It’s now a truism. How many times did you come across the statement that Chetan Bhagat made India read books? In my experience, I’ve never come away from a conversation about Bhagat without hearing that sentence at least once.
Usually I nod and let it pass, but over the last week, I’ve heard it four times – from a writer friend, from a lady whom I met over the weekend, from a blog reader, and from my wife. None of the four are fans of Bhagat’s work. In fact, I could answer for at least three of the four and say they dislike his work. And yet they grudgingly accept that Bhagat has made India read.
You can see where the impetus for this post came from.
It’s a charming narrative. That India was full of movie-watching barbarians. That until Bhagat came wielding his books we didn’t know what they looked like. That he showed us the pleasures of reading. That he has done us all – authors and readers – a service. That all of us should be happy because from among his readers, a percentage of them will move on to ‘better’ books.
Why I don’t agree with it
It’s like saying Karan Johar has done the art of film making a service because some of his viewers will go on to watch Satyajit Ray or Shyam Benegal. But will they? In more ‘economic’ terms, the target markets for Karan Johar and Shyam Benegal do not overlap. People who watch and like Karan Johar’s movies will seek out other movies of that kind. Maybe they will settle for Yash Chopra. Maybe some of them will go for Rohit Shetty.
The same thing goes for literature as well. A person who reads and likes Chetan Bhagat will look for other books that are similar. It’s not a coincidence that Bhagat’s rise in the industry has coincided with the rise of the ‘campus novel’. Will these people move on to ‘better’ books? They won’t, because these books are satisfying their needs in ways a ‘better’ book may not be able to. It’s just like how a Karan Johar movie fan will not be able to appreciate the movies of Satyajit Ray, and vice versa. The markets are different. They don’t overlap.
Does that mean Bhagat is a bad writer?
Well, who is to say who is bad? Everyone has a right to tell stories the way they want. It’s a free country, after all, and as long as there are people buying his books, he can – and should – continue to write. What I do have an issue with is this story that he has done something as noble as ‘teaching India to read’. He has done no such thing.
It is my personal opinion that his work is bad. I’ve read bits and pieces of all his novels, and I’m yet to find even a passage in his books that I like. I find his plots superficial, his style sloppy, and his characters derivative. Bhagat fans often jump on his critics and call them jealous or snooty. I’m neither. I just don’t like his work. If it’s a democracy in which Bhagat is free to ply his trade, it’s also a democracy in which I have a right to voice my opinion of it.
I defend your right to write your story as you wish. But I reserve my right to trash it, publicly and privately. Simple enough, right?
The other side of the free market argument
On Facebook the other day, my wife’s friend posted a status saying that Bhagat is justified in writing the books he does because there is a market for them. She said that we should perhaps hold off on criticizing him because all he’s doing is ‘giving people what they want’.
While that is an excellent economist’s argument, there are also holes in it. Here are a few examples.
- First, how far can you take this ‘there is a market for it’ reason? There is a huge market for pornography. There are many directors of pornography that make more money than do directors of ‘regular’ movies. A movie like Udaan, for example, must have made less business than a bestselling porn title. Does that mean the director of the latter is as good as the former?
- There is a huge market for drugs. Is a drug peddler justified in saying: ‘There are kids who want these drugs. I just give them what they want’
- What about cigarettes? An addictive product that has been known to cause lung cancer is the foundation on which multi-billion corporations are built.
- The 2008 economic crisis was caused because banks gave people ‘what they want’: free money.
Along with free markets, therefore, there are certain intangibles that product creators need to stand by: we can call them ethics, perhaps? Or social responsibility? Or values?
How does this relate to Chetan Bhagat?
You may think that the examples I gave in the section before are extreme. Chetan Bhagat and Karan Johar are not evil drug smugglers, you say. And you’re right. They’re not. But are they not causing harm by the kind of art they produce? Not physical harm, perhaps, but what about psychological harm?
- Karan Johar’s movies sell you the idea of happiness wrapped in two things: a fake form of love, and excessive material wealth. If you’ve come away from one of his movies feeling discontented and strangely empty, it’s because he designs them that way. He wants you to feel discontented with your life, with your relationships, with the amount of wealth that you have. ‘Look at these people,’ he says, pointing to his characters. ‘Look at how rich they are, how beautiful, how perfect their relationships, how much happier they are than you.’
- Chetan Bhagat’s novels are similarly aspirational to the youth from small towns. The ideas of love, sex, college life in the big city, girlfriends, doing dope – all of these are images that titillate, woo and seduce. There is very little realism in his books or characters; their main motivation is to appeal to your baser senses and make you aspire to a fake world and life.
That’s what aspirational art does, isn’t it? It makes us long for an ideal world – generally related to love or wealth – and in doing so, sows seeds of discontent in our hearts. We run and run and run to bring those images alive in our real worlds. But are they ever the same? Are we not always disappointed that our real world is not as happy as our Bollywood world?
Where does that leave us?
I don’t know. You tell me. On one side we have the free market argument, that everyone is at liberty to create whichever kind of art they want. On the other there is the caveat inserted by factors such as ethics and responsibility. Where do you stand on this? Do you think movies and books that are purely ‘aspirational’ are also harming our minds in subtle ways?
Image Courtesy: India Forums