A few moments of insight and rare nuggets of wisdom lift this novel a few notches above the usual soufflé-light girlie fiction.
The Hindi film industry has sourced vast bodies of writing in the past, nearly every aspect of film-making having been dealt with in minute detail. And just as you thought that Bollywood had exhausted itself as fodder for fiction, comes Bombay Duck is a Fish by screenwriter Kanika Dhillon.
The title arrests with its sheer quirkiness as does the cover (brilliant illustration of the fish!).Told in the voice of Neki Brar, a small town girl with big-time dreams of making it as a Bollywood film-maker, the book takes a convoluted trip down the film studios of Mumbai. Lurking as a murky background to the main story is a collage of debauchery, insecurity, camaraderie and treachery that inevitably binds people living on the periphery of success in the glamour industry.
The book opens with an aerial view of Mumbai taken from a suicide platform. As the protagonist, in a flashback of sorts, hurtles from one personal disaster to another in her maiden job as junior assistant-director, the reader is left tearing his hair at how anybody could get everything so wrong (and so often!). It needs a special sort of talent to be so bad at every given task and it is obvious at the very onset that our heroine possesses this particular talent in abundance. Added to that is a wayward heart that insists on falling in love with the most unsuitable character around (the second lead actor) and we are all set for a jolly roller-coaster ride of weepy emotions.
The shooting scenes of a movie — set in Mumbai's famous studios — are well brought out as are incidents of back-stabbing, jealousy and petty foul play on the sets. The author is a brave woman, showing celebrity actors in their true (unflattering) colours with the flimsiest of disguises. In fact, the fictitious names come so close to the real ones that the reader has not a shred of doubt about the true identity of the characters. The side artistes in this drama are infinitely charming (much more appealing than the lead players). The amorous godmother to the upcoming actor, the assistant-director slated to be a future heroine (and thus privileged), spot boys aching to get in front of the camera, the scheming studio-hands, the power-hungry driver of the lead actor and the child artiste with a bad tummy play close to real-life situations. Clearly autobiographical to a great extent, Dhillon's open adoration of actor Shah Rukh Khan comes pouring out of the text and the acknowledgments section while a gushing back-cover blurb from choreographer-director Farah Khan merely nails the pretty picture together.
Dhillon is blessed with refreshingly sly humour and of particular interest are the heartwarming mails that Neki Brar pens to her mother, in stark contrast to the actual happenings. The parents — typical small town people of North India — the scheming colleagues at work, the shrewish boss with a heart of gold and the love-struck male colleague are so stereotyped that they come across as caricatures rather than solid characters. A twist here and a nip there while constructing them would probably have added dimensions and made them more unpredictable and real. The atmosphere created of single women eking out an existence in the shared cramped spaces of the city is brought out with surprising credibility. The pitfalls waiting to trip the unwary newcomer could also be a valuable lesson to all those star-struck youngsters who are thinking of making it big in Bollywood. Mumbai, the Mecca of celluloid dreams, is known to be heartless and unsparing towards rank newcomers who come in from outside and yet it is the small time person who invariably makes it big here (Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Mallika Sherawat being examples).
The author, a recruit of Red Chillies Entertainment adds strength to this phenomenon by having swung it as scriptwriter for one of the biggest sci-fi movies to be released shortly. The book, to a great extent, resonates with her real life struggles. The climax is paradoxically a major anticlimax leaving the baffled reader in a no-man's zone between the living and the dead (what on earth happened here, dear author, pardon the pun!). The protagonist appears to sign off from the netherworld, vanishing into the mist and leaving the reader entirely befuddled.
Bollywood, at its best, is a devious, labyrinthine and intimidating industry with many a dark secret lurking behind its ways of functioning. What Dhillon offers is a bubble-gum etching of the real picture. Bombay Duck... is an unabashed work of chick-lit but surprising moments of insight and rare nuggets of wisdom lift this novel a few notches above the usual soufflé-light girlie fiction.
Bombay Duck is a Fish, Kanika Dhillon, Westland, Rs. 195.