Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A month in India, part 8: Readings in fiction and non-fiction.

Battle for Bittora, The Zoya Factor, Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chauhan 

Two of these books have had their film rights purchased by major Mumbai studios, Shahrukh's Red Chillies bought the Zoya Factor's rights and Battle for Bittora's rights were bought by Saregama. I'm sure that Thakur Girls will be made into a movie, too, if any studio is willing to tackle the 1980's Delhi milieu in a serious manner. It's hard to say whether any of these three frothy, enjoyable chicklit novels will make good movies, but what I do know is they make absolutely fantastic reading, and hence they top my list of recommendations.

Chauhan's writing is effortless and her characters, flawed and funny, jump off the page. Her heroines are just so likable, her heroes completely swoonworthy, and the way she masterfully weaves real life issues, be it communal troubles or corruption scandals, into her otherwise fluffy plots is really commendable. One of the covers for her novels featured the quote, "The only popular Indian fiction worth reading" and while I don't know much about Indian fiction as  a whole (only that it is a wonderful world I've not explored nearly enough, because it's not too available to those of us outside India), I have to encourage everybody with a hankering for a good, dreamy romance to seek Anuja Chauhan's books out.

Battle For Bittora was my first - scathing, clever political satire amidst absolutely adorable romance between two childhood sweethearts. If the combination sounds weird and unworkable, just trust me on this and check it out. The Zoya Factor is a tale of a young woman who inadvertently becomes the good luck charm of the Indian national cricket team, much to the team captain's chagrin. Those Pricey Thakur Girls portrays a dysfunctional family in India of Doordarshan and the pre-liberalised economy, and even though this too contains a fantastic romantic tale, what made me fall in love was the consistent portrayal of these very real-seeming characters, and the wide cast of them. Thakur Girls is getting a modern day sequel, taking a few of the characters and telling their story 15-20 years after the first novel took place, and I can't wait to read it.

Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat

The author of the novels that 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che were based on suffers from a curious affliction - his best-selling novels aren't actually very good literary works, but get churned into pretty damn decent movies (okay, Hello aside). He portrays a modern India in very simplistic ways, but truthfully, in that "ripped from headlines" type of manner that a lot of things that are heavily inspired by reality can feel truthful.

Revolution 2020 I bought because I couldn't find an Anuja Chauhan novel to buy. It's a tale of three friends, two boys and a girl, their achievements, their lack of achievement, and the weird turns of life that drive them away and then drive them back together. The central schism of the novel is that Gopal, our narrator, is basically an immoral asshole, jealous to a flaw, morally corrupt and just unpleasant to read about. Our heroine and the girl he's madly in love with, Aarti, is portrayed merely through him, as the beautiful (oh and she is so beautiful!) mystery to him, because, as the character makes sure to emphasise so many times) girls are such confusing creatures! This type of gender essentialism and prejudice is precisely what turned me off the character, even before he turned into a wildly corrupt human being. The third friend, is a vaguely good human being, but again, through Gopal's lense, and Bhagat's lazy writing, we don't actually get to learn much about him, apart from a few disjointed characteristics.

Bhagat writes for an audience I'm probably not a part of; those who've learnt English as a second language and are only now easing into reading English. His English is simple and easy-to-read but absolutely lifeless as prose; the man used to be an investment banker, and indeed he writes like one who reads numbers all day, not poetry. He spells out how things are, rather than implying them through his narration of events. There are no hints or implications to be found or between-the-lines discoveries for the reader to make: everything is spelled out to a ridiculous degree. I have no doubt this novel will make a good film, at the hands of the right film maker, who can play with Gopal's immorality and give him shades to actually make the character interesting, and with the right cast, who can breathe life and subtleties into these stereotypical characters. I look forward to watching that movie, even as I won't be touching this book again.

The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi

This was one of the novels I burned through when ill. I sort of resigned to my fate - I'd only found one book store in Madurai that sold any decent amount of English novels, and I needed something to read to kill time between the countless naps and Indian cable channels only increased my boredom, so reading was really the way to go. I knew this very Indian spin on the Da Vinci Code (oh, you couldn't tell?) would be trash, but I just needed something to read.

The backcover text actually makes this sound like quite a fun ride - a serial killer in the modern world thinks of himself as the last incarnation of Krishna. He starts killing the friends of a middle aged historian (who's got film star good looks, because the author is very obviously aiming for a film version of this starring one of the big Khans, or at least Hrithik or something), and implicating him in the murders. This launches a wild chase in which he tries to track down the "Krishna key" while being chased by the police, and the serial killer himself. However will this end?

As much as you could argue this is just fiction, there is something about the fervent way the author writes exposition into the mouth of his main character that makes me think he actually believes all this stuff. The conspiracy theories surrounding this one you might have heard - there is this theory going around, prodded up by certain political ideologies in India - that basically states everything and anything ever has its roots in Vedic Hindu culture, language and religion. Be it scientific discoveries, whole foreign languages or concepts, they all date back to this on starting point. Real life historians, linguists and archeologists probably regard these claims with the utmost skepticism but that doesn't stop the conspiracy theorists.

There are a few twists to keep the plot interesting but all in all, the whole thing falls apart when none of the characters are actually likable and all of their interactions are exposition of the conspiracy theories the author has read about on the web. The closer we got to the ending, the less I actually cared about what happened to these people.

The Cosmic Clues by Manjiri Prabhu

 This detective novel features a young woman who starts up her own detective agency, and unravels mysteries using her wit - and Hindu astrology. The admittedly silly idea would probably genuinely work, if the author would have learned that readers generally like to read about characters who aren't portrayed as flawless and perfect. Everybody in this book, from her continuously starstruck assistant, to the international criminal she tries to track down, seems so enamoured with the main character, I started to doubt her wonderfulness about 10 pages in. The problem is that nobody else does - she's smart, she's capable, she's witty and funny and charming and thus absolutely boring to read about. Her virtues are touted on every page, by every character, she's admired and fawned over, she figures everything out without any significant problems and has a persistently positive outlook on everything, from her home city of Pune to every damn food item she chows down. Every case she goes through in this book is solved without any major mishaps. Her family life is all good and nothing seems to trouble her for more than 2 seconds. 

And it is so goddamn annoying I almost couldn't finish this book, even though I eventually did, and rather liked the twist it took towards the end, which tied the book together quite well.

Apparently this too was bought by a film production company ..the one that made Marigold and Ragini MMS. Uhh. Well, if I can end my pessimist review on a positive note, I suppose I could say that these kinds of characterisations do actually work better in films - films can be exaggerated and silly, whereas I feel like books need characters to have edges and grit to them, in order to be interesting. Good luck?

Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai by Sidharth Bhatia

 This was a slim non-fiction book about the mogul of madcap masala, Manmohan Desai, and more importantly his masterpiece film, Amar Akbar Anthony. It wasn't a very long read, but it was incredibly informative, detailing what made Desai such a unique film maker, and also what made his latter era films less stellar than his late 70's ones. It's an honest look at the man who made films for the common man, who knew his roots and lived by them, and all the logical considerations that went into piecing together this illogical masterpiece. For example, one thing I had no idea about was the fact that this film, Parvarish, Chacha Bhatija and Dharam-Veer were all filmed simultaneously. 1977 was an amazing year for Manmohan Desai, no doubt.

This was released in a book series detailing a bunch of other films as well. I didn't pick up any of the other ones, though now I wish I had - I would have loved to buy the sturdy paperback on Gangs of Wasseypur. 

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