Chetan Bhagat is in his shorts, not quite ready for us. But he seems unfazed and offers us a cup of tea. Seeing a refusal hovering, he coaxes us gently, “It’s ready.”
He’s talking about feminism. Really? First thing in the morning? Actually not, if you consider that’s the central theme of his latest offering, One Indian Girl, out this month and said to have broken all pre-order records on Amazon. Written in the first person from the female protagonist’s point of view, it is about issues that women face at the workplace and in their relationships, particularly if they are successful. This must surely have been difficult. Even before the book hit the stands, basis only the teaser, there were reports that Kangana Ranaut had shown an interest in playing the lead protagonist in its film adaptation.
“It was difficult, but more than anything, I learned a lot about the way women think and the issues they face. There’s a subtle sexism they have to face on a daily basis.” Wow. It helped that he has a legion of friends who are women. He shared the manuscript with them and they put him on track when he wasn’t getting it right. With his male friends he talks about professional stuff, but with his women friends, it is a different equation. “I can admit that I’m nervous about the release of this book. I wouldn’t say that to a male friend. There’s an ego involved there. But a woman will understand and empathise.”
When a person goes to a bookstore, they will pick up one of my books, I have no doubt about that. But what can I do about that kid who is glued to WhatsApp and looking for Pokemon?
The subject is on his mind currently and he wants to expound on the subject. “Fem- inism has many shades to it from foeticide and rape to education and marital issues. In India, sending a girl to school is a huge step towards feminism, in New York, it could be about consent and the right to say no even in an advanced degree of intimacy.” He addresses the subject in the corporate workplace in his book. The protagonist is a successful banker and earning half a million dollars and this is her story. Again, as with his previous works, a slice from his life: “She’s doing the job that I was doing back then.”
A woman has to prove herself all the time, everywhere. Often her success is measured by her contribution in the household. “She can be more successful than her male counterpart, but when she comes home, she must make the phulkas, or she is not a success. But first, such women find it difficult to find a ‘suitable’ match. They are too intelligent and perhaps too high maintenance. Men feel intimidated.” Breaching the glass ceiling in the boardroom is only a minuscule part of the argument.
Being a writer makes him a keen observer of human behaviour and psyche. But he did have a plan in place and a spreadsheet full of questions as part of his research. He would ask all sorts of questions to women from all walks of life. He needed to get into their heads. He asked a DJ what it was like having such a swinging job. It was great she said, and she was having a rocking time. But an hour or so later into the conversation, she admitted the problems. The biggest one of trust. How could she be working a night job at a night club and not be having a ‘rocking’ life. This came from her boyfriend. So is this the eternal agni pariksha that a woman must face even in these times?
Zealous, perhaps, but Chetan got waxing done as part of the research about everyday issues, and was bemused by the level of pain he had to endure. “And women do this every few weeks! Primates have hair, but a woman must remove it. And we expect them to pretend it’s okay because there is such a premium on looking good, and just so.”
The ideal, for him then, is for a woman to be at peace. This is difficult and there are few women in that space. There is always pressure on them to be a good daughter, wife, mother, sister, employee. “For millennia, men were the breadwinners, now women are out there and in a few short generations we are discussing these things. We (men) can help by being considerate and sensitive to them. We need to go beyond the ‘man wants a simple, beautiful, homely girl.’ We need to educate women. (And men, too?). In the rural areas, for instance, it’s the khaap mentality that has to change.”
He made a momentous decision when he quit a lucrative career in banking (Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong), to pursue writing as a full-time career. Dissatisfaction at work, and with his boss at Goldman Sachs, made him take revenge in an odd sort of way that would have far reaching consequences for him. He would pretend to work and look busy by writing snippets on the bank’s stationery about his experiences with a troublesome professor during his student years. Those scribbled pages went on to become the highly successful Five Point Someone (later to be adapted and filmed as 3 Idiots), catapulting him into the world of publishing and media. This was a hard-won victory because after about fifteen drafts, he still had no publisher who thought the book had any merit. When it did get picked up by Rupa, it ushered in a new era in Indian writing in English. Finally, the country got its own king of of pulp, one who wrote about the familiar in an Indian context, in the language of the people and to hell with ‘proper English’. His next, One Night @ the Call Center, written when call centres were a booming business, was a runaway hit as well. What helped, also, was the pricing strategy; at 0100 or so, it was easily accessible to his target readership. His choice of subjects found resonance with the youth – scoring well in academics, getting the right job, finding the perfect match for marriage – all solid middle class concerns.
It’s not as if I wake up one day and decide I’m going to be trolled. There are people out there, who will do that anyway; social I write about relationships media has made it easy for them.
While he was never dependent on her financially, the hard decision to change course, was slightly cushioned because his wife, too, had a well paying corporate job. “If the partner has a regular job, the decision is slightly easier to take.” Chucking up a good career that he’d studied hard for—IIT and IIM—was difficult and he was advised not to do it. “The family was dead against it because they had the regular middle class security issues. There were no full time Indian writers, it was not a paying profession and the genre was new in the country. It helps when you have an educated spouse who you can talk to and share decision-making with.”
It worked out well in the end because he started to write articles, and used social media effectively. It helped, too, that he had an opinion about everything, and knew the importance of sound bites. (See box). His books became bestsellers and lent themselves well to the movies. He is currently co-producing a film adaptation of his novel Half Girlfriend with Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor as protagonists. He was a judge for the dance show Nach Baliye last year and anchored 2 States Couples, a show on TV that was inspired by his book 2 States, that was about love and relationships, and couples in inter-class / cultural marriages who face problems.
A prolific writer of fiction, he reads largely non-fiction, particularly when he’s writing, “because I don’t want to get influenced in anyway during that time. But I love reading romance, I enjoy Jane Austen.” He doesn’t feel threatened by the newer writers in the genre that he seems to have pioneered. He is supremely confident about his books and sales. “It’s technology that is the competition, not other writers. When a person goes to a bookstore, they will pick up one of my books, I have no doubt about that. But what can I do about that kid who is glued to WhatsApp and looking for Pokemon?”
Writing with an eye to films is not what he does. He’s emphatic about that. “I write about relationships and people, and that works well in movies. But it is Bollywood that grabs eyeballs, what can I say, even magazines that should not have film stars on the cover have them, so it’s great that THE MAN is putting a writer on the cover.”
He seems to be everywhere. He doesn’t agree with this, however. “I write only two columns, but it seems that way because of the tremendous reach I have. I don’t judge, I’m a writer, I have an opinion.” He’s not shy about voicing it and so has a comment on everything. On Kashmir, it’s a willingness to see another approach to the situation. “If a neighbour slashes your car tyres everyday and smashes your windscreen and will not listen to reason, you have to take a step. One day, you cut his TV connection, he’s going to react. That’s what the PM is doing with the Baloch approach.”
With the world becoming seemingly more polarised along the lines of religion and colour of skin as we see from international politics, he wonders, “Social media was supposed to break down barriers and bring us together.” It’s the same approach when he’s being trolled and appears to revel in it. Recently, it was the twitter war with Piers Morgan. “It’s not as if I wake up one day and decide I’m going to be trolled. There are people out there, who will do that anyway; social media has made it easy for them.” Despite the disclaimer, however, he understands the power of social media and is aware of the impact of his humongous success.
Today, he wears many hats, comfortable with them all. He’s producing a film, writing books and articles and giving motivational talks wherever he’s invited to. He prefers others to write the screenplays for his novels. “I’ve done it, (2 States, and Kai Po Che! for which he even won the Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay in 2014), but it’s better to let others do it, because I’ve moved on from when I wrote the book and there are many changes required for cinematic reasons.”
For all his disarming frankness, he’s conscious of his image. He’s reluctant to pose in front of his Mercedes in the parking lot, and categorically refuses to be shot on camera pouring wine from his fabulous collection of liquor because there is, after all, an image to maintain.