Q and A / Slumdog Millionaire – A Book Review


This is the book on which the movie Slumdog Millionaire was made and is one of the few books that I am reading after watching (and enjoying) the movie. I usually tend to have read the book before watching the movie.

The Plot

In a nutshell, the story is about a poor boy from the slums of Mumbai and Delhi who somehow manages to get on the popular TV show “Who Wants to be a Billionaire?” and manages to win 1 billion dollars. How does a poor, uneducated boy know the answers to all the questions? Has he cheated, or did he learn from the university of life? Well, that’s the rest of the plot…where he tells his life story showing how he knew the answers to the questions he was asked.

My Review

I was quite surprised to find that the movie deviates quite significantly from the book. The book has far more anecdotes, and details. I welcome the extra detail but somehow the prose does not do justice to the story. Vikas Swarup’s writing is a bit flat, very straightforward, and I was having difficulties getting into the book. The main strengths of the movie were the energy of the kids, the cinematography, the music, and the concept of fate. None of these strengths are derived from the book.

The book meanders on with various anecdotes from Ram Mohammed Thomas’s life (yes, in the book this is his name, and the story of how he comes by a multi-religious name is as cliched as it comes). The book starts to come to life when Ram goes to Agra and falls in love, and decides to come on to the show…a little over midway through the book.

The story picks up the pace quite nicely and Vikas Swarup even manages to throw in a few twists and turns into the very predictable plot making the ending quite a nice surprise.

All in all, it’s not too bad a book. But I was somehow expecting it to touch my emotions a little bit more. I think this is one of those rare cases where the movie was more affecting than the book.

Have any of you read the book and seen the movie? How did you feel the two compared?

Note: I am including this read as one of the books towards completing the South Asian Authors Challenge hosted by S Krishna.

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  • Nardia

    I am shocked you didn’t enjoy the book as much. I, on the other hand, completely enjoyed it. I watched the movie some time ago, and loved it, but if you were to ask me what happened in the movie all I could tell you was that there was a quiz show, an Indian guy, romance, running with some sense of urgency, and amazing music. The book on the other hand, though open to its many criticisms for being too idealistic in its portrayal (a poor boy winning a billion dollars, marrying the love of his life, who is a prostitute by the way, and buying that ferrari he always wanted) has so much more to tell, unlike the movie.
    As with most movie adaptations of books, they deviate quite dramatically from the original plot of the text. Sometimes that’s understandable. Some things you just can’t express visually as you can with the power of words. Sometimes you want to attract a broader audience, so as a producer you completely remove some essentials of a text to create a film. Fine, we get that. And if that’s the case, then I guess it’s totally unfair to compare the two (book and film). But since everyone seems to be doing that anyway, I feel the need to say a bit too on this matter.
    The book, I believe is beautifully written. In its presentation the author has artfully interwoven tragedy with humour. There is a whole bunch of irony interspersed that can make one smile, burst out laughing or even to gasp in shock. For example, in chapter one “The Death of a Hero”, Vikas Swarup (the author) has not simply said ‘Armaan Ali is, OH MY GOD, gay’, but the presentation which he gives us where as readers we read to interpret the culprit of ‘feeling up’ Salim at the cinema to be Armaan Ali and thus gay, is written so well it brings some good shock and humour at the revelation. Quotes from the book: (I’m using a pdf version so I cannot provide the pages numbers)

    “The first thing you must know about Salim is that he is my best friend. The second is that he is crazy about Hindi films. But not all Hindi films. Just the ones featuring Armaan Ali.”

    “Salim loves Armaan. Or, more accurately, he worships Armaan.”

    “Suddenly, a tall man enters through the balcony door and takes the seat next to Salim. A20. He has two hundred seats to choose from, but he selects A20. It is impossible to see his face, but I can make out that he is an old man with a long, flowing beard. He is wearing what appears to be a pathan suit. I am curious about this man. Why is he joining the film halfway through? Did he pay half price for his ticket?”

    Then there is a flashback where Salim learns that there is a ‘rumour’ that his idolized movie star is left by his girlfriend for being gay. And then fast forward, back to the cinema scene.

    “I see that the bearded man’s left hand has moved on. It is now placed in Salim’s lap and rests there gently. Salim is so engrossed in the death scene he does not register it. The old man is emboldened. He rubs his palm against Salim’s jeans. As Armaan takes his last few breaths, the man increases his pressure on Salim’s crotch, till he is almost gripping it.”

    “The man hastily removes his hand from Salim’s lap and tries to get up from his seat. But before he can lift himself completely, Salim makes a grab for him. He fails to catch the man’s collar, but gets hold of his beard. As Salim tugs, it comes off in his hand. The man leaps out of his seat with a strangled cry and dashes towards the exit, which is hardly twenty feet away.”

    “At that very instant the electrical power in the theatre fails and the generator kicks in. The screen goes blank and the dark hall is dazzled as the emergency lights flick on….the power comes back. It was only a momentary interruption. The film resumes on the screen…The man rushes past the black curtains to the red EXIT sign, slams open the door and disappears. But in that split second Salim and I have seen a flash of hazel-green eyes. A chiselled nose. A cleft chin. As the credits begin to roll over the screen, Salim is left holding in his hand a mass of tangled grey hair smelling vaguely of cologne and spirit gum. This time he does not see the name of the publicity designer and the PRO, the light men and the spot boys, the fight director and the cameraman. He is weeping. Armaan Ali, his hero, has died.”

    The book, even in its elaborate use of irony (as with this example) teaches us a great deal about “appearance versus reality” and even so much more about societal pressures, how people struggle to perform actions in keeping with roles ascribed to them by the society. Some persons opt to say the reading of the text is boring, because the language is boring, and when persons say that, I have to wonder if they’ve actually read the book or just skimmed it. I will admit the language is not complex, so if you like that kind of writing you may be disappointed; but “boring” cannot define this text either. I’m sure the above excerpt was not boring at all, and those lines are just cut and pasted version of the real thing. The real thing is quite better. A lot of persons focus too much on the romance of the text (and movie, but then again, the movie revolves around romance for most people) which doesn’t make sense. The romance came in the latter part of the text. For what I have read, the text could exist without Ram meeting Nita. So many valuable characters have occupied these pages. Ram, Father Timothy Francis (the man who adopted him), Father John Little (the young priest in training who engages in homoeroticism, Salim (his right hand man), Neelima Kumari (the former actress who commits suicide), Gudiya (much of a shocker here), her father (the ex-astronomer, turned drunkard), Maman (the man who preys on children’s innocence and maims them for his own good fortune, and maybe a little for theirs), Colonel Taylor (the spy), Almed Klen (the contract killer), Shankar (the autistic boy disowned by his wealthy mother)…and much more. So many colourful characters interspersed in Ram’s elaborate tale. And then apart from ‘appearance versus reality’, persons may see the manifestation of other issues (themes and motifs): deception, death, social class disparity, gender disparity, broken homes/families, poverty, violence/abuse, power versus powerlessness, ‘voicelessness’, traditional versus worldly values, love and friendship.
    For me, when persons watch a film, things don’t resonate as much as they do when reading. We have already established that half the characters (named and unnamed) are ripped from the tale inorder to make the movie. Then for films, there is the extreme focus on music/sound, flashing colours etc. When you read a book/text, your sole focus is on words. There is no distraction of other characters on screen, of pretty colours or the quick passing of a scene. You know a girl could be on screen dressed in raggedy clothes, but unless that director made a conscious decision to make her look really ugly to show say, her poverty, people might focus on how slender and good she looks or how nicely her long limbs are shaped etc. (you would be very surprised how what people see when they watch a film). With a text of words, the texture and feel of words resonate in your mind. That’s your focus. Enough information is given through words to elicit a particular feeling in due strength to what is portrayed by the writer. And if the writer has great control of words and the manipulation of words as does Swarup, you will truly “feel” what is read even without the accompaniment of wonderful music.
    There are many things that might prevent a fun AND effective reading of a book. 1. You may be forced to read the book so you do some ‘slap dash’ reading. 2. You not like that genre originally or even that style of writing so you set up a psychological block against it. I don’t particularly like simple writing (like in Twilight) but I enjoy complex and pseudo-psychological texts like Stephen King, or action and thriller, like John Sanford’s and James Patterson’s; however anything, no matter how idealistic/unrealistic the presentation, as long as it has the ability to teach moral lessons, has humour and can elicit empathy or sympathy from me, I can learn to like it and appreciate it for a book well written. I, even if no one else does, commend Vikas Swarup. I absolutely love his text: Q&A: Slumdog Millionaire.

    ps. I have the movie soundtrack. Awesome stuff.

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  • I like the way you have write your reviews.Its fun to read and makes one want to read those books as well.

  • Mimi

    I’ve just read the book, but haven’t seen the film yet. I think the book was rather good, had no difficulties getting through it. I liked how parts of his parts where reviled one by one, in the wrong order. Like a puzzle =) 

    • @Mimi: I saw the movie before I read the book, and I must confess I liked the movie better 🙂

  • i liked this movie. this movie awarded by oscar… ..

    thank you so much for sharing review of this movie

  • i liked this movie. this movie awarded by oscar…

  • Hi Nish,
    I have not read the book but Ihave seen the movie because it was showcased on Tatasky. I wasn’t too happy with the film and it looked like the title of the movie made a mockery of all people living in the slums. Didn’t the makers of the movie have better things to show about India than this? It’s like marketing poverty to the western world. Maybe all this is new to the West but it doesn’t make any difference to me.

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  • I tried to read the book several years ago, long before the movie came out, and I couldn’t get through it. I found the same thing you did, that the prose was uninspiring and I didn’t feel connected to the characters. The film was a little too upsetting in parts for my tastes, but generally I thought it was much better than the book. It had more of a zing to it.

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  • I haven’t tried the movie or the book… in U.S. peoople got crazy about the movie and the songs were featured so much in tv it really made my head spin that overall I gave up the idea even to watch the movie…

    • @Sumana: the movie was nice, definitely better than the book in my opinion, which was nice but written in a rather bland manner.

      • paul

        I read the book first and really enjoyed it. The film however was sooo different and I find it a shame that it missed so many important things out. The Book emphasises the ups and downs more in the main character’s life which for me was a lot more interesting. The film was also so quickly presented switching from scene to scene making it hard to watch.

        • Nishita

          @Paul: Thanks for visiting and commenting.

          I suppose it depends on which you experience first? The book and movie are actually quite different from each other when you think about it.

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