‘Slumdog’ novelist’s final answers

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‘Slumdog’ novelist’s final answers

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Author and Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup holds up copies of his books “Six Suspects” and “Q & A,” which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”Provided by Vikas Swarup

As Korea and India move into a new area of free trade, cultural exchange is expected to increase as well. The JoongAng Daily spoke via e-mail to Vikas Swarup, author of “Q & A,” the basis for the international hit film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won eight Oscars including best picture. He is also the author of “Six Suspects,” which is also now being adapted into a film. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages, including Korean. Swarup is the current Consul General of India in Osaka-Kobe. He was born on June 23, 1961, in Allahabad, in a family of lawyers. Apart from reading, Swarup enjoys listening to music and playing cricket, tennis and table tennis. His wife Aparna is an artist who has exhibited in India and abroad. They have two sons, Aditya and Varun.

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Q. Your family background is solidly middle class, and you are certainly not from the slums. What made you write this story? What was the catalyst?

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.

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“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle poses with child actor Rubina Ali at the Governor’s Ball following the 2009 Academy Awards.[AP]

The novel and movie depict some of India’s social scenes and religious conflicts. But they feel more like a thriller. How much did you exaggerate India’s problems depicted in the book? And what about the criticism that the movie may have brought out the negative side of India?

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 [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
Related Korean Article

"사람만큼 많은 이야기'인도는 무궁한 소재”


2009년 제81회 아카데미 영화제를 평정한 작품은 인도와 영국의 합작영화 ‘슬럼독 밀리어네어(Slumdog Millionaire)’였다. 작품상·감독상·각색상 등 8관왕을 차지했다. 이 작품의 원작소설 'Q & A'(2005년)를 쓴 사람은 인도의 외교관 비카스 스와루프(49). 소설 역시 한글을 포함해 32개 언어로 번역되는 인기를 누렸다. 외교관 생활을 하면서 두 달 만에 써낸, 그것도 첫 작품으로 이 같은 메가히트를 치기란 쉽지 않다. 현재 일본 오사카 고베 총영사로 있는 그를 e-메일로 만났다. 세계에 인도 문화 열풍을 불게 한 ‘슬럼독 밀리어네어’ 이후의 삶이 궁금했다.

그는 2008년 두 번째 소설 『6인의 용의자』를 내놨다. 한국어를 포함한 23개 언어로 번역됐다. 국내에서는 지난해 6월 출간됐다. 첫 작품에 대한 부담은 없었을까.
“스스로에게 질문을 던져보았다. ‘할 이야기가 또 남아 있을까’라고. 다행히 하고 싶은 얘기가 여섯 개나 있었다. 그래서 이 에피소드를 모아 『6인의 용의자』를 썼다. 나 자신을 작가라기보다는 이야기꾼이라고 생각했던 것도 큰 도움이 됐다.”

소설의 내용은 이렇다. 인도 내무장관의 아들이자 재벌 총수가 파티에서 살해되고, 현장에서 6인의 용의자가 체포된다. 간디의 영혼이 빙의 된 부패한 전직 수석 차관, 하위 계층 출신의 휴대전화 좀도둑, 소안다만제도 최후의 부족인 옹게족 청년, 인도 최고의 섹시 여배우, 할리우드 영화 제작자를 자칭하는 얼뜨기 미국인, 그리고 마피아 출신의 인도 내무장관인 피해자의 아버지다. 서로 무관해 보이는 이들이 사실은 깊은 관계로 이어져 있다는 사실을 통해 인도 사회 내부를 깊숙이 파고든다.

‘슬럼독 밀리어네어’도 그렇고 이 작품 역시 인도의 어두운 실상이 고스란히 드러나 있다. 이에 대해 그는 “난 사회를 비판하기 위해 소설을 쓴 것이 아니다”라며 “이런 이야기를 써보면 재미있지 않을까 생각해서 쓴 것 뿐”이라고 말했다.
“인도인들은 선천적으로 긍정적이다. 현실의 문제들이 있지만 옳은 방향으로 가고 있다고 생각한다. 외국인이 보는 인도는 역동적이고 힘이 넘치며 발전하고 있다. 나는 책에 인도 도시들의 활력을 담아내려 했다.”

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