Manil Suri, author of Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and City of Devi and A.X. Ahmad, author of The Caretaker
(IC, September 2013) and the recently-released The Last Taxi Ride—books one and two of the Ranjit Singh Trilogy, first met at one of Suri’s evening readings. They chatted politely despite being famished. When both confessed their hunger, they ended up becoming friends over dinner. This conversation of literary minds took place at Suri’s home, where they sat at his dining table and transported themselves to India via their conversation about Bollywood’s influence on society, their lives, and their writing.
AX: When did Hindi movies become “Bollywood?” We used to call them “Hindi movies” in childhood.
MS: I don’t know, I think for me there was a gap. I left India in 1979, and they were called “Hindi movies.” Then I didn’t see Hindi movies while I was here in the States. By the time I went back to India and started seeing them again, they had become “Bollywood.” Things changed somewhere along the way. I think even in the 70s once in a while you would see the term “Bollywood” used in film magazines like Stardust. I confess I used to read it.
AX: My grandmother used to get Stardust! It was the most glamorous magazine around. So was your first interest in the movies through Stardust, or did you get interested in the movies and then read Stardust?
MS: I was interested in the movies for a long time, and that led me to Stardust and all the other magazines—Filmfare, Star & Style, Film World. We used to borrow them from the local circulating library, which would rent out each magazine for 25 paise.
AX: So, what are your earliest memories of Bollywood and your favorite movies?
MS: I’m trying to remember the first movie I ever saw. I remember I was dragged to some old black-and-white movie with Mala Sinha, and I started crying. That was a horrible experience! After that, I remember some of the older movies like Sangam. I remember that was a big one. I saw it five times! Also, Shammi Kapoor’s movies kind of stick in my mind, especially Junglee. What about you?
AX: Pakeezah sticks in my mind. I think that was the early 70s, and I must have been about five or six. My grandmother was a big movie fan, and we lived in Park Circus in Calcutta which had these so-called “movie houses.” They were really run down, and the same movies would play forever. People would just go and watch them over and over. I remember watching Pakeezah and seeing Meena Kumari dancing. It made a big impact on me, and I ended up mentioning that movie in my new novel, The Last Taxi Ride.
MS: I remember Pakeezah became big once Meena Kumari died just after it was released. That’s when it started getting the “house full” signs. Sholay, of course, was destined to be this huge movie. Before that, the other movie that comes to mind was Mera Naam Joker, which was a big flop. Some rival producers were trying to make it a flop by buying up tickets and then selling them for one rupee! The next one was Bobby. My mother actually stood in line for about eight hours at Metro Cinema in Bombay for the advance booking so we could get tickets for the first week.
AX: The same Metro Cinema which you blew up in your latest novel, City of Devi?
MS: Yes! That’s right!
AX: You have a great description of the blown-up movie theater in your novel—the front of it destroyed so that one could see all the seats inside. It had become an amphitheater, like a coliseum!
MS: It was strange because I started City of Devi in the year 2000, and at that time, Metro was still just one theater. By the time I was midway through, it became a Cineplex, so I had to make a little change in the novel.
AX: You have the Metro Cinema in your book, and I have the Eros Theater in Mumbai in my book. Those art-deco movie halls from the 30s were beautiful—huge and gorgeous. I have this movie star called Shabana Shah who has a small role in a movie. She goes incognito with the director to Eros Theater to watch the first showing and to see how the crowd reacts. They boo the main heroine, but they really like Shabana. So Shabana and the director go across the road to wait in a chai shop. They know that if the audience, especially the young guys, like the movies, they are going to go back and see it again. In my book, all the young guys go and pee against the walls, buy their one cigarette, and go back and buy tickets. Shabana’s first movie is a hit!
MS: I remember I used to stand in line every Monday. I used to come back from school at 4:30, and then we would take a bus and stand in line, usually at this small theater called Lotus in Worli. It’s closed down now, but it was a nondescript place, and you could easily get tickets. I think we watched English movies once in a while, but we used to watch Hindi movies much more often. I think by the time I got to college, it had started switching. English movies had become much more interesting by then, and Hindi movies had started abating.
AX: Because Hindi movies were so formulaic?
MS: Probably. I had just watched a lot of them and started thinking, “OK, I’m above this somehow.” I was in college and wanted to show that I was cool.
AX: I think that says something about India in the 70s. There was this big divide between homegrown versus foreign. All the Hindi movies were homegrown and easily available. The foreign movies, the English movies, came two or three years after they were released in the West. I thought they were very glamorous, especially something like the latest James Bond. That was an incredible escape into another world.
MS: I think back then we were always looking to the West for what was really good, and there was this tendency to look down upon desi stuff. Now that’s not so much the case.
AX: I went to boarding school in Dehradun in the 1970s, and we had to watch movies on Saturday nights. It was called “Compulsory Entertainment,” so my memory of Hindi movies is sitting out in an amphitheater. They’d put up a sheet and screen the movies. I was a small kid then, and for some of the movies, I would fall asleep in the middle. I would wake up half an hour later, but I still knew what was happening because the plot was so predictable. We watched Sholay, and everybody at school could recite the dialogues from Sholay.
MS: I think the one thing we didn’t say about Bollywood is that the term started as a funny thing. It was not serious. Then it just seemed to gain more respectability, but there was always something disreputable about it, a little bit self-deprecating. Something that implied that the movies were over the top, that they were not completely serious. But even now, do you think it is a straight term?
AX: I think it’s become a straight term, an un-ironic term. I did a reading at a book festival recently with an American crowd. I asked, “Do people know what Bollywood is?” The only guy in the room who didn’t know it was in his eighties. Everyone else said, “Oh yeah, Bollywood, we know what it is!” I think a lot of it has come through the film Slumdog Millionaire because it has some Bollywood elements.
I read in an interview on the book blog “Bookslut” that you said your father was connected to Bollywood as a music director.
MS: He was an assistant music director who worked with Madan Mohan and then with Laxmikant-Pyarelal. He helped them do mostly recordings, so I would go to the recording studio called “Famous Labs.” That was interesting, but the more interesting thing was seeing some of these movies in previews before they were released. The one I remember the most was Caravan.
AX: Did you think your dad had a glamorous job?
MS: Not really. It was more technical. Once in a while, Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle would be downstairs, and my father would talk to them from the balcony about the next day’s recording. The glamorous one in my family was actually my aunt who was an actress. She came to Bombay and became an actress. Her father had to come from Lahore to take her back, but meanwhile she had already acted in two films! This was in the 40s, just before Partition. One of her movies Safar, was a big hit in 1946; the other one wasn’t. She was an actual heroine. Her screen name was Shobha.
So your grandfather also wanted to be in the movies?
AX: My grandfather’s is not such a glamorous story because he had a tea and jute business that he inherited from his father. But he knew all of the latest Hindi film songs, and he would sing them. He had a big gold ring, and he would go shh shh, and make sounds with his ring as he sang. It’s actually quite sad because my grandfather was completely unsuited for business. In fact, he ended up going bankrupt and then died of a heart attack. Many years later, my uncle was cleaning his house out and said, “Nana has all this stuff. I don’t know what to do with it.” I saw that my grandfather had ten or fifteen notebooks—those exercise books. He had composed his own songs and written them in the books. I still have those notebooks of his.
MS: There are a lot of people who came to Bombay with dreams about Bollywood. One of my cousins’ daughters came to Mumbai to see if she could become a film actress. She had won beauty contests and all, but the casting couch is still very much in evidence. The lecherous, leering producers would say, “Well, come and meet me at 2 a.m.” It was so awful, she fled back to London. I think that’s why so many of the actors you see are children of established actors. They don’t have to go through this.
AX: Did Bollywood influence our imaginations? For me, at least, my first glimpse of abroad was through Hindi movies. It would be a big deal if there were a scene shot in Switzerland.
MS: Absolutely. Who used to go abroad in the 60s? I remember seeing Love in Tokyo in 1966. That was one of the big ones. The one that really stands out is An Evening in Paris from 1967. You don’t just see Paris, you see everything. You see Lebanon, Beirut, Switzerland. In one scene, they are in Paris, then someone says, “OK, meet me at Mt. Rushmore tomorrow,” and they end up at Mt. Rushmore in the United States, and they have their final climactic fight there!
AX: People weren’t critical of it because they really wanted to travel through the movies. For some reason Switzerland was big. You’d always see the Alps.
MS: The snow!
AX: And people singing songs and running through the Alpine meadows! I remember at one point there was also a craze in South Indian restaurants: one entire wall would be a wallpaper of the Alps.
MS: The movies at that time were very escapist. Even now, you still see the same thing.
It’s just a little more integrated into the plot. I just saw Queen. That’s about this woman who gets jilted on her marriage date, and she decides to go on her honeymoon anyway, so she ends up in France and Amsterdam.
AX: So why do you think the Bollywood formula has such a hold on the Indian imagination?
MS: If you look at the history, at the beginning, Bollywood movies were similar to Hollywood musicals.
MS: Somehow the musical persisted in India, this escapist masala idea. In Hollywood, it died down. Also, things in India advanced much slower. If you look at the 50s through the early 80s, things remained the same, whereas in America, things were changing more rapidly. India never had the hippie culture of the 60s and all those waves of different influences because it was much more protected. It makes sense that the entertainment, too, would stay the same.
AX: There’s been so much of an overlap between my childhood and my parents’ childhood. It was pretty much the same. The same books. The same kind of things. Even the cars remained the same for years: Ambassador, Fiat, and a few Standard Heralds. For years those were the only cars on the road. I would go back from the States, and years would pass, but it would feel exactly the same.
MS: Bollywood has changed so much in the last few years, and that makes sense because there’s so much influence now from the outside. It’s become so much more international.
AX: Here’s a follow-up question: Is Bollywood the most important binding element among Indians and why?
MS: I think that when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was definitely the most binding element for all of Indian society. Someone on the street would know the names of the famous actors, and the wealthiest person would as well. That’s still true. If you go to India, and you see newspapers like Times of India with its Bombay Times insert, out of eight pages, at least five or six are devoted to Bollywood. Just photographs of these people, articles on these stars. Then, for expatriate Indians, there’s a question of nostalgia and trying to keep up your cultural connections. Bollywood is one of the easiest ways that you can plug back into India, especially in this country. If you go and see a Bollywood movie in a theater on a Friday night with an Indian audience, you can almost imagine you’re back in India. What’s interesting is that Indian-Americans who grew up here are also plugged into it.
AX: Bollywood is fun. It’s sexy.
MS: And people who didn’t grow up in that culture in India also see Bollywood movies. These are kids who are born here—who are going to let’s call them white American schools—they see these movies at home, which maybe their parents were watching on video, and they are so addictive that they get hooked. I know some people who grew up here and are avid Bollywood moviegoers. So yes, there is something to the statement that Bollywood is really one of the more important elements that binds Indians together.
AX: Let’s talk about Bollywood and our writing. I really enjoyed your latest novel, City of Devi. There is a Bollywood movie in your book that has a devastating effect on the country and leads to a situation where the whole city of Mumbai could be wiped out.
MS: City of Devi has this make-believe movie called Superdevi. In it is this child from the slums who has superpowers. I wanted to play on the Jai Santoshi Maa phenomenon where the movie of that name just took over the country. It was about a previously almost-unknown goddess who people made very popular. The same things happen with Superdevi. People start thinking she’s real. I also wanted to play with the phenomenon of the television series, Ramayana, which was shown on TV all over India, because that show had a political component. Some people say that it helped the BJP come to power.
Everyone watched it, there was a resurgence of religious feeling in the country, and the country turned towards the right. I wanted to show that aspect, too, so in my novel, Superdevi results in the country turning toward the right, riots breaking out, and minorities coming under fire.
AX: I believe this could happen. You just took reality one step farther.
MS: Essentially, what I’m trying to say in jest is that Bollywood is going to destroy the world! Superdevi is its dark side! The book is made to reflect on some of the larger-than-life aspects of Bollywood movies. The Superdevi herself arrives in one scene, she’s made up like a Bollywood star, and there are special effects and all of that. Once I got into this, the whole book became immersed in this Bollywood imagery.
AX: And Bollywood story-telling, too.
MS: Yes. It was a deliberate playing with the genre. My book is about the end of the world seen through the eyes of Bollywood, and that was something I liked because it gave the novel the right flair. You don’t want the end of the world to be depressing! If you’re going to go out, go out in Bollywood style!
AX: Did you extrapolate apocalyptic scenarios from television series like the Ramayana? Or did you start out writing a post-apocalyptic novel?
MS: I never knew whether there would be an apocalypse or not, but it was definitely a pre-apocalypse! There’s definitely this danger of the apocalypse possibly occurring. Then I had to explain where it came from, so I made Bollywood the culprit. So tell me how you use Bollywood in your new novel, The Last Taxi Ride.
AX: For me, the Bollywood connection came from real life. I was having lunch in a cab driver restaurant, Curry in a Hurry, in Murray Hill in New York City. A lot of cab drivers go there to eat, and these two desi cabbies were sitting next to me. One kept insisting that he had given a ride to film star Shabana Azmi in his cab, and the other guy said, “No, Shabana is not in New York City, you’re making this stuff up, you’re crazy.” I listened to them argue for half an hour while eating their lunch. I never thought of Bollywood film stars being in New York, so I created a fictional Bollywood film star, a beautiful woman who has come to New York because her career is over. She’s made some bad moves; her movies were financed by the Mumbai mafia, and once that was revealed, her career was over. So now she’s living in New York and trying to restart her life.
MS: This really happens in Mumbai. The film world and the mob are connected!
AX: Anupama Chopra has written a great book on Bollywood. I used some of the real-world incidents she describes and extrapolated them into fiction. So the movie star in my novel—Shabana Shah—is now in New York, and she gets murdered. I tell her entire life story, from the time she was a young girl, in flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the book. Her life has a very Bollywood arc because she has a lover who disappears, and she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still alive. Her life is glamorous, like a Bollywood movie, and that’s juxtaposed with this other New York cab driver world which is grim. The cab drivers eat bad food, live in basement apartments, and spend all their time driving. I used some Bollywood masala storytelling, but you have really taken it to the next level in your novel.
MS: I was trying to be more tongue-in-cheek. I’m trying to play with the Bollywood genre.
AX: So what book should be made into a Bollywood movie but hasn’t?
MS: I think in terms of a Bollywood movie, City of Devi is ready! I also keep thinking of my first novel, Death of Vishnu, which I would love to see as a Bollywood musical.
AX: Wow! Death of Vishnu is a very realistic novel. It’s about a man who is dying, and he lives on the landing of an apartment building in Mumbai.
MS: Vishnu is fantasizing, and there are many dream sequences. The reason I started thinking about a musical is because there is so much information in that novel that could be passed on through song. That would be an easy way of immersing people in what’s going on. Have the songs as part of the storytelling!
AX: If City of Devi was made into a Bollywood movie, you’d lose the irony. It would be made straight up. Could you do it ironically?
MS: I think all Bollywood films are sort of ironic. They always have a tinge of irony or self-referential humor, but I think that most people don’t get irony anyway.
AX: My novel, The Last Taxi Ride. I could see it as a cool indie-type Bollywood movie.
MS: It’s set in New York, which is great for Bollywood, too.
AX: Unlike you, I lack the ability to create the Bollywood fantasy element. I tend to write depressing stuff.
MS: Just throw in a few songs! The taxi driver could be driving his car and singing along!
AX: That’s a great idea! Now hopefully someone will read this interview and make our books into Bollywood movies! Thanks, Manil. This was a great conversation.
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Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.