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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)