In this freewheeling conversation, Bhagat responds to allegations that his writing enforces negative stereotypes, explains why he is unlikely to become a politician, and reveals why he believes he is not a restaurant.
Please tell us about your latest book Making India Awesome and how it was conceived.
You know I normally write fiction and I write stories but I have also been writing columns and they have got a good response. They are discussed and analysed, some people agree with my views and some don’t, but the columns are popular too, along with the books. So, I felt like I should do more.
Three years ago, I did What Young India Wants which was a collection of my columns. It did remarkably well. We never expected it to do so well, since my audience mostly likes love stories. But I had just done it because it adds to my body of work.
Now, we are at a time when we have elected a new government, we have protested on the streets and we have done everything. But there is extreme polarisation. On Twitter people are fighting, in Parliament people are fighting and it doesn’t function, on television people are fighting but there’s no solution anywhere. So I felt we are losing track and are still in election mode. There’s my side and your side, but we are done with elections – at least for the next three years.
We should work on the issues that need attention. It’s not always a person or a party that can take the baton by itself.
So, you are suggesting that this book is an academic work which can solve the country’s problems?
I won’t say it’s academic, but it’s a way to get to people. It’s non-fiction. I want to expand my range as a writer. It makes my work a little more meaningful. I do popular stuff, very "mass" stuff usually. Doing this helps me and makes me feel like it’s my contribution to society. It gives my work more meaning.
Didn't a lot of people tell you to stay away from writing non-fiction and columns since they found your views half-baked?
A lot of people told me to do a lot of things. A lot of people told me to not write books when I worked in a bank. I was told not to try Bollywood either. But my columns are quite popular. A lot of senior politicians, for example, read them. A lot of people haven’t read my books but they only read my columns – specifically, the older generation.
The people who can’t argue back say these things. Let me write, and you write too. There are hundreds of columnists in the country. The fact is that maybe my columns are getting noticed. How can you say: 'Don’t write columns'? I know the impact they are having. Even the book [of previous columns] did very well and I like doing them. If you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t tell me to not write it.
Is it a fascination with politics that makes you write these columns and books?
It’s a fascination with change and society, and the change in society. I realised that when you are talking about society, politics is inevitable. You can’t separate the two. You need politics to effect a change. I find it fun to observe people and it can be at an individual level or at a mass level. It kind of ties in with my other stuff.
But your fiction is mostly love stories, so how does it relate to that?
It’s all about people and it’s all about India. It’s a by-product you can say.
It’s been 10 years since you started writing. But the criticism against you seems to have remained the same, if not grown louder. Why do you think that's the case?
The fan-base has increased over the years. The love has increased, and the hate has also increased.
How do you rate yourself after 10 years of writing and juggling with all the other things that you have managed to do?
I am very happy with the way things have gone. I consider myself very, very fortunate because writers don’t get noticed. It’s a tough profession and it’s hard for a writer to make an impact like this.
Not everything I have done is right. But, largely, I have managed to get what I wanted, so I am very satisfied. The challenge now is to stay relevant and come up with new things that excite me and my readers.
A lot of people speculate that you might end up joining politics sometime soon, given your stand in the columns. How far away are you from turning into an electoral candidate?
Yes, they do speculate because I write about politics. It’s not on the cards. One of the big strengths I have is a neutral voice, so the moment you join a party you lose that voice and you take a side. I don’t want to do that.
But lately that neutral voice seems to have gone missing. You have been praising the current government lavishly and supporting the prime minister. Do you still consider yourself neutral?
I don’t know. I have written against the Parliament lockdown, the porn ban, and many other things. After the Delhi elections, I wrote what Modi should do. I try to be neutral, but it’s very hard to achieve.
The attempt is there, but that doesn’t mean that you never praise someone. Being neutral doesn’t mean that you have to show hatred for everyone. It is an active kind of neutrality. Like the bhakts article that I wrote, which got me so much flak. How is that a pro-Modi or a pro-BJP article?
If I were so partial, I would not have such a strong voice. People would know ki ye unka hai (he belongs to them). The credibility comes from neutrality. It doesn’t make sense for me to take sides, it’s just bad business.
So there’s no question of joining politics then because you can’t abandon your neutrality?
No, I don’t think I can be a politician. I don’t have the skills for it.
But you have learned new skills quickly. You have judged dance shows, anchored shows, written screenplays. Why not this?
How is that related to politics? Do you think Parliament is like Nach Baliye?
You'd know better. Why don’t you tell us?
Well, more work happens on the Nach Baliye set for sure (laughs).
Yes, I know the issues and I know policy, but to become a politician is a big commitment and that means giving up a lot of things that I don’t want to leave. I just don’t see it happening.
In this book you talk about violence against women. So what do you think young Indians should do to make women feel more comfortable and equal in a society that discriminates against women so often?
There’s a whole section in the book full of these issues. There is no quick fix pithy solution that I can offer you on this. Gender rights is a big issue for any society and India is no exception. We won’t become an awesome country for women quickly because we don’t have that.
We could be rich like Arab countries but they don’t have gender rights and they don’t pay heed to women’s issues. In Saudi Arabia, for example, you can’t go shopping without a man. We don’t want to become that. So you cannot only talk about economy. You have to talk about these issues.
It comes down to women deciding that they need to assert themselves and it comes down to men slowly being educated about the fact that this is not how it’s going to work. You men are not going to be above and they are not going to be our subordinates.
Aise nahi hoga abhi (It won’t work this way). Things are going to be different and men aren’t going to be happy about it.
And how far away do you think we are from achieving that?
A long time, man. Even in the United States, treatment of women is a big issue. So, it will take 10-15 years. But we can get a lot better in five-to-10 years.
Even your books have received flak for sexism, objectification of women in certain instances and enforcing negative stereotypes.
See the character is a Bihari boy who has never talked to women in his life. So the character will behave in a certain way. That’s not Chetan Bhagat.
You can always say that you are enforcing negative stereotypes when you write about a character, but the character changes. He joins the Bill Gates Foundation and changes the way he looks at women.
It’s okay. You can’t hold a writer to the kind of character he creates. I am not endorsing it. Then you can’t show people smoking or talk about those from the lower castes.
Do you stand by it or do you think you could have done it better?
You cannot tell a writer that you can’t write. Likha hai, logon ko achhaa lagaa tabhii chal rahaa hai (I wrote it and it’s successful because people like it). When I write a column, that’s where you can say that this view is not right or that it’s regressive or sexist. But with a novel, it clearly says it is a work of fiction.
Your stories haven’t changed much, though. They follow a line where young people have their set of problems, they deal with love affairs, there are some steamy scenes thrown in. Don’t you think your ardent fans deserve some freshness?
I am going to work on that. Some people have told me that. That’s a piece of feedback that I have taken seriously. It’s necessary to bring in freshness. You have eight books that are so widely read and expectations keep on rising.
But people claim that you are writing for Bollywood.
Not really. If I was writing for Bollywood, why would I write this one? This is not meant for Bollywood. Even if you try very hard to make a movie out of it, you can’t. There’s no movie here.
If Bollywood was the aim, I would hire four scriptwriters and make them collaborate to come up with stories. Some of my stories tend to be more film-like than others. Half Girlfriend was one such. It was a little film-like but it doesn’t mean that every book will be the same. This book is obviously not.
You have often said that you write to make an impact on the minds of young people, and you want to change the way they think. What impact do you think you have made with books such as Half Girlfriend?
Yes, they do make the right impact. There’s an entire India which will relate to Madhav Jha, a boy who doesn’t speak English. He’s under-confident, he makes it slowly in life, and how he makes it. It’s good for them to read about a character like that, who changed so much and rose above the odds.
Half Girlfriend, for example, talks about Riya who is a divorcee and this boy marries a divorcee. It’s very subtle but it suddenly becomes okay for the hero to marry a divorcee. So it nudges people into thinking: So what if she’s a divorcee?
There’s no button which you could press and you will change. Half Girlfriend brings up issues like there are no toilets in our schools in rural India. How would people know that people don’t send kids to school because there are no toilets?
It’s a book at the end of the day. It’s not a cure for cancer.
You recently asked for feedback from your fans on Facebook and people suggested all sorts of things. Some made scathing attacks on your writing and others were just repeating what the critics have said all along – that your writing needs freshness and new plots. What’s your one big takeaway from it?
Oh, it was hugely successful. There were 18,000 likes and 7,000 comments. I read through and clustered them into major points. People were asking me to not be repetitive in my plots and focus on writing. Some advised me not to spread myself too thin. But it was majorly people telling me to write from my heart. It was a successful exercise.
Individual jokes and attacks are bound to happen if you are putting yourself out there on Facebook for everyone. People do write lots of things to get likes and that’s okay.
I felt like I needed to do it. It made me a little humbler. It doesn’t mean that I ask them about topics. I am not going to write a story on a specific subject just because someone thinks I should. I asked them for feedback on me. It’s not like I will deliver what people order.
I am not a restaurant that way.
You have also said that apart from good writing, young authors need to focus on the marketing too. How big a role has marketing played in your books?
Good marketing plays a role in everything, not just books.
But isn’t it true that good writing finds its audience?
It does but it takes a lot longer if it’s not marketed well. If you write well, and your book is well marketed too, then there are more chances that people will notice it.
There’s so much content today that by the time the good writing surfaces, it can get suffocated. Ultimately bad writing won’t sell just because of the marketing.
So how much emphasis do you put in marketing your books?
I don’t need to. I just need to put on Twitter that I am writing a book, if you can call that marketing. I have zero budget for marketing. I have never spent anything on it at all. If Amazon does, I am lucky that they are doing it for me.
But it’s unlikely that they would do it for a new writer.
You have to write a damned good book and hope that people will like it. And then you rise from there. It’s not like I came with Five Point Someone and Flipkart and Amazon were waiting for me.
It’s hard and you have to be lucky, and I was very lucky.
And do you attribute your popularity to luck?
This level of success has to be attributed to luck. You can’t get up and say “Oh I am so amazing.” It’s kind of stupid to think like that. Of course, there is luck.
I was born in India. I knew English and I wrote at the time when people were learning English. I went to the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management. There are so many factors here.
But now your role has shifted from being part of the academic IIT-IIM elite to being a Page 3 personality. Do you like this better?
I am in the entertainment business. I try to avoid Page 3. I am Page 1 to 300, I am a book-writer. But this is the trajectory.
Of course I have changed roles. It’s not that it doesn’t take any brains to create entertainment. You leave your brains at home to watch entertainment, but people who create it are very smart people. So it’s wrong to assume that only engineers and doctors are the smart guys, and that the people who are creating the things that millions of people are consuming are not smart. If you ask me, I find it more challenging academically.
Many on Facebook said that you should stop selling yourself as a young icon for India since you are over 40 years of age. How do you claim to know what young India wants?
I am 41! I am a writer, I may not know about everything and I may not be that person that I am writing about, but that’s what we do. Writers write murder mysteries but it doesn’t mean they are all murderers. They go into the murderer’s mind.
I think I am still very young at heart. I can’t do anything about the numbers. Salman Khan is 49 and he is still young. It’s the way you think. If you have progressive thinking, you will find that the young generation will always be with you.
You found that the young generation was with Modi. He is 60-plus but people saw him as a youth icon at that time.
Do you think Modi is progressive?
Yes, I think so. That’s why people voted for him, right? He had a vision and this and that. I am not saying he is 100% right, I am telling you what people felt.
Apart from you, who else should young India be reading?
You should read as many books as possible. I won’t say read this or that. I will be unfair to many writers. Please make reading a habit. The last book I read was by Pixar’s chief executive and it was a damned good book.
Everyone has a different taste and there are enough books. It’s very important for personality, for your creativity and imagination. It can transform you, which TV will never do.
Do you think young people should just stop watching TV?
I want them to inculcate a balance. If they are watching 10 hours of TV every day, I want to take them away from TV. But if they are watching it for one hour, it’s fine.
So you want them to watch one hour of Nach Baliye?
Yes, they can do that. But, now I am out of Nach Baliye so they can watch whatever they want (laughs).