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
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada