The writer as one-stop entertainment industry and a motivational icon for neo-literate India
Rajni George | 24 Dec, 2014
The writer as one-stop entertainment industry and a motivational icon for neo-literate India
“Every few years, there’s a new me,” says the writer. He blinks a little, but later I realise he blinks habitually, and that he means it; nothing is said halfway in his universe.
We are sitting in his office on Bandra’s halcyon Sherley Rajan Road, his team of three and a crew of videographers orbiting as he does a voiceover for a car commercial he recently shot. Parallel world? The only kind Chetan Bhagat, one of India’s big entertainment stars—who happens to be a writer—knows. At the helm of the scene is the director of this forthcoming YouTube advertisement for the Honda Amaze, a confident young Bombay boy with an accent which alternates between British, American and Indian, playing Professor Higgins as he coaches Bhagat in tone and emphasis; at his desk is our star, in a purple shirt and slim-fit pants, notes from the manuscript of his recent hit Half Girlfriend spread out as a prop, his voice slightly high-pitched and his cadence utterly, even defiantly Indian, as he negotiates grammatical corrections. On the side, I watch and take notes, chiming in to resolve editorial disputes over the script he reads from. What we are discussing, aptly, is tense.
Each one of us, it is clear, thinks they know best, but Bhagat defers to me, polite. Three different Indias, just like Bhagat likes them.
“As you can see, my life is very profound at the moment,” he laughs, play-acting a little perhaps as he zips his bag up repeatedly for a close-up shot. If he is self-conscious in an interview, it seems residual, even when he calls Open an “intellectual” magazine with the air of giving us a bit of a rise—but also of believing it, and being unsure of where he stands in relation to it. With close to 4 million Twitter followers, four of his seven books turned into films, a screenwriter turn in Salman Khan- starrer Kick, repeated public and speaking appearances, regular columns in The Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar and increasing requests for endorsements—Shaadi.com came first, more are anticipated next year—Chetan Bhagat Entertainment Pvt Ltd has limitless potential.
There is even merchandise available off the website—T-shirts and motivational frames which don’t seem to have caught on as yet—and a ‘fancafe’ if you want to enter a contest or sign a guestbook. For the young lad of the ‘Chetan Bhagat family’ has turned pitaji over the last five years, finding his place in a publishing industry and society that both scorns and adores him. (I ask the team and the man about the handle, prominent in Bhagat-ese and on his Twitter page; they say the concept of the ‘family’ was conceived early on.) His glasses gone post lasik surgery, leaner (12 kg lighter, says an assistant) and somewhat meaner, here is Chetan Bhagat 7.0. “The one you will see at the Times of India Literary Carnival this year is very different from the one you saw years ago at Jaipur,” he says of his constant reinvention. Earlier, his presence at a literary festival was often a bow to democracy; now, he is listed among the highlights. “The scale has become very big,” he says, of the obvious. “The reasons for writing are very different. I guess I’m seeking more inner growth now. In some ways I’ve kind of proved it to myself and my life is not so dependent on external values.”
The middle-class boy from Naraina Vihar whose government- employed parents couldn’t afford to fix a broken sofa for years, who grew up serving lemonade because they couldn’t afford Coke (What Young India Wants) is now watching as the nation drinks his Kool-Aid. Starting out with a tentative print run of 5,000, the investment banker turned writer has now sold a million of each of his six previous books, with the latest projected at two million copies, his publishers tell us; no one will elaborate, but profits off films and even books amount to several crore per project. A Chetan Bhagat appearance—which he may make six to eight times a month—can cost between Rs 7 lakh to Rs 9 lakh, though he also does free engagements for NGOs and deserving causes, his team tells me. In 2010, his inclusion in Time’s list of ‘100 Most Influential People’ anointed him the commercial leader of the Indian publishing industry, and loud recognition followed; from AR Rahman to Shashi Tharoor to The Guardian, which crowned ‘India’s paperback king’ as someone who was here to stay. The story has to be different and big enough for him to do an interview these days, he tells me. In Half Girlfriend, the sports-quota hero is stymied when he meets Bill Gates, calculating how much each minute he is spending with him is costing in terms of thousands of dollars; I wonder how much I am costing Bhagat as I interview and shadow him over a couple of days in Mumbai, in his office and at his flat.
On the flight, I finally read his Half Girlfriend, a readable- though-maudlin story about a boy who leaves corporate India to prove himself and his family’s legacy in rural Bihar; he is the last of a line of failing royals in Dumraon, and must help revive the school his mother runs. Importantly, he must try to get the girl. For, the book is mostly about ‘a unique Indian phenomenon, where boys and girls are not clear about their relationship status with each other’ (a Q-and-A on Bhagat’s website)—and about how someone who doesn’t speak English fluently ‘copes in India’. Like its predecessors, the book is a primer of sorts; just as the hero tries to improve his English by choosing the English option when he calls a help centre (one of the heroine’s suggestions as he embarks on a crash course in English-language self-improvement prior to meeting Gates), a young Indian is meant to read Bhagat’s book to improve his English and expand his sense of the world.
“Would you rather take a sensible student, or someone who speaks a foreign language well?” young Madhav defies the formidable Stephanian admissions committee, aware that he often sounds like he is still speaking Hindi when he speaks English; yet, when he is most frustrated by posh Riya, it is his “Deti hai to de, varna kat le” (fuck me, or fuck off), muttered in ‘coarse Bhojpuri-accented Hindi’ that breaks his connection with her, temporarily. Hindi is a sort of Bertha Mason which Bhagat’s characters wrestle with, a vernacular monster you must tame and initiate into the Anglicised world if you want to pass. You may even travel to Manhattan through a miraculously arranged Gates Foundation internship, but you will stay only long enough to trawl its bars in search of love, finding your girl singing James Blunt at Cafe Wha? and returning to the sticks. The book is allowed the crazy licence of romantic comedy but these journeys are necessary. For, Bhagat expands the uses of a book so it is textbook, manifesto, guidebook—New York City, Dumraon, Delhi all open up to a reader in Bikaner—and self-improvement manual, levelling rural education and St Stephen’s College in the way each of Bhagat’s books takes on a new milieu and hands it over to the masses, pre-digested.
“Chetan is like the SmartPhone generation he writes for,” says PR guru Dilip Cherian. “There is no denying that he has emerged as a symbol of our times, in the realm of theatre and instapinion, besides popular literature. Ubiquity perhaps makes all the difference.”
Literary India often despises Bhagat, yet it seems blind to ignore him; and so I have speedread and enjoyed his books over the years, the way you read Paulo Coelho or Lauren Weisberger (not without their own oversimplifications and gaucheness). They are decent popular fare, if grammatically wobbly (‘I came inside the building’) and dramatically overheated (Riya fakes a fatal illness to deliver her lover from their doomed union). There are attempts at more sophisticated description at times, but mostly these are immediate, accessible stories, with a canny if obvious sense of dialogue and some heartwarming slapstick, as far as mainstream entertainment goes. Genteel, Hindu-loving Tam Brahms versus the butter chicken and loud dhinchak of Punjabis for example in 2 States, one of Bhagat’s most popular books, also a popular Arjun Kapoor-Alia Bhatt starrer which released this year; or, the shenanigans and pathos of engineering students in Five Point Someone, which was adapted into the Aamir Khan-Kareena Kapoor starrer 3 Idiots, another long-lasting favourite. Perhaps what is most remarkable is how easily Bhagat introduces corruption, sexual abuse and religious violence into his masala mix of entertainment and ‘issues’. There may be copy- cats or successors who have competitive material, coming on his heels, but Bhagat’s material seems to be transformed by virtue of the sheer magnitude of what has come before. Not an unfamiliar phenomenon, but in this case with the power to render him a prophet of the masses.
After Flipkart’s full, front page ‘gamechanger’ ad for his Half Girlfriend appeared in The Times of India’s 5 August edition, Bhagat achieved a new level of power: that of an entertainment behemoth capable of turning ‘soft’ power into the kind of hard cash that justifies such expensive advertisment real estate. Flipkart’s website trailer for the book features a soundtrack, and movie rights were bought even before the book was released.
On an NDTV talk show which appeared right after the ad, the traditional positions on Bhagat play out. He emphasises his main line: “I’m not competing with writers. I’m competing with apps, with movies, with TV. You have to get the youngsters to start talking about books again”; the TV anchor tells him most viewers are cracking jokes about Half Girlfriend, and he looks as if he is getting upset, replying that this “is an incorrect assessment” of the “elitist snobbery world” which probably is a “small circle which exists on Twitter”, and saying that they are missing the point, as he is trying to reach the millions of people for whom English is a second language. “Should there be no English books written for them?” he asks, and the anchor placates him, saying she enjoyed what she read of the first chapter of the book. Writer Samit Basu, also on the show, jokes that he tweeted about the book to get on the TV show and says how jealous every writer is of Bhagat, who begins to laugh—before writer Ira Pande, the third guest, calls his work “Isabgol for the mind”, trying to say something nice afterwards about a writer she clearly looks down on; he lashes out, saying that he has made people read, though books are not something you need. “People remember the story of 2 States two years later. The books are not ‘read and toss’,” he says, appearing close to anger. “What is this?” Then, plaintive: “Are you saying they are all foolish people who don’t know what they are doing?”
There is something almost sweet about the simplicity with which Bhagat purports to approach the success that so many attack. “Why do you think I am successful?” he asks, when I pose the question to him. “I write what has not been expressed. 2 States, for example, seems almost too simple, but it wasn’t done. My message is about change, and these days the change is being made online. Everything happens at once on YouTube and Twitter, and I’m very accessible there. And, unlike popular writers like JK Rowling—I know she’s much bigger than I am— who did so many Harry Potters that she was trapped in that image, I have a range. Tomorrow I could do a non-fiction book or a novel. There is a whole section of people who only read my columns,” he says. “When I go to Delhi, to the [India International Centre], they only read my columns. It’s my 70-plus segment which I have to slowly harness now,” he adds.
He giggles a little; he makes little jokes, often. “Or, I guess one day they will all converge. My range of readers across age and socio-economic profile is huge. I’ve seen a driver read my books, a constable, a billionaire. I’ve done events on the streets of Kota, for the [Young Presidents’ Organization], made up of CEOs.”
At times, he is defensive, as he was on the TV show, as has been earlier. “Half Girlfriend, even though marketed as a fun romance, was the most amount of effort involved. My medium is popular, but that doesn’t mean there is no thought behind it. It has the populist element, but it’s not like crime fiction, there is no murder happening; there’s more to it.”
Indeed, the Sidney Sheldon of popular Indian writing, in terms of numbers, is also its Arvind Kejriwal; he transcends the role of writer and becomes motivational speaker, personality coach and activist all rolled into one, with a contagious energy that appears to have a life of its own.
But behind this confidence is a parallel bemusement, perhaps not entirely feigned. “Some of it is just luck and destiny. When you move somebody, when they have lived all their life not expressing certain emotions, and a book comes and frees them, they feel it’s the best book in the world—but actually it may not be.” Between that all-Indian model of sweat translating to success and the idea that it is not earned but conferred through karmic whimsy lies Chetan Bhagat’s audience: young and hopeful (I have met fans as young as 15) or old and optimistic about new energy (septuagenarians do actually read Bhagat, as well). His is a slightly schizophrenic vision, sometimes believing in the power of hard work and gumption; at other times, believing in bravado and luck. Every story begins with a prologue that explains how the story was handed over to he writer by his reader; again, any claim to achievement or invention is not really his, it implies.
The three young women who make up Bhagat’s team, all in their twenties, found their jobs by following him on Twitter; he announced openings and they replied, making their living off the new way of life he propounds for proud young Indians. Bhakti, at 24, is Chief Operating Officer and began some years ago, moving from the corporate world to the world of new entertainment. “Corporate employment was completely different,” she says. “This job is fun, we are all fans and have read his books, and it’s very glamorous.” She lists all the movie stars she has met of late. “He was very laidback earlier, now he is really busy and only eats sandwiches sometimes as he is being careful,” says Virali, who is 20 and whose family hadn’t read Bhagat till she found this job. Any occupational hazards? They describe the countless phone calls and fan letters, some of which read, many of them offering up their own stories the way Bhagat’s fictitious reader offers it. “Once, someone called and threatened suicide till they could talk to Chetan,” says Tanya, 24, who talked the caller down. “And there are Valentine’s Day calls from female fans.”
“He was always popular amongst the women,” says S Niranjan Iyer, a friend from his IIT-Delhi days who runs family business Standard Fireworks. “I worked with him on a festival magazine; he was always articulate, had good ideas. But none of us anticipated his success; we thought it would be a kind of niche thing. There were some people who wrote at IIT. There’s a junior of mine who has written books, much more serious and less mass market”—Amitabha Bagchi, who was in the same hostel.
“Chetan always had a good sense of humour, made us laugh a lot,” says Ratika Kaul, Bhagat’s school friend at Delhi’s Army Public School, who now lives in Chennai. “And he wrote a lot of answer sheets for his other friends. He would stand outside the Computer Science lab and finish the papers of the boys inside. Everyone [among the classmates] says he’s made it too big—just too big!” She read 2 States in process, and has kept in touch with the Bhagats over the years, as they moved from Hong Kong to Mumbai. How has he changed? “He’s very conscious about the way he looks,” she says. “In school he was quite roly-poly, chubby. They both do yoga now and are very fit. He’s so much busier now, too. When I went to see him and [his wife] Anusha in Bombay a few years ago while on a shoot—I’m a stylist and my husband is a photographer—essentially as people they hadn’t changed, but their lifestyle has changed. The people they hang out with are different—so you change.”
Of course the people Bhagat hangs out with now range from film producers to actors to even Bill Gates, who he recently met. “I get praise from all kinds of people now,” Bhagat remarks, and the awe in his voice seems genuine. “He applauded me for being at the forefront of change.” Now, he recounts, Gates has said he will play himself in Half Girlfriend. Life and art piggyback, often, in Bhagatville.
How does he now deal with literary snobbery? “That’s a big part of the change from then to now, the way I handle that.” I tell him how everyone in publishing wants to steal him, and if he is gratified by the thought—he must be, these being the people who are most snide about him—he hides it well. “I’m happy with my publisher, and what we have works.”
Bhagat’s publisher has played a major role in pushing his brand forward, many say. “His journey has defined the growth of mass-market fiction in India: it segregates Indian publishing as pre-Chetan Bhagat and post-Chetan Bhagat,” says Rupa’s Kapish Mehra, who launched Bhagat in a big way once the first book took off, and calls their collusion a “marriage of vision”. After the first small print run, they ordered another in two weeks, a pattern which soon increased exponentially into dozens of print runs. “With each progressive book, we have identified a new audience. We’ve been able to identify new ways of reaching them. Existing verticals didn’t always allow for this. So, for Five Point Someone we worked with Big Bazaar; Revolution 2020 we did so we could put out a million copies in a hundred days. We did multiple launches, all over malls and heavy online promotion —at that time people hadn’t done this yet.”
Almost coy about Bhagat—he avoids giving us a breakup of the books’ individual sales, sending over a graphic which shows how much time a Bhagat book takes to become a bestseller versus a regular title, instead—the publisher has a way of bringing up his name in parallel conversations, like he is lingering over an overacheiver child. Are other writers jealous of his success and the attention he receives? No comment.
In the prologue to The Three Mistakes of My Life, Bhagat calls his professor to help find a fan who has committed suicide, and the man says, “Oh that Chetan Bhagat”, ‘like he knew a million of them’. It’s unlikely any professor will make that mistake now, but there are indeed scores of them now—would-be Bhagats.
“I haven’t read Chetan Bhagat,” says banker-turned-writer Ravi Subramanian, one of the second echelon of commercial fiction writers who have emerged under Bhagatian reign. I’m not sure I believe him, but I indulge him. “You need to hand it to the guy,” he says, “You may have a view on what he writes, but when that newspaper came—I stared at that front page ad for three to five minutes and said ‘wow’. A few of us authors who meet up regularly, we all said it would have been hard to say ‘no’ to a Flipkart ad.” Forget saying ‘no’, there are very few people who can manage an ad for a book, and Bhagat is certainly the first (Rupa’s Kapish Mehra tells me that Pranab Mukherjee’s The Dramatic Decade is the second in line for such a sales tie-up).
The group of writers Subramanian refers to are leaders of their pack. He details the full pantheon: “Chetan is up there, Amish next, then there’s a gap: Ashwin, Ravinder Singh, Sudha Murthy are next. Below them are Preeti Shenoy, Durjoy Datta.” His own readership comes from the motherlode divined by Bhagat: “ The 15 or 16 to 24 or 25 bracket is Chetan’s; mine starts at around 22, young professionals interested in corporate thrillers.”
Bhagat’s airly, tastefully decorated Carter Road flat is classic moneyed Bandra. His move to Mumbai is both necessary for his film work and a choice he and his family enjoy, he says; Anusha loves the city and has chosen everything in the flat, old artefacts from their time in Hong Kong. “I go very often to Delhi. But Anusha likes Mumbai and I also like it over Delhi. I like the work ethic, our house. This city has been very kind to me. When I came here, I thought Mumbai was a very hard place, that you need godfathers and connections, but I never seemed to need one. I’ve been extremely lucky.”
Bhagat, who has spoken about his rift with a difficult father openly, has a mother and brother in Mumbai, and twin boys. “When they were younger, the kids used to get upset when strangers approached to take my picture; they would cover me and say, ‘No, he’s our dad.’ Today, they’re used to it; it’s part of who I am.” Now ten-and-a-half, they are already coding, Anusha says, and picking up some of daddy’s books.
Extra-hot masala tea and glucose biscuits (Revolution 2020) have turned into green tea (Half Girlfriend), and likewise, Bhagat has evolved from chocolatey Punjabi boy in colourful T-shirt to a more steely range of colours, in a metrosexual wardrobe of slim- fit trousers and tailored shirts. Easily adaptable to the drawn- out world of photo shoots, he makes adept ‘fake’ conversation.
“I’m a liberal,” he tells me over lunch, when I ask about his leanings; there are rumours about his intended entry into politics. On the current Government, he says, at once, “The honeymoon is over. Now they’ve got to come home, make dinner and deal with the mother- in-law.” It has that particular rhythm of a tweet, and sure enough, when I check his page, Twitter rang with its echoes a few days ago.
But he won’t confirm his endgame, when I press him, and the issue, one infers, is about timing. “As a fiction writer I write love stories and college stories, I’ve been pretty bold in writing about politics, too. What India Wants and writing about the Gandhi family and so on. There’s definitely an interest, but whether I will have better influence or impact by staying out of a particular party or join a certain party is a moot point. As of now, the balance seems to be in favour of me staying independent because I can praise the party and also criticise it. The kind of writing I do is already politics.”
Anusha, her hair stylishly greying, is more forceful: “From a personal point of view, I have mixed feelings. At this stage, it might be harmful. I think it would be great for him to do it; he comments on issues, he’s relatively young. But would you be able to do it without a conflict of interest? There must be a higher standard we are held to.” If Bhagat is looking for a campaign manager, he might not have to look much further; Anusha is leaving banking after 18 years, during some of which Bhagat played house husband, a role he has been vocal about. Anusha is both candid and shrewd, joining the conversation at lunch—a healthful dal, sabzi and roti—but holding back, telling me people don’t often interview her. “My twenties and thirties were spent building up career and financial security. We came from middle- class families. It was very important to us.”
She also knows exactly where Bhagat’s appeal lies. “He has his feet in two different worlds. He has one foot in real, urban India; by ‘urban’ I don’t mean that small section of people who are privileged like us, but also a wider section of urban people. And the other in the world of young people in smaller towns; people so full of enthusiasm, wanting to make a better life for themselves. Until now they didn’t have a very large voice. Although they were consumers of products, they weren’t as aspirational as they are now. Once he started on this speaking circuit, his profession offered him the possibility of speaking about issues that matter to both. He has a voice.”
The voice contains certain trademark quirks; commentary and wisecracks, an inner soundtrack that seems to mainline young India. Asides on women and their contrary natures are trademark Bhagat, for example; they are always saying the opposite of what they mean. They will have premarital sex (which he is proud of portraying, as a modern Indian) but demur all the way, trying for the comfort of ‘half’ girlfriendhood. And they are to be respected, are often the boss: ‘She Can Wear What She Wants Because She Lives in a Free Country Called India’, was the title of Bhagat’s recent blog on Huffington Post India.
“I want to write a book in the voice of a woman,” he says. “It’s something I’m thinking about.” With the current focus on the issue of women’s safety and violence against women, this is a characteristic Bhagat move. “Next year, though, I am taking time off. It’s a busy year and I’m trying to be balanced.”
While reading the book on my flight, partly to attract the attention of Bhagat fans, I hold the cover aloft as a kind of placard to draw comment. My badge for the revolution, as it were. But sitting next to me is a young man with a MacBook Air who is mixing songs using serious-looking software, and he ignores my book with the same sniff I’ve seen people give readers of Bhagat on other flights. A young man at the airport bookstore tells me he is reading it only because of the interesting-sounding title. But there are others shooting glances at my cover who will have their own at hand or tucked away in a suitcase.
For, the countless motivational talks I have been watching on YouTube filter Bhagat’s message most clearly, as I look around at the plane full of young hopefuls, taking flights more often than their forbears dreamt of, living all kinds of lives outside the IIT mould. “If you can’t be the best, be a best-seller,” he tells an audience at a Hindu event, and it rings true for this generation. In Bhagat’s case, his best is bestseller.