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A winning plot

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By Chetan Bhagat altered the literary landscape with his bestselling books and he's hoping to pull it off once again, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 18.10.09

What do you do when you’re the biggest selling Indian writer in English? Repeat the plot? Or widen your narrative canvas? Chetan Bhagat is doing all that, and more.

His latest book, 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, is just out, and he’s hoping it will be his biggest hit and eclipse his earlier blockbusters. “We expect to sell 10 lakh copies in 10 weeks,” say Bhagat and his publisher Kapish Mehra of Rupa & Co ambitiously. Bhagat’s first novel, Five Point Someone, has sold over 10 lakh copies since its release in 2004, says Mehra.

Then, there’s 3 Idiots, the Raju Hirani-directed film starring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor, which is based on Five Point and which is releasing in December. Understandably, Bhagat is excited about it: “I never imagined when I wrote it that Aamir Khan would dance to it,” he says.

Bhagat’s also scripting a new role for himself. He has just quit his investment banking job at Deutsche Bank to become a full-time writer and to be a stay-at-home dad to his five-year-old twins, Shyam and Ishaan. Also, he’s planning to move on from writing bestselling novels to scripting box office superhits. This, even as the offers for the filming rights to 2 States are pouring in.

Courtesy: Videocon Group

That’s not all. Bhagat wants to use his new stardom and his ‘youth icon’ tag to reach out to youngsters across India and help change mindsets. “It’s awesome to know that the younger generation is reading you and following you. And I’m using that to do more than just books,” he says.

So he’s got two op-ed columns in leading English and Hindi dailies, and he’s busy on the lecture circuit too — he gave about 40 talks in the last year — it helps, of course, that these keep him in the public eye.

For his latest book, Rupa has made a never-before distribution splash. It has orchestrated a ‘wide-screen’ release in 350 to 400 towns from Gorakhpur to Dibrugarh. The novel is based on Bhagat’s own inter-caste romance and marriage — he’s a Punjabi married to a Tamilian Brahmin.

Bhagat is busy writing the film script of The 3 Mistakes of My Life, which will be produced by Farhan Akhtar

With 2 States, Bhagat has also returned to the Five Point formula. “I felt I was getting too dark. I do humour best, and people said Five Point is Five Point. I think the key difference was that it was more personal and more funny,” says Bhagat.

His own marriage, he found “had scope for humour because this Punjabi-Tamil is a continuous thing” and “a lot of Indians can relate to it”.

The story is fictionalised. “But the feelings I went through are the same as what the characters experience,” he says. And yes, it was difficult to convince his own parents to accept his Tamilian wife, Anusha, who’s also a banker.

So there are jokes about Punjabis and Tamilians in the book. More importantly, Bhagat used it to address his strained relationship with his father. “That was very difficult for me,” he says.

Bhagat’s earlier novels have been panned by critics and his writing style pilloried. He says: “I think critics have misunderstood my genre. They analyse the book like a literary book whereas this is popular fiction.” So while he listens to feedback, “I decide what’s relevant feedback”, he asserts.

His publishers believe that Bhagat has changed Indian publishing. “When we first experimented with Chetan’s style, nothing like that existed,” says Mehra.

What’s more, Rupa priced Bhagat’s novels at just Rs 95, which propelled his sales. Rupa says that his first three novels — Five Point Someone, One Night @ the Call Centre, and The 3 Mistakes of My Life — have together sold around 2.5 million copies, although the trade feels the numbers are exaggerated.

Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India, agrees that Bhagat’s had a “huge” impact. “I would rate him as one of the watershed moments in Indian publishing because he opened up a different market segment altogether,” he says.

Bhagat’s excited about the forthcoming release of the Aamir Khan-Kareena Kapoor-starrer 3 Idiots, which is loosely based on his first novel, Five Point Someone

Five Point Someone made other publishers realise that there’s this 18-to 25-year-old readership which we’re ignoring,” says Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor, Westland.

Inevitably, Bhagat’s success has spawned a new breed of writers of such fiction. “His biggest contribution is that a lot more people have been emboldened to write,” says Abraham.

Mehra believes Bhagat’s success has also changed “the dynamics” of the book business. Till recently, a book was a bestseller if it sold 5,000 to 10,000 copies. “That’s still the benchmark for hardbacks but for some writers, it’s now 20,000 copies,” says Mehra.

And while the pricing has helped, it’s not the sole factor behind Bhagat’s success. Experts say you need a print run of over 50,000 to justify the Rs 95 pricing. Says Abraham: “The price plays a role initially. But once he became a big brand, it didn’t matter. I don’t think his sales will fall much if the price goes up to Rs 150.”

Now other publishers have become “conscious that the price has to be right” feels Chatterjee. “We try to keep prices for popular fiction below Rs 200,” she says.

Bhagat says he’s less defensive about his writing style today. “I’ve accepted my place. I’ve got such a tremendous reaction,” he says. Two months ago, for instance, 2,400 people attended his talk at Raipur. And he was invited to Bastar too.

“I said, ‘Who’s reading Chetan Bhagat in Bastar’? And they said tribal kids. ‘We tell them to start with your books because they’re the simplest’. A lot of India’s like that,” says Bhagat.

Certainly, the fan mails — over 100 a day — keep pouring in. Bhagat says he doesn’t take his ‘youth icon’ tag too seriously. “Yet, I have to accept that this generation is listening to me. So what will I do with it? The next challenge is to try and change mindsets,” he proclaims, rather grandly.

That’s a huge task, he admits. But it helps that he’s as he says “a parent- approved role model”. “I was the quintessential good middle-class student. Sab kuch to kar liya maine,” he says, lapsing into Hinglish.

Bhagat grew up in Delhi in “an uncertain home environment where my parents used to fight a lot”. His father, an army officer, was very strict and he wasn’t allowed to watch television or films. “My brother and I used to make up movie stories. I think that’s where this all springs from,” he says.

After graduating from IIT and IIM, he joined Peregrine, a financial services company in Hong Kong. It shut down in six months but Bhagat stayed on in Hong Kong for 11 years, moving to Goldman Sachs.

The Salman Khan-starrer Hello was
inspired by One Night @ the Call Centre but it failed to live up to the book’s success

It was to spite his boss that he started writing his first novel. “I would love to say that there was a great moment. But I was in a bank and dissatisfied. My boss was very bad, so to take revenge on him, I started writing in office,” he says.

The manuscript was rejected by nine publishers before being accepted by Rupa. Says Bhagat: “It was never meant to be a big book. It just happened.”

He adds: “There’s such a thing as luck. And God. There are 40,000 titles selling in Crossword, why are mine selling the most. A lot of people write stories and some very good ones. Mine work. My fans ignore the reviews and buy my books. They’re in love and love is blind.”

The books have meanwhile been turned into films. First came the Salman Khan-starrer Hello, based on One Night, which bombed.

Now while Hirani has loosely based 3 Idiots on Five Point, Farhan Akhtar is producing a film on 3 Mistakes. It will be helmed by Rock On!! director Abhishek Kapoor. Bhagat is co-scripting it.

Bhagat believes he’s an “entertainer” primarily. That’s why he’s moving to writing film scripts. “There’s a demand,” he says. But he’s no longer as enamoured by Bollywood and says he’s heeding music director A.R. Rahman’s advice to “put one foot inside the industry, and one out”.

Now that he’s based in Mumbai — he moved from Hong Kong 18 months ago — he hopes he can straddle both worlds more easily. Meanwhile, he’s enjoying being a stay-at-home dad. “I’m really happy that I’m able to see them grow. Everything else pales before this. Like Yuvraaj says in that new ad, ‘Balla chal raha hai to thaat hai’, or it’s all momentary.” That’s not to say, he isn’t basking in the moment.