BOOK REVIEW / Bollywood still lives: Show Business by Shashi Tharoor: Picador, pounds 15.99

THIS novel begins almost as farce and ends in widescreen panoptic drama and acute personal pain. The perfect medium for such a sweep of matter is film. For a story set in India, the perfect medium is of course Hindi film. In India, film has a mystic power and its main characters are near-gods. Often religious in content, shown to multitudes, sometimes on huge outdoor screens that glow like apparitions over an enchanted crowd hunkered down in the street, Hindi films are the embodied dreams of millions of the poorest people on earth. Their stars are some of the richest, most known, and therefore most powerful, people in India. The film-making quarter of Bombay and its people make up what is known as Bollywood, a community as vulgar in some ways as Hollywood itself, but still - just - publicly respectful of religious and sexual codes of good observance and behaviour.

Shashi Tharoor has cunningly taken this small community of disproportionate influence as an epitome of the moral upheaval of modern India and the accommodation it has been making with the West. He is able to lay a vast burden of allegory upon Bollywood because its showiness is inexaggerable and its cinema fantastically elastic, being untrammelled by fact, logic or explanation. Hindi films offer spectacle, emotional catharsis and a moral. In the city streets of India, film stars made out of propped towers of billboard are extravagantly painted by poster artists suspended in rope swings. They touch in here a suggestion of cleavage the height of a horse, there a nose-ring as wide as a man's arms. The stars are substantial, fat having been until recently an aspirational issue, and also insubstantial, the fantasies of millions made flesh. They are celebrities even in the rural areas. Cinema consists mostly of light, a light so bright that eventually it penetrates everywhere but the deepest shrines and most sequestered monasteries. Film stars are better known than politicians, more revered than holy men.

Shashi Tharoor's characters seem at first appropriately large-writ and crude. Ashok Banjara, the hero, is the son of a politician and also a would-be actor. The spectacularly bosomed Abha is a star on the verge of fading. Maya, the heroine, is a good girl. Pranay is the stubby-nailed villain; Mehnaz is a sultry temptress. Other characters arrive with the enjoyable suddenness of Hindu gods in stories. As the book progresses, often in the form of a screenplay, these characters are put through their paces in plots that seem preposterous but that actually reflect events taking place in what could be called real life. The effect is cumulatively funny and sad. Stock characters become known to us, developing attributes that at first were invisible, as Tharoor turns his creatures this way and that in the light of ever more complicated marital contortions.

Ashok fails to seduce Abha, whose bosom was anyway a false promise. He becomes an actor, then a star; marriage to Maya follows, and dalliance with the ankle-braceleted Muslim beauty Mehnaz. His triplets by Maya are born. He undergoes a form of marriage with Mehnaz. Maya wishes to engineer her own comeback to the screen and the downfall of Mehnaz. The story is told in a deadpan style combining Hindu myth, the comic book effect of Malory, the hyperbole of film, and a pastiche of film-magazine gossip talk from between the nymphomaniaca1 fangs of 'The Cheetah', an old wretch who writes a column of the highest camp and smut - such as may be found in Bollywood's actual movie mag, Stardust.

Tharoor has a terrific ear for how much of talk is padding and repetition. His wit is peppery and alert. Just as one feels this might be enough, the story turns serious, touching, and at the same time plunges deeper into bad taste. As in India itself, nothing is unmixed but nothingness. This highly coloured, entertaining, faintly monstrous book takes its risks with panache and triumphs spectacularly. I wish the title were better. Perhaps when the movie comes to be made . . .

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam