Thursday, March 8, 2012

"What an isolated, unreal world all of them lived in."

. . . A world built on illusions and Technicolor dreams. A world as phony as the films it churned out. She hardly knew a single person outside the film industry. Nor did she have time to get to know the real world - whatever and wherever that was. (138)

Shobhaa Dé (1948-) is an Indian novelist and journalist who got her start as a model in the late '60s. She was the founder, co-founder, and editor of three entertainment magazines, including Stardust, a bilingual monthly specializing in Bollywood news and gossip. Dé is also one of India's bestselling authors and is credited with the creation Hinglish, a lively, informal mix of English and Hindi that features prominently in her works. Her books, written in English, have been the subject of much academic attention in India and Great Britain and are translated into numerous regional languages.

Published in 1991, Bollywood Nights (also known as Starry Nights) was one of Dé's first novels, inspired by real-life love affairs among the heroes and leading ladies of the Indian silver screen. It tells the story of Aasha Rani, a starlet pushed into the industry by her ruthlessly ambitious mother, the mistress of a ruined producer who willfully exploits her daughter to pornographers and lecherous producers. Amma's tactics pay off, however, and Aasha Rani eventually reaches A-list status. She falls in love with reigning heartthrob Akshay Arora only to incur the wrath of his wife Malini. The ensuing scandal, combined with her traumatic past, results in a nervous breakdown that drives Aasha Rani to a new life in New Zealand, where she marries and has a daughter. But, as the Eagles once famously said of Hollywood, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

Bollywood Nights starts off in media res, immediately pushing ahead at a breakneck speed that echoes the perpetual firestorm surrounding showbiz and its biggest players. The flashbacks that reveal Aasha Rani's painful history blend seamlessly with the present, emphasizing the subordinate role of even the most successful women. Obviously damaged by her mother's actions, Aasha Rani throws herself at producers, directors, other stars, and even underworld dons. I do not mean to deny her sexual agency, but Dé makes it clear that a woman's worth in Bollywood is, above all, her appeal to men, whether it's male audiences or male peers with power over fame and obscurity. There are strong parallels to Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, published contemporaneously in the US, which paints a vivid picture of women as commodified sex objects, interchangeable and disposable in their sameness. Patriarchal oppression is also seen in the way women interact with one another. Malini viciously attacks and slut-shames Aasha Rani instead of directing her anger at the misogyny that celebrates her husband's philandering and pressures women like Aasha Rani to essentially prostitute themselves. Bollywood as portrayed by Dé is a bright, gaudy carnival of alternating riches and horror, a jagged jewel box. "We are all just prisoners here of our own device."

Dé also touches on Western Orientalism with Jamie Phillips, Aasha Rani's white New Zealander husband. He is a fan of Bollywood films and all things Indian who refers to Aasha Rani's kinks as "oriental love games" (181) and bemoans the loss of his "exotic, oriental beauty" (187) after Sasha's birth and Aasha Rani's subsequent shift from a siren to a down-to-earth mother who's put on weight. It's racial fetishization, defined as valuing stereotyped features (whether physical traits such as skin color or perceived cultural traits such as "submissive Asian women") over the individual human. When actually confronted with India, Jamie is clearly repulsed by its grubbiness and foreignness, apparently preferring the prepackaged Bollywood version. Fetishization is also another form of exploitation. Despite her considerable resources, Aasha Rani when she met Jamie was an emotionally vulnerable women who had been conditioned to trading her body for favors.

Again, I realize I'm probably erasing Aasha Rani's agency and portraying her as constantly dragged from one bed to another by various external forces. The problem is a serious flaw in Dé's writing. Her characterizations are vague and inconsistent. Akshay Arora, for instance, is both a tender, considerate lover and a sexual sadist who gets off on hardcore porn and at one point rapes and beats Aasha Rani. Yes, people can be two-sided but Akshay's brutality comes out of nowhere. There's nothing to tie the two halves together. It doesn't even have any influence on Aasha Rani's love for him which makes me wonder why Dé included it in the first place. The narration is very shallow, focusing a lot on Aasha Rani's actions and very little on her internal self. Often it's completely impossible to understand why she does the things she does. She makes numerous decisions, particularly in London towards the end, that are just mind-bogglingly stupid considering what she's been through and what she knows of the world. Other times the story gets ahead of itself, choosing to skip to Aasha Rani's next big event rather than showing us the character development that leads to it. She meets Jamie and marries him two pages later. The effect is that of an extended gossip column: various lurid reports of a star's dysfunctional life strung together episodically over 300 pages.

Bollywood Nights is also relentlessly sex-negative. You can't even complain about the book's sole GLBTQ character, the lesbian journalist Linda, being a sexual predator who uses Aasha Rani for the inside scoop because every single last man, all of them straight, is depicted similarly. Even the most fulfilling consensual sex always turns out to have some kind of ulterior motive. It isn't so much that rape and exploitation are bad as sex itself is intrinsically harmful.

I ended up wondering that Shobhaa Dé's point was. Bollywood Nights certainly has the makings of a good protest novel with regards to the ugly underside of Bollywood but Dé sabotages her own arguments through needless sensationalism and the book's very ending, which has Aasha Rani dreaming of Sasha's future in the industry. *headdesk* This after 332 pages of Bollywood depicted as just about the worst place on earth. Obviously, it's meant to be redemptive but actually demonstrates very little personal growth on Aasha Rani's part, especially given the near-destruction of her sister Sudha, who had replaced Aasha Rani during her stay in New Zealand. Does the nightmare never end?

Trigger warning for graphic sexual violence.


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