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‘Slumdog’ no cliche, says Indian author

India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa, Vikas Swarup, whose novel "Q&A" became the basis for British director Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches drama about a Mumbai slum kid, shrugs off criticism about the story's portrayal of his homeland.
/ Source: Reuters

There's an irony behind complaints that Oscar contender "Slumdog Millionaire" recycles cliches about impoverished India: it's based on a book by not only an Indian, but a high-level ambassador for the country.

Vikas Swarup, whose novel "Q&A" became the basis for British director Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches drama about a Mumbai slum kid, is also India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa.

Swarup penned the novel at the end of a diplomatic posting in London. Rather like his central character, who is thrust from obscurity to become a millionaire, he's an accidental celebrity, and appears slightly shell-shocked by the film's success.

"It still seems like a fairytale," he told Reuters in an interview at his residence in Pretoria, relaxing on an earth-brown sofa just a few hours before flying to Los Angeles for Sunday's Oscars ceremony.

"Who could imagine a book I wrote for a lark in 2003 would one day go on to become this mega success film?"

To the big screen
Boyle's team changed the name of Swarup's main character, the ending of the book, the central thesis around luck and destiny and the title — opting for something the author notes is more evocative, but also more provocative.

"Slumdog" has irked some in India, who say the name is offensive and the movie, about a slum dweller who wins a Hindi TV game show, reinforces western stereotypes about the country.

But, a diplomat to the core and perhaps cheered by the film's 10 Oscar nominations, Swarup is careful not to complain.

"I think Danny brings an outsider's sensibility to the project, but one which is imbued with a lot of respect and empathy for the people of Mumbai, for the city itself," he said.

Swarup shrugged off criticism around the film's portrayal of his homeland, arguing the "gritty tale of hope and optimism" encapsulates the vibrancy, energy and ingenuity of the New India, and enthused about Boyle's "dazzling" cinematography.

A taste of India
"It's very difficult to capture the reality of India in its totality," he said. "What the book tries to give you is ... a little bit of the flavor of modern India."

Swarup reckons the film's climax and its central theme of destiny, is "a bit of a cop out," and prefers his own message that "you create your own luck."

But he accepts it probably works well for the big screen.

"People are relating to the film and they are loving it, so who am I to complain?" he says with a grin.

Swarup vigorously defends the film's relentless optimism, which some critics have found grating, and argues "Slumdog" offers a modern fable that has struck a chord with cinema-goers seeking relief from the global financial crisis.

With a second book under his belt — an Indian crime novel called "Six Suspects" — and the film rights already sold, Swarup is working on his third. He won't divulge details, but says it's based somewhere outside of India.

Does he ever dream of writing full time?

"I've just written two books so I'm no J.K. Rowling," he said, referring to the creator of fictional boy wizard Harry Potter. "I have no intention of giving up my day job."