Well, I finally saw it. And read the book. And reviewed the soundtrack (what did you do?).
And for the first time in years, I have to say that the movie was a HUGE improvement on Vikas Swarup’s ambitious but flawed novel about the first winner of India’s Millionaire, fictionalized to W3B. With its recurrent filmi tropes (the frame story reminds one of Veer-Zara), and Swarup’s penchant for Dickensonian excess, Q & A lacked the mature eye for telling detail and the subtle touch of Danny Boyle’s riveting new film.
Slumdog took a cinematic but convoluted book and streamlined it into a moving, realistic portrait of slumlife and, better yet, located it on timeline of significant Indian events (beginning with the Ayodhya/Barbri Masjid 1992-93 Bombay riots, and an early scene with Amitabh Bachchan at the height of his popularity, and ending with the economic boomtimes of the 2000’s.) It also eliminated Delhi entirely, which is a huge improvement in my book (if only they had eliminated Agra, but then maybe nubes wouldn’t know it was India at all).
It took a story that was about the exploitation of poverty in India and makes it about one man’s ingenuity against the exploitation of Mumbai’s particular brand of poverty, giving him one singular and believable drive to improve his own situation. Using a simple conceit, it also made the story worlds more suspenseful.
Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy also succeed in introducing both moderation and subtlety into a text that lacked either.
Thus, Ram Mohammed Thomas, a caste-and-religionless orphan becomes Muslim Jamal Malik; Salim-bhai becomes the protag’s actual brother; a child who was abandoned for reasons that have almost no impact on the plot are suddenly two brothers orphaned by ethnic cleansing; and a veritable assembly line of female victims become one 3-dimensional character, a slumgirl named Latika, the motor behind the plot.
Most importantly, Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi slum (the only one you’ve ever heard of if you’ve never lived there) becomes a colony in Juhu. That might not matter to most readers, but to me, it signifies a more subtle, and therefore more human eye for the true nature of Indian poverty. It doesn’t have to be Dharavi to be a slum. If you tell things that are true on their face, if you seek out the details that exist among those that populate your imagination, the story will tell itself. Swarap the diplomat seemed so genuinely eager to lay bare the poverty he had seen so that everyone could see it that he forgot to tell the truth, just as G-d had written it.
Sometimes, I fear the only tool left to tell true stories is a camera.