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
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'