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Culture and chaos

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: August 14, 2012, 4:48 PM IST
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A literary revolution of sorts has overtaken the country in the past decade. The global excitement over India's English-language novelists that began when in the late 90s has now moved past surprise and delight to the point where Indians are now expected to routinely win major awards and write big books. Renowned British literary agency Aitken Alexander Associates has opened an office in India. Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster have also launched Indian divisions. It's important to note that all the optimism surrounding the publishing scene in India comes amidst a worldwide recession that's hit the publishing industry in the West pretty hard. Bookstores in the US have been losing out to Amazon and digital alternatives, where it's largely doom and gloom among editors and literary agents. But that is not quite the case in India, where the Internet and kindle are still not as pervasive as in the West. On the other hand, the whole genre of 100-rupees pulpy paperbacks is easy to produce and even easier to sell.

When I walk into a bookstore here, I head for the Indian fiction section to browse because I never get a chance to do that in the States. And it's really interesting to see the number of titles on the shelves. Apart from the literary novels that showcase the talent and skills of good writers writing in English in India, there is a vast number of genre fiction (a term that's rarely if ever used in Indian literary circles). While the American genre of choice these days is fantasy, here in India it's chick lit that dominates, with names like "Of Course I Love You ... Till I Find Someone Better", "Stilettoes In The Newsroom", and "Love Via Telephone Tring Tring" (which may sound like a toddler's book but apparently not). These books are published by mainstream publishers, and are extremely popular with India's growing middle class which wants quick, racy reads that they can - I am told - connect with. The stories are intended to reflect contemporary, urban Indian "reality" - much as any reality show in America reflects American society, I assume. That may be why so many books these days are set in that great Indian location, the call centre. Bestselling writers like Chetan Bhagat have managed to beat millions of Indian readers' minds to a pulp. And you were wondering where that term comes from.

From bookstores and literature, I have to move on to that other medium of cultural production in India. Movies. Like reading Indian books (i.e. titles that are not readily available outside India), I also restrict myself largely to watching Indian cinema while I'm here. Ideally, I'd like to spend all my time catching up on Bengali movies and old Hindi ones.

But the most pervasive and visible side of Indian cinema is neither regional nor classic. On my last couple of visits to India, I have often wondered - were we, growing up, this obsessed with Bollywood?

The media seems to have been taken over by mainstream Hindi cinema. Most advertisements feature movie stars both past and present. Salman Khan models flip flops, Saif Khan models underwear, Madhuri Dixit models toothpaste, Vidya Balan models snacks. Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif stare down creepily from giant billboards across the country. Even advertisements that don't feature stars often refer to popular Hindi films such as this Reliance broadband commercial.

The Indian 24/7 news channels (which did not exist when I lived in India a decade ago) all feature special segments on Bollywood news. Gurgaon's Kingdom of Dreams, the entertainment venue that tries to be a swank version of Dilli Haat with its regional stalls, earns most of its revenue from Broadway-like musical shows. Needless to say these are entirely based on Bollywood song and dance. So are talent contests on TV such as "Indian Idol". Unlike America, while an independent pop music industry does exist in India, it's completely overshadowed by Bollywood soundtracks. Which might explain why movie stars, and not musicians are invited - and paid mega bucks - to dance and lip sync to songs from movies at award shows and other functions.

But nowhere is this invasion more blatant than in the newspapers. When I worked as a reporter in Calcutta just before leaving the country, the tabloid takeover was just getting underway. Now it appears to be complete. The most widely circulated newspapers are covered with pictures and news of celebrities. Daily supplements are wholly devoted to what was once only restricted to Page 3. Fashion shows, where and how socialites are partying, interviews with new debutant film stars, and various examples of the good life fill up newsprint. If a Martian landed in India and picked up a newspaper he or she might be forgiven for assuming that this country is filled with rich, spoilt folks, most of whom have a Bollywood connection. It's fascinating to see how the news pages - for those who care to read them - often feature the dark news of murders, rapes, droughts, and riots while the supplements simultaneously highlight the frivolous. The audience for the latter, one might assume, would also enjoy the chick lit mentioned above.

The growing consumption of low-brow pop culture, which many will say is just a euphemism for trash, is a very important part of India today. Not that it's all that different from popular fascination with the Kardashians or self-help books or novels about vampires in America. The US, after all, is a pop culture pioneer. But, the way in which Bollywood celebrities overwhelm Indian news and culture is a little frightening. I can't help but think that this is a reflection of India's growing consumer culture where a significant section of the population has more disposable income than their parents or grandparents ever did and who are therefore drawn to designer brands, foreign cars, holidays abroad and overall Western modes of living that symbolise progress. When I was a teen living in India, it was cool amongst many of us high schoolers, to be Americanised, to not speak an Indian language fluently, to not wear Indian clothes, to not eat Indian food, and so on. Now it sometimes seems like India, on the surface, is a country of teens.

However, in the midst of all the Katrina Kaif posters and new malls that spring up every week, it is still possible to find your own movies, books and music. This summer I've read a number of very interesting books by debut novelists, as well as excellent translations of Bengali fiction, and even some pretty good poetry in English. Some of the most interesting books by Indian debut novelists published in the past year include Booker Prize nominee "Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil, Ondaatje Prize winner "The Sly Company of People Who Care" by Rahul Bhattacharya, and "Em And The Big Hoom" by Jerry Pinto. The Pao Collective, a group of five graphic novelists, has collaborated to create "Pao-The Anthology of Comics 1", which will be released by Penguin India later this month, promises to be innovative and entertaining. "The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry", published last month, brings together works - mostly unpublished before - by Indian poets born after 1950 and living both in India and abroad.

Fortunately, despite all the 100-rupee paperbacks, there are enough few editors and publishers around who care about good writing to ensure that India continues to publish fresh, exciting books that will be sent out to the world.

As far as cinema is concerned, it was not, in the end, very hard to tune out the Salman Khan commercials. My fondness for old Hindi movies (60s and earlier) got an unfortunate impetus following the death of Rajesh Khanna, which gave many Indians an opportunity to revisit some of his superhit movies - "Anand", "Kati Patang", "Safar" - movies with enchanting, unforgettable soundtracks. My favourite among them, "Amar Prem", based on a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay ("Nishipadma"), and a remake of a Bengali film (also called "Nishipadma") made me wonder why commercial movies produced now are rarely if ever based on literary works.

Speaking of Bengali cinema, the best film I watched this summer was "Bhooter Bhobishyot" (The Future of the Past or The Future of Ghosts), a hilarious, satirical film about an old mansion that a promoter wants to tear down to make way for - what else - a mall. But the house is inhabited by a group of ghosts who, when alive, belonged to different segments. Now, threatened with homelessness, they devise a plan to defeat the promoter. The script is original and refreshing and the actors put up a wonderful ensemble performance. After a series of lovely, lingering films by Rituporno Ghosh, "Bhooter Bhobishyot" was an instant mood-uplifter. It cleverly captures the changes sweeping across the country where promoters and real estate developers have taken over our collective destinies. But it addresses these changes with playful irony and fun music, and some very contemporary touches such as the use of Spookbook (Facebook for ghosts) and a young Bengali rockstar. It is gratifying to see how popular this film has been in Calcutta.

Speaking of rock, more and more Indians are now rejecting conventional jobs for careers in music or photography, thus ensuring for themselves a lifetime of struggle and uncertainty. It was difficult, when I was growing up in Calcutta, to find even one acquaintance who had given up a regular job to try and make it as a professional photographer or a lead singer. Now, I have friends in India who're wedding photographers, folk musicians, theatre actors, scriptwriters and poets. These friends with creative aspirations are joined by others who have quit their corporate jobs to become entrepreneurs or freelancers. Whether this reflects an increasing reluctance to toe the line or simply growing ambition, it is a sign that Indians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, are more willing to take risks now than in the past. Risks that will add, no doubt, to the cultural chaos of India. But chaos, as everyone knows, is another word for freedom.
First Published: August 14, 2012, 4:48 PM IST

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