Book Review: Slumdog Millionaire

October 9, 2009

This is what I read on the long train journey to Delhi ten days ago.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with this movie when I saw it back in February. It wasn’t the much-talked-about depiction of poverty and slum life that got me; I just didn’t think much of the story, nor the manner in which it was told. But I resolved to read the book, some day. I decided that the long train journey was a good opportunity. I obviously couldn’t study on the train, there are always numerous distractions, especially with the kids.

Within the first couple of pages, I decided I liked the book. I’m rather wary of Indian writers in English, the more so since the rude shock of reading Chetan Bhagat recently. But I liked the style of this book, light and racy, but not pretentious. I don’t often like books written in present tense, and even less so books that mix up present and past tense without respect for actual chronology; but I decided I’d overlook that for the moment. The writer managed to slip in a few excellent witticisms early on, which had me hooked, though they dried up after a bit. Still, I generally found the style quite readable.

The storyline, of course I knew, having seen the movie, but I soon saw that the book handles the theme far better than the movie does. The book is written not in chronological order, but in broken up bits and pieces, ostensibly in the sequence the questions are asked. (You have to be familiar with the general concept of the book or movie for this review to make any sense.) I’m not actually a great fan of this chopped up chronology, but in this book it does work, sort of, given the context of the quiz show. I feel that if the movie had been made in the same way, it might have been much more interesting. The movie could also have added suspense by removing the police investigation, which, in the movie, adds no value, and leaving you guessing at each stage whether or not the hero will be able to answer the next question. At any rate, the chopped up jigsaw-puzzle chronology worked fantastically in Pulp Fiction, which I think is the supreme example of this kind of jumbled timeline and apparently disconnected events. Whether Slumdog Millionaire could have come close to it or not, I don’t know, but, given that the book is written that way, it was worth trying.

The book also has more interesting events and more varied characters and situations, many of which the movie does not make use of. The movie, therefore, ends up much the poorer than it might have been. The romance in the book is much less improbable, even, in fact, less romanticised than it is in the movie. The situations in the book – the chawl in Mumbai, Neelima Kumari, the contract killer, the Australian spy, Father Taylor… each of the characters an d situations comes with its own social context and its rich ambience, that makes for a pleasingly rich and varied tapestry.

My one complaint with the book is that, at times, it ranges far from the boundaries of the probable and the believable, especially with the voodoo episode. Its one defence is that the audience, Smita, usually reflects the skepticism that the reader may feel, acknowledging the far-fetchedness of the scenario. The voodoo episode in specific, is also one step removed in being the story of some total stranger and not something that happens directly to the hero or even to anyone he knows. It can, at a pinch, be written off as the ravings of a drunkard.

I appreciated the twists and turns that take place in the quiz show – how, at first, the anchor actually helps the hero, then, towards the end plays a dirty (and not very convincing) trick on him. The twist in the tale, where our hero pulls a gun on the anchor, while also not very convincing is at least satisfying in terms of plot.

So overall, I’d say that they book is much better than the movie. I don’t think I’d have thought very much of the book if I hadn’t seen the movie first though – the movie made me set my expectations really low for this one, so I came away feeling quite… if not happy, at least relieved.

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