“India? Ah, it’s big into films. And, oh, there’s the Taj Mahal.”
This is how we were perceived at one time.
(Let’s leave out the poor Taj for a minute.)
Right before our eyes, with the descent beginning around the time Amitabh Bachchan and BPL joined in unholy matrimony, setting the film-folk-as-brand-ambassadors juggernaut rolling, India has gone from much about films, to all about films to – the cultural wasteland we stand on today – nothing but films.
There isn’t a single thing today in our ancient land which is free from the pernicious influence of films. From what we eat to what we drive, from where we ought to holiday to where we should get our insulin shot, from what our child is studying to what she will be performing at the school annual day function, and everything in between, film is the persuader, the standard, and the alpha-to-omega solution.
Nothing was safe from contamination by film, we thought, except art and literature. Alas.
While the exact date when Indian literature’s free fall began may not be that easy to pinpoint (though Mrs Funnybones helped, and Karan Johar did his sniggery bit at lit fests), I think we cannot underestimate the significance of Priyanka Chopra’s forthcoming “memoir”, Unfinished.
I am sure, with the publishing house’s PR machinery running on Red Bull to recover the massive advance they (must) have forked out to PC, the release date of this literary milestone will be branded with a hot iron into the brains of anyone who intends buying a book. Please circle it. Not to buy the book, which I’m sure you will anyway. But as the date Indian literature well and truly lost to films. Let’s put our benumbed heads together to make one giant hammer, and pound a signpost into this date, and mark it for posterity as The Point of No Return.
(As is Sanju. Which we will come to in a minute.)
In the announcement, this is what Ms Chopra says about her book: The flavor of the book will be honest, funny, spirited, bold, and rebellious, just like me.
For starters, she spells flavour without the “u”. But that isn’t my chief grouse. That could as likely be the oversight of an editor caught up with posting a selfie as Ms Chopra catering to her ‘American readership’. My objection is, and I’m willing to bet my annual royalties (with which I can buy myself a four-pack of Rajaram’s Peanut Candy) that the book will be anything but honest, funny, spirited, bold, and rebellious. Just like her.
Ms Chopra is many things: a competent actress, a great dancer, and Daddy’s Little Girl. But the one thing she isn’t is a fool. Tell me, which person at the top of their game, filmi or otherwise, except, say, Vivek Oberoi, will commit career suicide by being honest, in the real sense of it – leave alone spirited, bold, and rebellious? (The only hope Ms Chopra has of being funny is unintentionally, so let’s leave that out. See her cringe-worthy shenanigans in this clip.)
Honest would mean stepping on brittle, unforgiving, male Bollywood toes.
And Ms Chopra can’t afford to do that, can she? Let’s not fool ourselves about her future. Not too long from now, chances are she will revert to being a Desi Girl. Nick Jonas notwithstanding. Because this is where the big bucks are. Judging dance shows, helming Big Boss, and, we hope, doing some meaningful cinema, too (unlike her America-returned compatriot, that former Denverite, Ms Dixit, who is content teaching Ek-Do-Teen on Tata Sky).
The book, if anything, like almost all memoirs by film folk, will most likely be a sanitised, ghost-written, and in her case, annoyingly giggly, piece of fluff, extolling Ms Chopra’s many virtues. Featuring, at most, a hand-holding puppy-love affair between Ms Chopra and a cute, blond, if fictional, boy, when she was a schoolgirl in the US.
Not one of the things the reader, by which I mean the average sleazeball who trawls all the Bollywood gossip sites, is hoping for, ie, love, sex, multiple surgeries and dhoka, will be featured.
Which brings us to Sanju, the similarities and differences between PC’s book and the so-called biopic. And why, together, they mark the beginning of the end.
What is Sanju?
It purports to be the life story of a popular, if troubled, actor. Were it an honest attempt, it would be a film about an untalented, entitled, drug-addled, infantilised gent who posed a serious threat to our country’s security at what was a major turning point in its history, and got away far too lightly.
But who has made it?
Rajkumar Hirani – that purveyor of self-serving, Bollywood-brand moral science lessons disguised as entertainment, who has used every tool in his manipulative armoury to sanitise good pal Dutt’s dangerously irresponsible life, and try and make you sympathise with the protagonist.
The principal similarity is the intent/thought process of the publisher of the memoir and the makers of the biopic.
Which is: the average reader/viewer is an inveterate Peeping Tom. We will publicise our book/film as honest, spirited, bold, unapologetic and no-holds-barred. He will come with family and friends to buy the book/tickets, to read/watch and pleasure himself with the scandalous goings-on in the life of the actor. We will sell on hype and make a fat profit and a quick getaway before the reader/viewer realises he has been diddled.
There are differences, too, of course. In the case of Sanju, the idea of sanitising a criminal’s life, and painting him in a sympathetic light is a genuinely dangerous trend. It is a novel and diabolical way of glorifying violence, addiction and misogyny, ie, by not showing them. (Or showing them, at best, through a soft-focus lens.)
Can’t you see a similar biopic in the making, a future Eid offering, no doubt, of Sanju Baba’s best buddy, and fellow bad boy – with a heart of no less gold – the redoubtable Bhaijaan of Bollywood, Salman Khan?
[As I write this piece, a major publisher has announced yet another book on Sanjay Dutt with great fanfare. This one is different, apparently. It will be penned by Baba himself! And it will hit the stalls in time for his sashtiabdapoorti next year. I’m guessing its opening line will be: “It all began when I met a publisher who told me there were some more dimwits we could fool…”]
Priyanka Chopra, in my eyes, is no role model. But, most certainly, her book is not a threat per se.
But the points Ms Chopra’s book earns by not being outright cynical as a project, it more than makes up by what it does to writers. (Not the big, fancy ones. The mid-listers, who are – or ought to be – the very bedrock of publishing.)
Ms Chopra has allegedly been paid, just as an advance, roughly what constitutes the royalty of, say, seventy-five professional midlist writers. Even if I am somewhat off the mark, that is an astounding figure with an astounding impact. Picture hordes of full-time writers, bent over their desks endlessly, working on their various books, who will remain unpublished.
Get your head around that.
Imagine what undiscovered gems there must be lying around in the slush pile of the big publishers because everyone, from office boy to CEO, has been busy chasing Karan Johar, Hema Malini, Sunny Leone, and Priyanka Chopra with bags of money.
Imagine the legitimate writers who’ll be sacrificed in the near future for Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma and Jacqueline Fernandez’s forthcoming memoirs, cleanliness guides, and pole-dancing books.
Whether you agree with my analysis or not, no one can deny that both Ms Chopra’s book and the movie Sanju have been written for the wrong reason, published/produced for a wronger reason, and finally read/watched for the wrongest reason of all.
Stop this before we inhabit a world where Taimur Ali Khan acts as Ranbir Kapoor playing Sanjay Dutt in his biopic titled Chintu Ka Laadla, and a publishing house buys the rights to that movie and publishes a book with Alia Bhatt’s foreword, the rights to which are then bought by a studio to turn into a movie. While Farhan Akhtar represents us at the Olympics, Hrithik Roshan is made head of TIFR, Saroj Khan the president of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. And Shakti Kapoor, VC of JNU.
That our next stop is purgatory is not in doubt. My question is, why should the only route to it be via Bollywood’s toxic alimentary canal?
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli has written five useless books. Had he accepted the lead role in the Telugu film he was offered twenty-five years ago, he could have been CM of his state, and his book, a movie.