February 17, 2012: Your Chetan Heart

“I have so much love from my readers that other writers cannot even imagine it. However, I don’t get literary praise. It’s ok.”  — author Chetan Bhagat

A few weeks back I was reading all the news about His Awesomeness Salman Rushdie’s absence from the Jaipur Literary Festival (in person and virtually) and I came upon this article about the fiction writer Chetan Bhagat, India’s best-selling author writing in English.  He’s a literary rock star in India, and apparently the more popular he gets among the country’s readers, the more critics and other writers hate him.  I figured it had to be more than just sour grapes, so I set out on a quest to learn why.  I opted to read his first two (of five) books because both had inspired mainstream Bollywood movies, one of them being one of my favorites.

Five point someone:  what not to do at IIT was Bhagat’s first book, published in 2004 when he was just 30 and after years of writing on the sly.  Bhagat had attended IIT Delhi from 1991 to 1995 and majored in mechanical engineering, just like the three protagonists of FPS, Hari, Ryan and Alok. They meet on their first day at IIT and instantly bond.  IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology—a national series of independent institutions, each specializing in specific curricula) is a pressure-cooker where grades are everything–they literally determine your future. The closer your grade point average is to a full 10 points, the more success you will find in life. Or so goes the common wisdom. Our anti-heroes find, to their horror, that after topping all their high school curricula and mugging (grinding) as much as is palatable, at IIT they can manage no better than a five-point-something. So they decide to roll with it, and proceed to have as good a time as possible in their college years without flunking out. Although there are some amusing incidents, overall things go from bad to worse as they cut classes, drink on the roof, pick up a girlfriend (Hari), ignore their homework in favor of a personal research project (Ryan) and prioritize their family’s happiness over their studies (Alok).  They fight with each other and have repeated run-ins with their department head. Will the guys pull things out by graduation with their friendship intact? Or will their eagerness to have a good time ruin their lives forever?

The book is written in a breezy, colloquial style with a slang-y Indo-English flair that I found charming, and I thought the characters of the three heroes were well-drawn.  I learned a lot about IIT’s place in India’s cultural consciousness.  However, I found it lacked that certain out-of-control-ness that makes popular fiction truly fun (American authors who have mastered this are Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich), and at times the wackiness he seemed to be striving for came across as forced. Several entire segments of the boys’ lives were skipped over—whether as a deliberate literary device or because he didn’t feel like making up more story, we’ll never know—but I really felt the interruption.  And the novel’s technique did nothing more than just get the action from scene to scene; it was strictly utilitarian. Apparently FPS was rejected by the first nine publishers to whom Bhagat submitted it, and judging by the immense amount of money the book is earning for the publisher who accepted it, they are likely kicking themselves and looking hard for an appropriate copycat author.

Five Point Someone was the inspiration for the phenomenally popular (and one of my personal favorite films) 3 Idiots (2009) which had the same basic premise—three slackers at IIT—but went far beyond it, turning it from a college-antics novel into a strong bromance with a rom-com thread and megawatt star power.  Aamir Khan played the Ryan-analogue character, called Rancho, an unconventional thinker with surprising technical gifts.  Kareena Kapoor played his out-of-reach love interest.  Sharman Joshi and R. Madhavan also starred, with Boman Irani playing the nemesis-professor and a fun cameo by Javed Jaffrey.  The book was not followed closely although certain key events in the novel did reach the screen more or less intact, and each 3 Idiots character seemed to have attributes of all three of the FPS protagonists as well as quite a few original aspects.  Suffice it to say that one can safely read the book without spoiling the movie, and vice versa.  For a point-by-point comparison, check out this article.

3 Idiots was, like the book, monstrously successful in India; unlike the book, which took a while to circle the globe, 3 Idiots was even more of a juggernaut abroad and they’re now talking a Hollywood remake.   Bhagat was upset after its release that the credit to him and FPS appeared in the end credits rather than the opening ones, and expressed shock that so much of the book was used in the film, which he was led to believe contained mainly original material.  My feeling is that although 3 Idiots acknowledges FPS as its source, and Bhagat was paid for the film rights to his book as if it was to be a faithful adaptation, the film is completely different in tone and intent.  No matter—to my mind the film has rightly become a cultural touchstone and, as Bhagat is the first to admit publicly, so has the novel it was based on. Nobody should be unhappy here, but Bhagat remains bitter.

At this point I moved on to Bhagat’s second book, One Night @ the Call Center (2005).  As can be expected from the title, the novel’s entire action takes place in the course of one night shift, and all the characters work in the same group at a call center in Gurgaon.  All are in their early-to-mid 20s and each has unhappy aspects to his or her life, which they all feel they are powerless to change.  Numerous flashbacks illuminate the backstory of the romantic relationship between two of the characters, and pop-culture references abound in the exposition during the first two-thirds of the novel.  Amid all of this young-person rhona-dhona a “defining incident” happens, and the Voice of God (!!) comes to the characters, inspiring them to believe in themselves in order to change their fates.  The last third of the book has them doing just that.

In contrast to Five Point Someone, which I at least enjoyed despite its flaws, I found little to enjoy in One Night…  I thought it was more than a little boring, and Bhagat’s attempts at philosophy failed preachily for me. The vociferous anti-American sentiments were cute at first, but then got vicious and lost my sympathies.   Nevertheless, it remains as popular a read in India as Five Point Someone, if not more so because of the call-center setting.

If Bhagat’s goal at the start was, as many say, to create books that Bollywood movies could be based on, he succeeded.  In 2008 the film Hello* was released–before 3 Idiots, it should be noted–and Bhagat wrote the screenplay.  Not surprisingly, the film follows the book almost exactly and even has the same 3 Idiots actor, Sharman Joshi, as the narrator/main character.  I found Hello equally as boring as I found the novel, with low production values, comatose acting (with the exception of Sohail Khan as the volatile Vroom; Joshi’s valiant attempts at main character Shyam were obviously hampered by the inadequate script) and cheesy pseudo-philosophy. Obviously lots of people agreed with me, because it did terrible box office and was uniformly panned by critics who called attention to its weak script. Everyone learned something, particularly that writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two very different things.  Maybe that’s why 3 Idiots was the bigger hit—Bhagat’s role was limited to script approval, which he gave wholeheartedly, and I think having that emotional remove allowed the professionals to do their job.

Chetan Bhagat—a former investment banker based in Hong Kong, now a full-time author living in Mumbai—is not as terrible a writer in English as the critics would have us believe, although he certainly isn’t literary. But that’s beside the point.  People like me are not Bhagat’s target audience, and neither are the literary critics. He does a good job writing for those for whom he is writing–the youth of modern India–and they respond. The critics are used to dealing with someone who is writing for them, and writing also for older people educated in a different time when the use of English was a social marker. Bhagat is not out to improve everybody’s English literacy, he is out to reflect what’s going on now.  I have satisfied my goal of figuring out why they are so popular:  they incorporate the lives and experiences of the vast majority of India’s young people who are fluent English speakers and enjoy the toys and values of a very contemporary lifestyle.  If theirs is the “New India,” Bhagat is both their mirror and their standard-bearer.

So if Bhagat has aspirations to penetrate the youth consciousness of India (and if you read interviews with him, he clearly has those aspirations), he should continue to write his immensely popular books and the shorter newspaper commentaries and do his college lecture tours, and let someone else make them into films that people will go to see. Last year’s Rascals paid tribute to his cultural impact by naming its comic lead characters Chetan (played by Sanjay Dutt) and Bhagat (played by Ajay Devgn).  And audiences will likely get at least two more opportunities to see a novel of his adapted to film:  his fourth novel, 2 States:  The Story of My Marriage, is in the works with Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, and his fifth, Revolution 2020, has been picked up by UTV.

*Hello is available free on Daily Motion, in parts, with very confusing English subtitles

Part 4: The Pan-Genre Week — RomCom, Sci-fi and Lots of Aamir

Jenny K:  It’s my day off and I’m going to finally mail the DVD’s today. Sorry for the delay. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is definitely the lighter and fluffier of the two. Though I like both films, Lagaan stays with me longer,  I’d watch KKHH first, as it would suffer coming after, I think. The music in KKHH is cute but not, definitely not, Rahman. The first half, just think of as a Archie, Veronica and Betty style high school musical…though they say they are in college…eh, maybe India is a much more innocent place than good ol’ Amreeka, as they say. The best parts are the chemistry between SRK and Kajol, and to some extent Rani, too. Rani and Kajol are cousins in real life. A note of Pointless BollyTrivia.

Lagaan was one of the first three films that I saw and I quite love it, though it is very long. I found I had no problem looking at Aamir, uninterrupted, in all his rustic glory, but you might want to break it at the intermission because the full run-time is almost four hours (if you add in the deleted scenes from the Bonus Features, it’s over four). I learned all I know about cricket from watching the second half of the film. Probably all I will want to know about cricket, too, but I didn’t find it painful.

The songs, atypically from Indian films, are so well integrated into the plot that you can’t really pull them out well, out of context you feel something’s missing. I don’t recommend the British costumes…pretty awful, historically, and quality-wise….don’t get me started, that’s what I do for a living, costumes, can’t help myself. However, I loved the rest of the production design and cinematography. Lovely. I even bought Chale Chalo: the Making of Lagaan…took me several years to track it down and most of it is dubbed into Hindi, even when it’s in English to begin with (and no subtitles…frustrating!) but I enjoyed it.

Julie M:  LOVED Lagaan. B watched most of the 2nd half with me and liked it too (after he swore he wouldn’t watch any more). Great suggestion!! LOVE Aamir Khan. (and he spent most of the movie with his shirt off…score!!)

Jenny K:  Aamir was my first love…still like him quite a lot, but he’s getting a bit “angry young man” on me as he gets older. I own most of his films until Ghajini, which was a remake of a South Indian hit, which was supposed to be a blatant rip off of Memento…I loved the Chris Nolan film so much that I just couldn’t watch it, even with Aamir…Sigh. Lagaan, Taal and DCH were my first three Indian DVDs…got me hooked. I can’t believe I missed seeing Lagaan on a big screen, for free, when it came out. I can’t even remember the film I chose instead of it. No foresight. Glad you liked it. Did you succumb and watch the extra 20 minutes of “director’s cuts”?

Julie M:  I have not watched any extra features on that one; I plan to if I have time over the rest of this holiday weekend. The weather has turned nice today (if a bit humid) and I have to get plants in the ground. It’s been so wet lately that I couldn’t do anything.

I loved Taal too. In fact, if anyone asks me for a recommendation, I would have them start with that one. Dil Se, even though it was the first one I saw and still probably in the top 3 I have seen so far, I would save because although the music is unbelievably amazing the 2nd half is weird and the ending shocking.

Jenny K:  Yes, the second half is definitely not a conventional Indian film, actually, Dil Se didn’t do well at all at home…SRK’s fans don’t seem to like him being the villain anymore (a few early ones, playing crazy guy, obsessed stalker, etc) except for Don, which is a good twin evil twin type of film updated from one BigB did back in the seventies. Some good bits, but still, except for Dil Se, I think I agree with his fans. He does better being likeable and charming. He can’t top the acting in DS though, shows me he can do it, if required. That fight for his life in the construction site or whatever it was, was the most convincing fight I’ve ever seen in a Hindi film. They’re usually so chop-socky if you know what I mean. And I thought the end of the film was marvelous…as a portrait of obsession, if it had ended with him happily marrying Preity, I just wouldn’t have bought it.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Watched KKHH this evening. Very sweet. I was not a fan of the slapstick elements, and the dance numbers in the college scenes were pretty stupid, but overall a good movie. Thank you so much for sending it!

I have Luck by Chance, 3 Idiots and Koi–Mil Gaya waiting for me at the library, so that is my viewing schedule (mostly) for tomorrow through Tuesday.

Jenny K:  KKHH has it’s flaws, of course, but if you’re a true Kajol fan, you have to have seen it, sometime. She’s lovely in it, isn’t she?

Your “schedule” looks good, with the possible exception of Koi… Mil Gaya, which you may find as cheesy as I did, but it is a milestone of a sort. Kinda the first Indian Sci-fi quasi super hero film. Shah Rukh has another coming out late this fall called Ra.One which may or may not be as scary as KMG, but we will just have to wait and see. KMG is sort of a mix of Flowers for Algernon (aka Charley) with ET. Hrithik is sweet in it, and gorgeous, of course, but I’ll be interested in seeing what you make of it. If you like it, the sequel is called Krrish…w/HR playing his own son.

Julie M:  You weren’t kidding about the cheesiness…guess they are SO not used to sci-fi in India! So much ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that I had to howl with laughter. You also forgot to tell me that there was a whiff of Teen Wolf and The Six Million Dollar Man. They even did the Six Million Dollar Man sound at times. And I’ve noticed that none of these actors (even the extras) know how to play basketball in real life–their ball handling skills really blow. However, I did enjoy it (B didn’t so much). HR did a sufficient amount of dancing to satisfy me and he played a pretty convincing mentally retarded young man. Sweet moments with Preity Zinta, too. I will probably try to find Krrish, because I suspect that HR will be super-buff in it, and I love superhero movies anyway.

I LOVED 3 Idiots. B did too. No more to say–it was everything I like in a movie, and miracle of miracles, Kareena Kapoor did not annoy me.

[JK’s Note:  Per Julie’s request, new 3 Idiots video.  For those of us who also want to see the cute (though not particularly plot-relevant) item number, click here to watch Zoobi Doobi, as well !]

Will try to cram in Luck by Chance tomorrow night before everything goes back to the library Tuesday.

Jenny K:  Wow, that certainly is a marathon! I salute you. Worth the trouble, though…Luck By Chance was my favorite of the three you had. Fairly realistic treatment as far as Indian film goes, too. I also love both Farhan Akhtar, and Konkona Sen Sharma (who I’ve met at a couple of festivals, and she’s very nice as well as talented). The director is Farhan’s sister, Zoya Akhtar.

I think I liked Krrish a bit better than I liked KMG because the director (Hrithik’s dad, btw) didn’t feel the need to dress his heir like a dysfunctional idiot. Sorry, costumer reaction, can’t help it.

So, I’ll be interested to see what you think when you go see one in a cinema. That’s the next thing. First one I saw on a big screen was a Hrithik/Kareena one that almost killed me…almost walked out, several times. Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon…run, the opposite direction, as fast as you can. Thank goodness I persevered! Have you checked out your local Indian theater yet? I see they show both Bollywood and Tamil films at the theater near you. Tamil films rarely, if ever have subtitles. I guess South Indian movies are only to be for home viewing. They tend to be a bit broader, but some are quite lovely.

I haven’t seen Dum Maro Dum (with LittleB) that’s playing in your neighborhood now, because it only stayed in mine for one week, I think, and while I hesitated because I don’t always like crime capers, it left. It’s best to go opening weekend because the audiences are best then and are always so lively. Half the fun. The whole family goes, little kids running up and down the aisles and grandmas minding them…more noise in the audience as well, but somehow I don’t mind. When SRK showed up silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline in KHNH every woman in the theater screamed. Very fun.  Also, if you miss the first weekend, and it didn’t do well at the box office…it’s outta there.  Indian audiences want their variety, in any case.  Only Superhits stay.

Julie M:  Do they show it subtitled in theaters? I’ll have to go. That theater is nowhere near my neighborhood but it’s closer than, say, the good art film theater on the south side, which I have made pilgrimage to on occasion and which I think is now closed. Before you did the research I would have said that there aren’t any theaters here that show Bollywood films!

Jenny K:  Hindi films are usually subtitled; Tamil and Telugu films usually aren’t, except at film festivals. Darned shame, too. Some wonderful ones that you should check out if you can find them…or I should send you…are Kannathil Muthamittal, that I think I’ve mentioned and Kandukondain, Kandukondain (sometimes titled I Have Found It) which is a South Indian version of Sense and Sensibility starring Aishwarya Rai.

Julie M:  Does she speak Telegu? Or Tamil? Is it very common for people to speak multiple South Asian languages or does she learn them because she is an actress? I mean, Chinese people commonly know both Mandarin and Cantonese to some degree, more one or the other based on where they grew up, but can converse in both. Is it the same in India?

Luck By Chance was good. It didn’t feel like a typical Hindi film–actually it felt kind of like an art film. Cool cameos by stars (Kareena Kapoor annoyed me: I figured it out, it’s her eyes. She blinks in a very weird way), interesting behind-the-scenes look, and I bet everyone in the credits were real film-industry backstagers. But why did Farhan Akhtar play such a d-bag?

Jenny K:  I know she speaks Tulu which is from where she was raised in Karnatka, and she debuted in one of Mani Ratnam’s (Dil Se…) films Iruvar which was in Tamil as well as this one. She’s also done a few films in a Bengali dialect for Rituparno Ghosh and other directors. So, she’s linguistically very gifted. I’m not sure she knows much more than a learn-your-lines-phonetically level in the Tamil and Bengali, but the regional cinema is the way many people break into the Hindi/Bollywood mainstream films, so most of them speak some other dialects. Most everyone in the cities, at least, or those who have gone to university speak English. I’ve been told that a good many of the scripts come out in English first and then get translated into whatever dialects they end up in.

I thought that Farhan was rather brave and risk-taking, deciding to play his fame-obsessed character so realistically. Most young guys who get hit with fame would have acted the same way. It also let Konkona’s character choose the broader outlook, and let her continue to be strong even as a woman on her own. I liked that. He seems to gravitate to edgier projects. His first film as an actor, Rock On! has him playing the charismatic, if troubled leader of a band who has walked away from it to start a “sensible life”. He has a new one coming out with his buddy Hrithik (they grew up together) in July. He has a very bad haircut in that one though.  Must be a character detail, usually it’s so good.

There is a talk show called Koffee with Karan where Hrithik and Farhan are interviewed and they talk about their childhood together. It’s in a few parts, beginning here.

Julie M:  About Farhan–“edgy” projects in Bollywood seem to be typical projects forHollywood, right? I didn’t see much of a Bollywood style about Luck by Chance. It could have been a mainstream American movie starring Indian actors about the Indian film industry–it felt very familiar to me. Was that what they were going for?

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