30 January 2012

Mumbai Rollercoasters - Not One But Three

A review of three 'young adult' thrillers, published in yesterday's Asian Age

  Mumbai has long been the favourite Indian locale for fictional crime. Guru Dutt’s Baazi and Raj Khosla’s CID created a shadowy noir vision of Bombay as early as the 1950s. Contemporary realist depictions of Mumbai’s gritty underbelly really took off with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). That cinematic fascination has, over the years, acquired not just justifiably feted successors like Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, and the much-anticipated 1960s-set Bombay Velvet) but also underrated work by top-class practitioners — Hansal Mehta’s sadly ignored 2002 film, Chhal, Shashanka Ghosh’s madcap Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part 2. Not to mention such offshoots as Madhur Bhandarkar’s salacious forays into specific underworlds, rising up the class register from Chandni Bar (2001) and Traffic Signal (2007) to Fashion (2008) and back down again to Jail (2009).

While not as doggedly prolific as the Bombay film, English fiction hasn’t done too badly on the Mumbai crime beat. H.R.F. Keating led the way with his carefully imagined Inspector Ghote books, starting in 1964 with The Perfect Murder and creating 26 Ghote books before his death in 2011. In 1998 one Leslie Forbes wrote an inimitable thriller called Bombay Ice, in which the action begins with one character writing to another: “I haven’t seen the eunuch in almost four weeks. Ignore what I wrote you before. No need to come here and rescue me.”

But it was probably the success of Gregory David Roberts’ super-eventful Shantaram (2003) and Vikram Chandra’s epic Sacred Games (2006) that paved the way for the slow trickle of the Mumbai underbelly books to turn into what is now a veritable flood. Much of it has been non-fiction — Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing (2010) reveals the “secret world” of Mumbai’s dance bars, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2011) is about life in a Mumbai slum, while Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai (2011) looks at small town ambition and the big bad entertainment industry through the lens of the Neeraj Grover murder.

And now we have a new genre hoping to tap into our seemingly inexhaustible fascination with Mumbai: the young adult thriller, inaugurated in December 2011 by Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Mumbai Rollercoaster and the first two volumes of Nico Raposo’s Bollywood Knights series, the rather oddly named Shoot the Peacock (Book 1) and Shoot the Crow (Book 2).

The books make for an interesting contrast. Raposo, a US-based screenwriter with no previous India background, is quite clearly out to capture a potential teenage market assumed to be interested in Bollywood and potentially also in crime dramas. His protagonists are star-offspring, and the plots revolve around the threesome foiling attempts to murder an up-and-coming heroine, or cracking the mysterious disappearance of an established one. Seventeen-year-old Raj is the son of superstar-turned-director Amit Kapoor, while his friends Madhuri and Nagi are the children of another ex-star, Navneetha Swami. This means that the three get to do their sleuthing in a chauffeur-driven (and bulletproof) Bentley Continental, and can jet off to film shoots in Shimla between Macbeth assignments and idli breakfasts urged upon them by family retainers.

The books are peppered with references to “quiet, Juhu residential street(s)” and “the traffic on Marine Drive”, but the world Raposo really wants to take readers into is one they’ll only ever inhabit in their imaginations: an insider’s Bollywood. Given this ambition, it might be considered a problem that Raposo is at least as much an outsider to this world as any of his readers. An experienced scriptwriter with 15 feature film screenplays to his credit, he clearly takes the technical aspects of filmmaking seriously, giving readers fairly detailed — if in a rather idyllic and budget-no-bar fashion — glimpses of what it might be like to actually work on things like background sound, stunts (including pyrotechnics) or costumes on a film shoot.

But his lack of real-life experience of the Bombay film industry is probably what accounts for such feats of imagination as the (unintentionally hilarious) scene in Book 2 shows — Amit Kapoor, struggling to find “something brilliant” for a new actress’ debut, is asked by Madhuri whether he’s considering “rom-com, fem-jep or action”, and is subsequently inspired into a creative “semi-trance” by Raj’s mention of the premise of Milton’s Paradise Lost (“angels aren’t always that good”). Raposo’s fictional universe is Bollywoodish at a more meta level: his poor little rich boys and girls are nice enough, but their only struggle is to be taken seriously as industry newbies despite their inherited privilege. Meanwhile, they can play-act at being bar dancers and escape from the villains using movie stunt tricks. Real life is for other people. Naming the Kapoor family retainer Ramu Kaka is particularly like a knowing wink: Raposo’s knowledge of Mumbai may be more wishful than grounded, but he’s watched his Hindi movies. And really, for most people, aren’t they both the same country?

Chakraborti, previously the author of literary novels for adults like Or the Day Siezes You and Derangements, steers clear of filmi-ness, at least of Raposo’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink variety. Rahul and Zeenat are well-off enough to take cabs half the time instead of the local train, but not so privileged as to escape the standard Indian middle-class anxieties about Class 12 exams, US scholarships and “the future”. They fantasise about stars, not partying with them. But instead of chastely stopping short at heartstopping realisations like Raposo’s truly filmi characters, they actually deal with sex like real Mumbai teens. And when they stumble upon a murder that’s being covered up at the highest levels, they must deal not with Raposo’s mystery villains and posh private security agencies, but with the most realistically fearsome thing that the middle class mind can imagine: the police. Mumbai Rollercoaster also gives us a believable working-class character, even if he’s a little too conveniently young and unobtrusive — the resourceful mali’s assistant Ganesh, who provides Rahul and Zeenat with access to parts of the city that they might otherwise be unable to negotiate.

Chakraborti’s plot, featuring not just a local murder but a secret international cult and a suitably 21st-century paranoia about real and virtual surveillance, is rather more complicated than Raposo’s. This lends the book something of an air of unpredictability, but also leaves us with many more loose ends that Chakraborti seems least interested in tying up: invisible airports, anyone? The overly chatty narrator who wants to tell the tale in nonlinear loops does not help (though there’s a reason he’s there, as you’ll find out at the end

Surface similiarities apart, Mumbai Rollercoaster and the Bollywood Knights books are quite different from each other. A genre has been launched, but the possible variations on it are endless. I suppose one can’t complain.

No comments: