fiction or fact

Why publishers shouldn’t love movie stars (or, how Bollywood is turning books into BS)

Why do publishers go weak at the knees at the thought of signing up film-stars who cannot even read a script?

It was Sunday night, having sobbed myself to sleep after watching Koffee With Karan, when I awoke in a cold sweat. From a dream. About Kohler’s Intelligent Toilet.

In which it had looked at me with intelligent, if bloodshot, eyes and said, “Just see my plight, no? Starting Monday, thanks to my brother-sponsor, Kindle, the whole week I read tons of books by Devdutt Pattanaik, Ashwin Sanghi, Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush, and all the other literary greats, to steadily increase my IQ...”

To which I’d said, “Isn’t that Kohler? You are after all a toilet known for your superior intelligence...unlike other toilets which are lowbrow. So what’s the harm in giving more muscle to your USP, so to speak, every week?”

“Yeah, right,” said my new friend. “Then comes Sunday and, as per my contract, I have to view the show. Bam. Before you know it, I am monumentally stupid again.”

That’s when I jumped out of bed with a very alarming thought.

Not about Kohler – which, according to my dream sources, is on serious medication to help cope with this traumatic ding-dong experience week after week – but its sister sponsor, the Kindle.

Imagine what would happen if it could talk. It’s not a stretch if a toilet can.

“Listen, fellas,” it would say to the genius who thought of positioning it thus. “I am a treasure trove of literature, right? A virtual, compressed goddess Saraswati at your fingertips. What was the thought process behind having me sponsor a show whose highpoint is a “quiz” with questions like ‘Tell me quick, does Priyanka Chopra use a hair removal cream or sheep-shearing scissors?’ or ‘Answer me, who molested more women in movies, Shakti Kapoor or Ranjeet?’ And, as if that weren’t enough, have a toilet as my partner-sponsor?”

To which, the man-in-charge would reply, “If you must know, today, Bollywood is literature. And the the potty. Albeit a less intelligent one. How’s that for compatibility? And people do carry books with them when they go doo-doo. So there.”

Case closed.

Jokes apart, that’s not too far from the current truth.

As I speak, my publishers who have been dying to be my ex-publishers, have wooed yet another semi-literate Bollywood celebrity with a profitable contract, and are posting paeans about this literary achievement on social media as I sit weeping on my non-intelligent toilet.

In my humble opinion, the Kindle’s, a literary device if there ever was one, associating itself with a show like Koffee With Karan was the beginning of the end. For literature. Not the Kindle. That it is doing this within sniffing distance of a shitpot with not a care in the world reflects the lazy, unimaginative, bottomline-chasing (heaven forbid, no pun intended) business plan of many big publishing houses today, which, in a nutshell, is:

Go Bollywood. Can’t Fail.

A month or two ago, a publishing biggie, who makes sure never to like a single Facebook post of mine like it would give him a social disease if he did (after having sent me a friend request just so he could see what damage I was perpetrating), was having something like a nonsexual orgasm on social media because he had acquired the rights of a book by the talentless offspring of a big-time actor. In it, he gushingly referred to the spouse of the “writer”, an upstart in the film industry, as a legend.

Meanwhile, another bona fide writer died jumping off a building.

Unable to contain myself, I commented: “<actor’s name>, a legend? Seriously?”

He responded, much to my surprise, by editing his post.

Which made the whole thing worse, really. Because it meant he knew what he was doing and was doing it anyway.

It is ironic, isn’t it? On one hand, on the same Koffee With Karan, three directors of repute emphatically say that their lead stars are so devoid of attention that they are incapable of even reading a film script (and demand full-on narrations like grandma gave them to put them to sleep). On the other, commissioning editors spurred on by publishing “suits” being anally probed by their white bosses to increase profits are signing up the self-same actors to write their next big-budget, high-profile, headlining book.

It is funny that I am finding this publishing world’s going-out-of-business sell-out to Bollywood objectionable. Because, my own love for reading, and maybe writing, too, pretty much began with books by film folk.

David Niven’s two memoirs, The Moon Is a Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses, taught me nearly everything I needed to know about storytelling and the fine art of exaggeration. Kirk Douglas’s autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, taught me the importance of the exact opposite, unflinching honesty, whether one writes fiction or non-fiction. Garson Kanin’s simply titled Hollywood is a veritable Gita for anyone pursuing the creative life. David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film is a testament to how one can be unashamedly scholarly and unputdownable at the same time.

There are many – maverick screenplay writer Joe Eszterhas’ autobiography, Hollywood Animal, that reads like Shantaram on steroids, Woody Allen’s multiple efforts from his self-invented genre, neurotica. And anything, everything, by Satyajit Ray, including his laundry list. Before the elitists come after me, of our own books by film folk, I have enjoyed Naseeruddin’s Shah’s no-holds-barred memoir And Then One Day, and Bunny Reuben’s juicy Follywood Flashback, to name a few.

These are the books that crowd my shelves. Film books still remain my favourite reading.

But with all these books, though I am not so naive as to think that there wasn’t a strong, cold business motive behind their genesis, one gets the feeling they were not born purely of it. They were part of a plan. They weren’t the plan. And maybe that’s why they have endured. And they can be read, I dare say with great enjoyment, by the non-film buff, too. Which is all the proof any good art requires.

But something tells me that this current juxtaposition of desperate publishing noses twitching furiously in the region of Bollywood bottoms isn’t going to produce high art any time soon.

Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is the author of The Sentimental Spy. Three of his novels are shameless odes to film and the film-obsessed.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.