A script for Bollywood

A book with no feminist men, and no feminist women either

October 22, 2016 04:15 pm | Updated December 02, 2016 10:46 am IST

Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl is a polarising book. Reviewers belong to one of two camps: they either want to burn it or they gesticulate wildly at the sales figures, mumbling about “publishing revolution” and a “new breed of readers”. Yes, Chetan Bhagat did once revolutionise the Indian (English) publishing industry by speaking for the aspirations of a generation. But this is not that book. This book is being sold by a brand, and people buy brands for all sorts of complex reasons. Lakhs and lakhs of fans will queue up for tickets for the first-day first-show of a superstar’s film. Is the film any good? Maybe, maybe not. They are there because it is their superstar’s film, not particularly because they think it is good.! Such is the case with Bhagat’s book: sales numbers mean very little when a book is given away for Res. 1 in the first week of its launch.

The plot of One Indian Girl reads like a colour-by-numbers exercise book on Bollywood scriptwriting — Punjabi wedding? Check. Comedy sequence with bumbling aunties? Check. Sex on exotic beach? Check. Locations in New York, Hong Kong and London? Check, check, check. The central premise of the novel is no less formulaic: An immensely successful woman has to choose between three brainless-but-adorable men. One is a self-confessed bore and cricket and Bollywood enthusiast. The second is a Bengali communist with an unfortunate penchant for the word “baby”. The third is a highly desirable but entirely inappropriate older man. But why would Radhika Mehta — successful, stylish, kind — want to choose any of these three moronic men is the question. The only reason she could have for falling in love with them is that she is so insecure that she simply cannot believe that they chose her. Women with low self-esteem issues do strange things, and I’m sure there are lots of high-achieving women out there heartbroken about men who do not deserve their attention. Who are we to dictate what Radhika should feel or not feel.The problem is that Bhagat never tells us why she is so hung up about men so unworthy of her. It’s as though he assumes that it is completely normal for intelligent and successful women to be besotted with jerks.

Let’s be honest. One Indian Girl never set off to be a feminist book. Bhagat’s politics are probably closer to that of his character Brijesh Gulati: “I think all human beings should have equal rights. It’s not men versus women, it’s human versus human. Feminist is a wrong term. It should be humanist.” After her moment of self-actualisation, that’s the conclusion Bhagat’s protagonist, Radhika, also makes. “Everything doesn’t need hi-fi labels like feminism. Just logic,” she says, and they skip away into the sunset, content with their mutual reasonableness, dismissing a 300-year-old fierce history of a socio-political movement. Is every story from a woman’s perspective obligated to be a feminist one? I don’t think so. But the problem is that somewhere down the line, Bhagat lost the plot and instead of writing a book from the “point of view of a girl” it became a book on “the problems women face”.

Props to Bhagat for trying to take on a multitude of issues — the constant undermining of a woman’s success, women being forced to choose between work and home, the obsession over fair skin — all very relevant. These sections are perhaps the redeeming bits — the reason several readers have stepped up to say they relate to Radhika’s story. But the problem is, Bhagat, by trying to include the voice of each of the hundred women he interviewed, ends up with cacophony. All the evils of the world are mounted on the shoulders of the mother — she is obsessed about marriage, ashamed of her daughter’s skin colour, and is the voice of a society that constantly undermines a woman’s success. Radhika’s sister gets an equally raw deal: she is self-centred, cares only about her looks, and has no life outside her marriage.

It’s not just the women Bhagat is unkind to. Radhika’s lovers sound like cardboard cut-outs that exist just to make Radhika’s life difficult. One man asks her to choose kids over career, the other asks her to choose career over kids. They are perfect inverted mirror images of each other. Bhagat tries too hard to evoke sympathy and ends up having the opposite effect: “See, see! This is what women face! Care about this! Now!”!! It feels like you’re being hit on the head with a rubber hammer emblazoned with the words “WOMEN’S PROBLEMS” underlined four times.

But there is a golden core. It is essentially the story of one woman’s battle against insecurity, an insecurity that stems from growing up in an unequal society. Only when Radhika gives up her critical inner-voice — her “mini me” that constantly tells her what a woman should or should not do does she find happiness. Though this message is worthy, you will have to peel away layers of nonsense to get to it. Radhika spends far too much time judging other women and grovelling for attention and validation from her lovers and male bosses. At one point, she offers to quit her job to assuage her boyfriend’s ego.“I wanted him. I was ready to be his girl, just the way he wanted me to be,” she says. She stalks her exes with the tenacity with which Tamil heroes stalk heroines. Then, after her moment of self-actualisation, she goes on a round-the-world trip and achieves a zen-like state of calm. But what does Radhika then do? She has a romantic coffee date with the “humanist not feminist” Brijesh Gulati she rejected two months ago. If Bhagat was indeed trying to write a feminist book, is this the solution he offers? Date a humanist?

Radhika lives in a world populated entirely by men, except for her mother and sister. Other female characters are a secretary or a flight attendant. At no point do these characters have a meaningful conversation about anything. Just as responsible, feminist men are absent from Bhagat’s world, so are responsible, feminist women.

One Indian Girl was supposed to be representative of the modern Indian woman. Instead, it is about an immensely unlikeable woman who has a lifestyle that can best be described as aspirational. At least the title was right. The book is literally about one Indian girl.

Chitralekha Manohar is an editor and writer. She publishes a newsletter called This Fortnight in Publishing.

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