Slumdog Millionaire (Q & A) by Vikas Swarup: Review and Movie Comparison

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Many were made familiar with Vikas Swarup's debut novel, originally published as Q & A but now known as Slumdog Millionaire, due to the Best Motion Picture winner of 2009. The movie was the way the novel was brought to my attention. I fell in love with Slumdog Millionaire the first time I saw it - the astonishing story of a slum boy who goes on a quiz show to find the girl he loves, and knows the answer to every question because it relates to some experience of his life. The movie follows the novel in the form of how the protagonist knew the answers and in a few of the experiences of the protagonist's life, but in most other respects, the movie and novel are completely different.

First of all, in the movie, the protagonist is named Jamal. In the novel, his name is Ram Mohammed Thomas, an orphan boy adopted by a priest who didn't want to offend any of the major religious denominations of the area by giving the boy a Christian name (Thomas doesn't have a Sikh name, because, as he notes in his favor, the Sikh representative was sick on the day of his naming). The personality traits are also slightly different. Jamal of the movie seems very innocent despite his difficult childhood. Thomas (he is called all three of his names throughout the book, but his English name is most consistent, so I'll stick with that for the purposes of the review) is definitely a kind person. He is a passionate defender of women, and he is willing to do almost anything for his best friend (not brother, in the novel), Salim. However, Thomas resorts to violence many times in order to protect women and at times, himself. He fantasizes about women's bodies and even visits a prostitute, actions that the purer Jamal of the film would probably not indulge in.

Thomas also experiences a greater variety of relationships. There is a love story in Q & A, but it is not as prevalent as the love story in the film and doesn't surface until much later in Thomas' story. Thomas has many more (non-romantic) relationships with women, including an aging actress that employs him as a servant, a woman in his chawl who trusts him with secrets about her life, and a young woman who lives next door to him that he tries to protect from her abusive and alcoholic father. Honestly, I found the relationship between Thomas and Gudiya, the young woman abused by her father, much more compelling than that of Thomas' love interest, Nita. Thomas has a father figure in the priest who raised him and a younger brother figure in his exuberant best friend Salim. He spends time with an Australian colonel that teaches him about white prejudices toward Indians. He sees many deaths and many miraculous survivals. The broad scope of people that Thomas spends time are the true fruits of the devastating but at times beautiful experiences of his life.

I am torn between which story I enjoyed most, that of the book or that of the movie. I think the film has more elegance and grace. It is a neatly assembled love story, and while there are many other elements, the love story is what we are meant to admire and remember once the story ends. In contrast, the novel is grittier, just like the character of the protagonist. Thomas doesn't fall in love with a virgin rescued from prostitution - he falls in love with a woman sold into prostitution by her family who has been working the trade for years. He isn't betrayed into difficult situations by a malicious older brother - he at times has to take lives to save himself and those he cares for. The novel wasn't always fun to read. It was often appalling. However, I think it is also a true portrayal of the Indian underworld. The darker elements in the novel made the story rougher but also more poignant.

I really enjoyed Swarup's fresh style of narration. Thomas tells us vividly about his world in a conversational manner, occasionally going aside in personal musings but always illustrating for us what is happening. At times Thomas is ironic, reflecting wryly on why he lives in a constant struggle, always fearing the police, while the children whose beds he makes spend money on toys and whine when their whims are not obeyed, but he never complains about the unfairness of his life. Instead, he resourcefully continues to survive. One of my favorite passages is about his love of trains (the same reason I love airports) -
Train journeys are about possibilities. They denote a change in state. When you arrive, you are no longer the same person who departed. You can make new friends en route, or find old enemies; you may get diarrhea from eating stale samosas or cholera from drinking contaminated water. And dare I say it, you might even discover love.
Overall, Vikas Swarup's Q & A is a moving tale, at times heartbreaking and at times uplifting. While it is essentially different from the movie, both are well worth your time.
Readability - flows smoothly.
Plot - 4
Characters - 5
Aesthetics/literary merit - 4
Personal response - 4
Overall: 4.25

PS: Watch the trailer! I maybe love the movie a tiny bit more than the book. Just watching this makes me cry.

PS again: Read this for the South Asian Challenge hosted at S. Krishna's Books


  1. I haven't seen the movie, but I've heard great things about it. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. This sounds like a book I should read.

  2. I've only seen the movie and like you, I loved it! It's interesting to see the differences between the movie and book! Definitely a pure character in the movie, but a little more prone to more human emotions and temptations in the book, it seems.

  3. I read Six Suspects by Swarup and was pretty disappointed. I've been told that Q&A is much better - I liked the movie - and after reading your review I think I will give it a try.

  4. @Kristi - I would recommend it. It isn't a perfect book but definitely moving.

    @Coffee and a Book Chick - I have a big crush on Jamal in the movie. Not so much in the book, but definitely still good. If you do read the book you definitely have to separate it in your mind from the movie because they are so different.

    @mynovelreviews - This one is definitely a good one, although it isn't perfect!


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