April 11, 2021
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Reading Swarup, Watching Boyle

Boyle's staggering simplicity of perspective reproduces an "India" always already familiar to the West, an India bereft of history and nuance, which leaves me remembering Swarup's Q & A with more charity than I had for it when I read it.

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Reading Swarup, Watching Boyle

When I read Vikas Swarup’s Q&A a year or so ago, I was intrigued and disappointed equally. I felt the author had focused all his energies on the tight and intricate plot, moving rapidly through it with no slip-ups, but this resulted in a grand plot outline rather than a novel. The prose is functional, characters inked in strongly but with little nuance, and when it all comes together with a click at the end, it is sort of morbidly satisfying, but one feels cheated nevertheless. All the more so because the story lingers stubbornly in memory.

I was interested enough to keep track of Swarup, and found an interview in which he said that after writing four chapters he had to wind it up in a month since he was getting posted back to India and knew he would not have time for it back home.

"It was August 2003, and I had one more month in London. The plot was in my mind, so I took up the challenge and wrote down the remaining chapters in one month. Over one weekend I wrote 20,000 words."

Well, that certainly explained the strange slightness and lack of density - the author’s hurry to reach the finish line shows drastically.

After seeing Slumdog Millionaire though, Q&A in retrospect appears serpentine in its complexity, so completely has Danny Boyle  extracted the simplest and most predictable story line out of it.

Swarup’s novel is not straightforwardly realistic -- the artifice of the plot is in your face, and it works as a sort of fable at one level. Boyle’s film, for all its much-referred to "grittiness", is a fuzzy mushy literal predictable Hollywood story about  "human spirit" and "human dignity"; stunning in its meaningless universalism, of the sort we have seen a million times.

Swarup’s novel is about luck, about the sheer chance of almost every question on the quiz show relating to some segment or experience in his young hero’s life.  Almost presciently, Swarup, in that interview in 2005 had said firmly, " There is no karma in my novel. There is no dharma in my novel."

Boyle predictably, makes it precisely about karma and destiny - "It was written" are the last words in the film.

Swarup’s main character is named Ram Muhammad Thomas, and there is a plot line to explain how the infant abandoned in a dust-bin ends up with this self-consciously Indian secular cliché of a name. Boyle turns him into a Muslim whose mother is killed in communal violence -- utterly plausible of course, but flat. How much more poignant the strangely named character of no known religion getting caught up in communal hate.

Ram Muhammad Thomas’s sufferings are relentless, and he encounters villains of all sorts - the begging mafia, the underworld, you name it - all of which of course, contributes to the fund of knowledge that enables him to answer the questions. But he also finds people who love and support him - the Christian priest who rescues him from the rubbish dump, for example, and the young lawyer who comes to help him when he is charged with cheating to win the game-show (she is also integral to the plot and has a history with RMT that we discover only later, but she has been done away with in the film.)

In Boyle’s film, there are but two innocents -- Jamal and Latika -- the rest are tainted with cruelty of one sort or the other -- from the audience  that laughs mockingly at the chaiwala aspiring to be a millionaire, to the family in the train that throws the boys off the roof of a speeding train for stealing a roti.

There is one, and only one "good" person that Jamal in the film encounters - the American woman who gives him a hundred dollar note after he is beaten by a chauffeur.

"You wanted to see the real India. Here it is," Jamal tells her. "Well, here’s the real America," the woman replies, getting her husband to pull out the hundred-dollar bill.

As Siddhartha Deb wrote in his review,

"For that scene alone, Slumdog Millionaire should receive an Oscar. And now, will the real Americans please step up and hand me the hundred-dollar bills? "

In the book, if I remember correctly, it happens to be an Australian diplomat who is responsible for RMT’s  familiarity with a hundred dollar bill (a bit of knowledge crucial for the plot), and I’m pretty certain there is no smug American woman, but this is not about fidelity to the novel. I don’t really care about that. The point is that Boyle’s staggering simplicity of perspective reproduces an "India" always already familiar to the West, an India bereft of history and nuance, and which leaves me remembering Swarup’s Q&A with more charity than I had for it when I read it.

Look, don’t get me wrong, the film is fine, and I am not one of those who is worried about India being "depicted in poor light" -- that’s our light, and we’d better deal with it. But what the hell is going on with all the hype? All the nominations everywhere? What am I missing? It’s technically polished of course, but that’s all it takes for "the West" to take notice?

I’m aware of course, that nominations are about bloody good PR work and smart wheeling-dealing agents. So we get to see Freida Pinto on Jay Leno, coming across well, unlike Indian celebrities on talk-shows, who generally don't know the routine of dead-pan wit and carefully scripted spontaneous quips. It was clear she had a good script, and she did it well, if a little nervously. "I have promised a friend I’d do something stupid, do you mind", she asks Leno. He looks suitably wary, and she reaches across and touches his silvery hair -you see what I mean? I like her though, she is unpretentious and bright, and competent in the film, but a BAFTA nomination for Supporting Actor? She has barely fifteen minutes in the film all told, of good, competent work, that’s it. She’s smart enough and honest enough not to be overwhelmed by the nomination, though.  In an interview to Indian Express on Sunday (January 25), she said:

"I can’t understand what’s happening. It’s too early. I’m taking it as BAFTA’s compliment to me. My agent in the US says that I’ll always be called BAFTA nominee Freida Pinto."

Good agent, who pulled off that.  S/he understood that for someone like Freida, a nomination is sufficient.

I sound mean and ungenerous and cynical about a young bright woman with a great acting career ahead of her. But it’s not about Freida here. I’m simply thinking (as which Indian isn’t) about which "Indian" films and actors crack the glass ceiling of the Anglo-American film industry, and which do not. And how that happens.

As for Rahman -- oh Rahman. If this smoothly fusioned unquirky "international" sound is what it takes to be recognized by the West, I for one herewith derecognise the man, his heart-break be damned.

Nivedita Menon has taught Political Science at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi and at Delhi University for about 20 years. Currently she teaches Political Thought at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She writes on Indian politics through a feminist lens. (Being unshackled by convention, she also freely mixes metaphors…"writes" through a "lens"?) Courtesy, kafila.org

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