I still recall the expression of disappointment on the face of an (English) editor when I stated that my novel, Filming, was mostly about the Mumbai film industry in the 1940s, and not really about “Bollywood”. Bollywood, after all, is a term that assumed currency only in the 1980s, and it does not cover either Indian parallel (art) cinema or the middle cinema of excellent directors such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It is also difficult to apply the term to some of the great “commercial” film-makers of the past, such as Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. But the term has assumed such hegemonic force in the West that it now eclipses all other histories of not only Indian cinema but even Bombay/Mumbai films.
Not surprisingly, a kind of sub-genre is coming into existence in English: Bollywood fiction, written by both Indians and foreigners. Some examples, such as Shashi Tharoor’s Show Business, are significant as literature, and some are at best froth riding the tidal wave of “Bollywood”. Meredith McGuire’s Bollywood Becomes Her (Tranquebar Press) probably falls into a third category. This is a novel by a Western “fan” and student of Bollywood: McGuire is a doctoral student in anthropology and she runs www.bollywhat.com, a “guide for clueless fans of Hindi film”.
Screen test: Is Raj Kapoor ‘Bollywood’?
McGuire’s novel is about Bollywood, as encountered in the US by a blonde Ivy League graduate (Meg Smith) trying to impress a couple of Indian men. A peppy version of chick lit, Bollywood Becomes Her is often funny, if only because it turns the usual equation around: For once, it is not an immigrant Indian woman floundering for identity, but an American swirled in saris and situations.
Voices from Bangladesh
In a few years, Tranquebar Press has built up an impressive list that includes both the entertaining and the literary. Ahmede Hussain’s excellent new anthology, The New Anthem: The Subcontinent in its Own Words (Westland/Tranquebar), offers good examples of writing that is both literary and entertaining. The roughly two dozen contributions are not just by established names, but also by talented new writers, such as Sumana Roy, Abeer Hoque and Qaisra Shahraz. For me, the revelation was the number of promising Bangladeshi writers. Bangladeshi writing in English gets neglected, and there is evidence in the Dhaka-based Hussain’s anthology that this neglect is unjustified.
Novel of ideas
I was tempted by the title of Steven Lukes’ The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat—A Novel of Ideas (Verso): Novels of ideas are so rare these days. In the introduction, Lukes, an American professor known for books such as Liberals and Cannibals, remarks on the modern separation of “philosophy” from “storytelling”. He notes that this was not always the case: Philosophers from Plato to Voltaire had reasoned through stories and myths. The Curious Enlightenment returns to this longer tradition: using the exile of its protagonist, Professor Caritat, to the “countries” of Utilitaria, Communitaria and Libertaria to comment on the muddled state of contemporary thinking. As a “story”, it seldom matches the pace of Voltaire’s Candide or the savage wit of Swift, but it remains a satire worth reading, and far more rewarding than at least three of the novels shortlisted for the Booker this year.
Tabish Khair is the Bihar-born, Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to him at email@example.com