Some books make great material for potential blockbuster scripts. Perhaps this next book from Vikas Swarup, whose first book, Q&A, was adapted for Slumdog Millionaire, is going to be fodder for another film where the underdog wins against all odds. But in the book format, the plot of The Accidental Apprentice is just too convenient, too lame.

The story revolves around Sapna Sinha, a salesgirl from Rohini, Delhi, who works in an electronics showroom in Connaught Place. She meets Vinay Mohan Acharya, one of India’s richest men, in a temple on Baba Kharak Singh Marg and after some hesitation signs up for a bizarre assignment that Acharya proposes to her—if she clears seven tests, she will become the CEO of Acharya’s business empire. Initially the reader is told that Acharya will not be setting the tests specifically nor is it made clear why he chooses Sinha. He tells her that she has a “compelling mix of determination and desperation" and that she seems “to be just the pious, God-Fearing candidate I was looking for". I hope no eccentric billionaire will take inspiration from this and look for pious, determined, desperate candidates with no management degrees as potential CEOs.

Acharya assures Sinha that the tests will be “from the textbook of life", and that she will not even be aware she is being tested. He judges Sinha based on how she handles the bizarre situations she lands herself in within six months of meeting him. The six qualities—leadership, integrity, courage, foresight, resourcefulness and decisiveness—that he looks for in a CEO are highlighted through Sinha’s actions and choices as the book progresses. Of course, there is a dramatic twist (two, actually, if you count why Acharya chooses Sinha to play his game) in the end, but nothing that catches you totally off guard.

For me the biggest problem lies in the sketching out of Sinha’s character. In spite of having everything that should make her the quintessential underdog, Sinha’s failing lies in not invoking a feeling of connectedness with her struggles. Not so fair and not too pretty, the sole breadwinner who gave up on her dreams to take care of an ailing mother and a selfish sibling, a guilty sister who believes she is responsible for her youngest sister’s suicide—Swarup leaves out nothing that would not make you feel sorry for this 23-year-old. And then he turns her into a superwoman who takes on a khap panchayat, corrupt police and a rude actress, dodges a theft charge, exposes a politician in cahoots with a don who runs a child labour racket, creates a crusader, exposes a lecherous music director, battles goondas (goons) and potential rapists, even manages to kiss the boy she thinks she loves... Whew! And this is only up to the fifth test. I was tired just trying to keep track of all her heroics (make that herogiri).

The good thing is that many of the situations are a reflection of contemporary society. There is mention of the power of the people’s movement, a reflection of activist Anna Hazare in one of the characters, and the pivotal role the media can play (though I think Swarup accords too much power to a TV reporter, without whose help it seems Sinha may have failed half her tests.)

For me the book would have worked better if Sinha had been given doable challenges, but then those don’t really make for a great script.

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