stage that Simon Beaufoy would do the screenplay and that Danny Boyle would direct, and that certainly increased my comfort level with the project as both of them have established track records. I was consulted on the screenplay. Having seen the script, I knew that the film would incorporate many new elements which were not there in the book. I also realized that film is a different medium, and what works in the book may not necessarily work in the film. But I was happy with the final product, which remained faithful to the soul of my novel and borrowed the entire narrative structure from the book.
You got a six-figure book deal. Did you make any money from the movie rights?
I’d rather not get into the money aspect. Suffice it to say, the film has not made me a dollar millionaire.
The key element of the story is that Ram’s adventures in orphanages and brothels, with gangsters and Bollywood celebrities, have taught him the answers to each question Prem Kumar poses in the quiz show. Is there some sort of message there? Are you implying that the lessons of everyday life provide you with real answers?
I am not saying that education is not important. What I am saying is that the greatest teacher in the world is life itself. The message is that just because someone has not had formal education it does not mean that he or she does not have knowledge, and we should not treat people as inferior simply because they have not had the right breaks in life.
Where did you pick up your flair for writing?
Basically from reading books. I did not have English literature as my subject and neither have I attended any creative writing workshops. I really wrote the kind of book I would have liked to read myself.
What sort of books do you enjoy?
While growing up, I read all kinds of authors, from Franz Kafka and Albert Camus to Alistair MacLean and Irving Wallace. But my favorite genres were mysteries and thrillers. That is why the most important consideration for me is to ensure that my books are readable and have the consistency of a page turner. Nowadays my reading is quite eclectic. I like works which have strong narrative voices. I am particularly interested in the novels of Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster.
Bollywood movies have always had a hefty dose of music and dancing. I was wondering why you think this is so, since Koreans love singing too. Do Indians like karaoke?
I think Bollywood films have an emotional core which appeals not only to Indians but also people in several other countries. The song and dance routines are now being underplayed in the “new” Bollywood.
The movie depicts life in the slums, but India has a lot of things going for it. It’s a nuclear power, and it has smart engineers and a strong IT industry. Despite social inequality and a huge income gap, are Indians in general consciously proud of their accomplishments?
I think Indians are fundamentally optimistic people. Despite our problems, we know we are on the right track. Foreigners coming to India see a country that is vibrant, energetic and industrious. My book tries to capture the vitality of life in our cities, how people, even those living in the slums, are trying to make a better life for themselves every single day.
India has moved into the limelight of international politics, and many predict it will be a new superpower. As a diplomat that must be exciting. What do you think will be the major obstacles to fulfilling these lofty expectations?
I think one obstacle will be to ensure funding for the infrastructure projects in power, roads, ports, etc. that we need to sustain a growth rate of 8 to 9 percent over this new decade.
India and Korea are embarking on a new path both in economic and political cooperation. What do you think is the image of Korea for the average Indian? I know you are a diplomat, but please give us a frank answer.
I have never visited South Korea myself, but I can tell you that there is a very positive image of South Korea in India. Indians know South Korea through its world-famous brands like Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Korean companies have also done the smart thing by tailoring their products to the Indian market. I am told Samsung’s cell phones provide Hindi language menus, and their washing machines are especially designed to wash saris. We, in India, look upon ROK [South Korea] as a high-tech partner. We are also very impressed by ROK’s rapid strides in the international sports arena.
I am aware that the earliest contact between India and Korea took place in the first century A.D., with the arrival of the princess of Ayodhya to Korea. Buddhism is yet another vibrant link between us. So I am sure increased cultural exchanges between our two countries will be very useful in spreading awareness of modern India and modern Korea in each other’s countries.
Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards. Has that benefited you at all?
I have not changed, but I suppose people’s perception of me has changed. I do get invited to many more events now. And yes, many new doors open up which would normally remain closed to a diplomat although I wouldn’t use the word “benefited.”
If you had to choose between being a diplomat and writer, what would it be?
I hope I don’t have to make that choice. I like both roles.
By Brian Lee [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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