Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chetan Bhagat | What's he got that I ain't got?

I enter Crossword and am greeted by a mountain, and I am not joking, of red colored books stacked right at the entrance. Bang in the middle. I am wondering, who is this John Grisham who has launched a book, ‘cause I swear Rainmaker is the only other book I have seen stacked this way; and that too in a seconds only shop. And then on closer inspection, my wonderment is relieved – of course; it had to be him – Chetan Bhagat. Wonderment didn’t cease yet, one more made its way through: how come there was no hype about his new book?

Not that I am a fan, but this dude deserves a mention; don’t you think? While he is not Chef de Cuisine for connoisseurs with the literary buds he is certainly more than the average Commis when it comes to dishing out desi dishes to suit the masses; and pleasingly affordable at that. I mean, a McDonald’s a McDonald – but ask any Bombay-ite worth his salt and he would still prefer the vada-pav worth Rs. 5 than hog on to the more elite, high-soc and hygienic McVeggie for Rs. 22. Now, Chetan Bhagat hasn’t a repertoire that would make Bernard Shaw tremble in his grave, but he has sold probably more copies than all other non-award winning Indian authors put together – just like the roadside vada pav stall who sells thousands of vada pavs every day as compared to the feeble hundreds sold by McDonalds.

So, what is it that makes him sell, while the other Indian authors at best get a shelf space in Crosswords’ Best Sellers. He hasn’t the wit of a PG Wodehouse, not the zaniness of Douglas Adams, he isn’t half as gripping as Agatha Christie nor a master of thrillers like Robin Cook. He doesn’t even have the ability to write a page turner like Sidney Sheldon or John Grisham. Neither does he have the imagination of Tolkien nor the profundity of Rand. He is, at best, an average Joe when it comes to writing a novel. He was (is?) an investment banker in Wall Street, New York for heaven’s sake which would ideally take him as far away as writing as Shah Rukh Khan is from method acting. But he strikes gold. That is probably what he knows best, striking gold. What he has done is not excelled in writing, but he has excelled in positioning his books. He has got his basics of marketing right where it matters – Target Audience. He doesn’t muddle himself up with thoughts of awards and literary fame. He is modest – he wants to make money. So, he sits down and zeroes in on his audience. Students who have entered junior college, school students who are getting bored of Tinkle and find Hardy Boys too old fashioned, housewives who are yet to pick up a novel of any kind and a hundred other middle class people who find John Grisham’s novels second only to books of law and Jefferey Archer too difficult to follow. Now that he has the audience in mind, he has to price it so that they will buy it. He prices his books at one-half of the rate of any book worth its paperback cover: @ Rs. 95/- a piece. So, he has the audience and the price in place – now for content…

He has four books to his credit: his record breaking debut novel and also easily his best outing Five Point Someone (FPS), the hype of which was so much that the wave carried his next very average One Night @ the Call Center (ON@CC) to the best seller list. His third novel which tried to bring in India’s top 3 items on the ‘Things we are crazy about’ list; Religion, Politics and Cricket, together in one interwoven desi masala ‘The 3 Mistakes of my Life’ (3MML) sold lesser than the previous two – but IMO was much more fun than his ‘One Night..’. His most recent novel – the one that I picked from the mountain mentioned in the opening lines, is titled ‘2 States’ (2S) and is about how cross-state (love) marriages happen in India, IMO the worst book of his lot.

But focus on the topics he deals with – it isn’t individuality: Indians don’t know what that is, it isn’t murder mysteries: we would rather watch an Abbas Mastan movie, it isn’t history: who wants another controversy anyway, and in fact – it isn’t hardcore anything at all. Each of his books is a ‘love story’ ‘cause that is numero uno when it comes to selling entertainment. Right from Yash Chopra to Karan Johar, everyone has used this device with varying backdrops and they have sold movies (and how!) for more than 5 decades. So there is no arguing or denying that fact. Now, adorn a love story with backdrops: these have to be something that the middle class Indian desires every day – a better education (IIT in FPS, IIM in 2S), a job at the call center (ON@CC), a group of friends to hang out with (ON@CC), cricket, religion and politics (3MML) and a cross lingual marriage/ marrying the love of your life (2S again). At the core, there is a love story in each of his books which is painted on a canvas that carries one of the above mentioned backdrops which try to put up a fa├žade so that the book doesn’t go down as yet another love story; now you wouldn’t want that, would you? So, there you are Chetan Bhagat deconstructed, you could write a best seller like you make one of those dishes Sanjeev Kapoor shows you every Sunday on Zee TV, can’t you?

1. Scan the book stores and see which section of the audience has been grossly ignored

2. Price your end product competitively, come what may

3. Write a love story, it maybe your own, your friends’, or even a one you have seen on TV

4. Create a background: choose one from cricket, education, poverty, politics – or to be on the safer side, have a little bit of everything

5. Interweave the love story in such a way that the focus is always on the backdrop – while ensuring that you are having the reader wish that the hero and the heroine get together

6. Tadaaa! You have a bestseller

So, jokes apart. Is it just that? Nope. It is much more. It lies in the narration – simple, uncomplicated and very, very ordinary. None, let me stress, not one of his words would make you go to the dictionary. Not one of his lines would make you read it again. Not one of his paragraphs would make the average reader want to put the book down. It is right there – simple and uncomplicated. You would feel like you are reading a story out of the 6th grade English textbook. But you aren’t – because he is also talking contemporary social issues - today’s issues. He is talking about making love in college dorms, he is talking, with rather political improperness, about Tamil-ians being dark-skinned and Punjabis wanting little more than Hyundai Santros for wedding qualification. He is talking about incorrect politicians in a riot torn Gujarat and ties cricket to religion. He does all this while pretending to be writing a love story. He talks about taboo and also about the taboo. But he checks himself. He doesn’t want controversies. He writes page long disclaimers pretending to be forewords. He doesn’t get too ambitious with his words or content.

He is happy playing a dumbed down writer. He doesn’t want to be in the Booker’s List. He would much rather go stale on the cover page of the book in the book shelves of a million Indian households. He is making a million readers who wouldn’t read, read. He is making housewives read. He peppers his books with his own sensibilities of the socio-economic conditions in India. He might just educate these readers in his own little way. Maybe this is the way he is doing his bit.

And writing not more than what he wants to tell, dancing his way to the banks. The middle-class writer.

This dude, doesn’t he deserve the mention?

1 comment:

kau said...

hmm ! interesting point indeed.
I like the simplicity and contemporary Indian thoughts in his books- and the regional settings too !
I think it makes people think ,"hey, this guy is one amongst us, writes about us!"
there's the appeal may be!