From fiction to films to columns, Chetan Bhagat is spreading his wings. Even his flippant flights have a tangible connect with the ground reality

“Life is not a movie. You can’t have a solution in two hours. I know it because I am now into films as well.” One can sense a halo around Chetan Bhagat these days. In the morning you can find him addressing an opinion piece to Rahul Gandhi, on your way to work you see youngsters flipping the pages of catching up with Revolution 2020 in a bustling Metro. In the evening you catch him on TV giving a piece of his mind to somebody asking for a solution that very night. He is no longer the author type, as soon he might be seen driving a Ford Endeavour to Gujarat on National Geographic Channel. And how can you miss Kai Po Che, the latest cinematic adaptation of his novel? He is here, there, everywhere, but the boy who made English fiction lose its elitist tag has a realistic take on his prowess.

Revolution 2020 Kai Po Che

“I don’t want youngsters to gather an impression that you can switch careers whenever you like. It takes years to build credibility. I have just started.”

But he doesn’t look like a person who will indulge in adventures like a road trip. “My adventures are mental. And I have opted to go to Gujarat because I want to understand the State and its people. I want to reach out to rural India and hope that one day a farmer would be able to read a Chetan Bhagat novel.”

Gujarat is also the backdrop of his novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life, which is the source of Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che. Chetan has contributed to the screenplay and this time his experience has been sweet. “It is not a flashy film about friendship, where guys move in convertibles. It is very realistic and quite a faithful adaptation of the novel.” Recently critics found Salman Rushdie’s attempt to adapt his Midnight’s Children rather disappointing, but Chetan says he doesn’t face a Rushdie kind of problem because his novels are popular and lend themselves easily to cinematic adaptation.

Chetan first discovered Gujarat when he was studying at IIM-Ahmedabad and observed the communalisation of the atmosphere from close quarters. It found a reflection in his novel where the Gujarat riots formed the turning point. “I am glad the film got made. Instead of pushing it under the carpet, we need to come to terms with it, take lessons from it, make a commitment that such a thing doesn’t happen again and move on.”

When big stars backed out (Farhan Akhtar opted out because he didn’t want to be seen in another film on friendship after Rock On and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), Chetan got apprehensive about the fate of the project, but when UTV came on board, things got sorted out smoothly. “We don’t get to see a realistic and contemporary portrayal of Gujaratis in our teleserials. We need more such films.”

Talking about writing letters to political leaders in his columns, Chetan says, “It makes the person more accountable as it becomes personal.” The urge to shift to non-fiction came three years back. “I had a big platform for fiction, but I always had the desire to suggest changes in the way the country is run. People don’t know that I have some training in advising governments. When I was working in Thailand I was in the rating advisory group of my organisation. I advised the governments of Thailand and Philippines on their credit ratings, which means understanding all the government data and advising the governments on FDI and balance of payments issues. That knowledge was not being used.” Now he is called by cabinet ministers. “Sometimes they call because they understand a lot of young people follow my writing. Sometimes they call to agree with me. Sometimes they call to challenge me. I always believe in dialogue. I am not a crusader. I feel the change could happen through the system. When I wrote on Air India, I was called by the Minister of Civil Aviation.”

Recently a compilation of his essays came out in the form of What Young India Wants (Rupa). While taking an extreme position gets attention and seems heroic at times, he feels, “ultimately the real change-makers know when to push for change and when to shake hands. Seeking consensus is an art. We can argue that the democratic process need not be that slow, but ultimately it is the lasting impact that matters.”

He maintains the Anna movement deserved a lot of respect but at the same time believes that the government’s point of view should also be taken into account. “I know the government doesn’t want to pass the Lokpal Bill, but even if you pass it, it is the government which has to implement it. What if they pass it and no IAS officer clears the file using possible Lokpal scrutiny as the shield to delay the process. That is not corruption, but it amounts to harming the nation.”

He suggests negotiation as the way forward. “Nations cannot be changed overnight. You can seek an idea but you have to cut a deal. Now some call it shrewd, some find it not very pure, it is even equated to selling out. I mean, I have done it in my books. I have not been a purist and I get a lot of flak for it as well, but because I am flexible and adaptive, I have come this far.”

Calling Delhi the city of chat and corruption, he feels the people involved in the anti-corruption movement need to learn from the mistakes they have made. “There was a time when the government was really engaged with them and they needed to strike a deal. There is a difference between creating a movement and sustaining a movement. If I have to stay relevant to my readers, I have to come up with fresh ideas. First they started with the corruption thing but soon they became a symbol of hope and aspiration for youngsters. Indians want a better life. They began to believe that Anna could get them bijli, sadak, paani. Anna couldn’t have got it for them and that was bound to lead to despair. I give a lot of ideas but I don’t make promises that I can’t keep.”

He says the moment you start playing to the media’s tune, things go awry. “They thought they were using the media, but I think it was the other way round. They have smart people; they should have figured it out.”

Similarly, he adds, Baba Ramdev doesn’t have a vision to deliver on the promises he is making. “I have heard him saying that there is so much black money that every family could get 10 crore rupees. Can he get them even one? The culture of the country is we don’t take individual responsibility. We keep hoping that a messiah will descend who will put us back on top. If there are 50 people trying to enter the bus, the solution is to make a queue. Unless all of them try to make a queue, it won’t work. If four people try it, they will be worse off. They will do it for a day or two and then will try to force their way.”

However, Chetan keeps traversing between serious and frivolous. Soon he will be writing the screenplay of Salman Khan’s Kick. “It is a balance. When people start taking me too seriously I have to do something flippant, because my core audience wants my work to be fun. My motto is don’t be serious, be sincere. I have to be an entertainer. My novels deal with issues like the education system and increasing parochialism, but the primary focus is the love story.”

He says these are interesting times. “I came at a time when a lot of people started learning English. Dainik Bhaskar, a leading Hindi daily, publishes my column. It means there is demand for what I write in the hinterland and I get invites to address students in places like Meerut. I am learning that I don’t overpromise, even if it is implied promise. I tell them I am not a baba. If you have to succeed you have to clean the mess.”