One of this year’s buzziest romance releases has been A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev. Turns out Bollywood movies and romance novels go together like peanut butter and jelly.
The story opens in rural India, with the marriage of Mili to Virat. He’s ten; she’s four. The story then flashes forward. Mili’s been raised in Rajasthan by her grandmother, who considers the marriage legitimate and merely a matter of waiting for the groom to return and consummate. Virat’s family, on the other hand, figures the marriage isn’t valid and it’s illegal anyway and in fact he’s married another woman. Who’s pregnant. But it turns out the complicated legalities haven’t been handled and so his brother Samir—a hotshot Bollywood director and over-the-top gorgeous playboy—is dispatched to finalize an annulment.
Meanwhile Mili has grown to womanhood essentially in a holding period. But she’s parlayed her status as a married woman into an education and works at a women’s center and takes off to Michigan for a women’s studies fellowship. She’s a short-statured curvy sweetheart who’s determinedly upbeat but also cries at the drop of a hat (shouts to all my fellow watering cans). Obviously she and Samir fall head over heels for each other.
At a panel I caught, Dev described the book as a “socially conscious Bollywood romance.” It’s an incredibly textured book, drawing on the diversity of modern India. As we sat down, for instance, Dev explained how pleased she was with the cover for her next title, A Bollywood Affair, because they’d included the specific sari from the specific region of India where the story is set. She also made very deliberate choices in drawing Mili: “I wanted my first Indian heroine to be dark,” Dev explained. “It was conscious for me because it’s so beautiful and yet because of the whole colonization thing, we’ve lived with generations of skin color, skin color, skin color, fairness creams and whiteness creams and stay out of the sun, umbrellas.”
I sat down with Dev and chatted about selling her book, covering commonalities between Bollywood and romance, the tough part of selling her novel, and capturing the complexities of Indian culture.
How did you get into writing romance?
It’s really funny, I was sick and I had little kids and nothing to read. My husband had taken the kids to the library and I said, please pick me up something to read. And he doesn’t read fiction, so he walks into the library and you know how they have the front rack? He picks up the first book he sees, and it’s Catherine Coulter’s Rosehaven, and he brings it home. I look at it and I say to him, you’ve been married to me ten years—this is what you think I read? This is medieval romance. It’s something I’d never read before. I read the description and I’m like, hmm, and I said, “Really?”
And then I opened it, and I started it. Didn’t sleep all night, read it in one sitting, went back to the library and read every one of her books. Picked up every romance that I could find. I grew up watching Bollywood films and looking for love stories in all the books that I read. My best friend’s a movie producer and I’d written scripts for her and we used to talk about that. And I call her and I say, “Did you know that there’s an entire genre that is exactly like Bollywood films?” And she said, “Really?” and I said, “Yes!”
When I started writing novels, I was trying to write this really complicated literary novel and was very lost. And I kept hearing write what you love, write what you love. And I had this love story in my head. I had TB and I was stuck in the house and I was too depressed to write my literary novel. And I said, well, you know, I’m going to write what I love and this love story that’s been in my head, which was The Bollywood Bride.
I think structure of romance, I found comfort in it. When I was lost, writing my literary novel, when I said okay, I’m going to write a love story, I’m going to write a romance, it gave me that structure within which to write my story.
It seems like a lot of people who write in the genre love having the mile markers, so to speak.
Yes. That structure is very comforting, I think especially for a newbie. Because otherwise a story could just go anywhere. This tells you this where you’re starting and this is where you’re ending and then it gives you all this room to play. These are a few things that should happen and then you have fun with that.
I think it’s so interesting, what you said about calling your friend and saying “This is an entire genre that’s just like Bollywood movies!” Because you start watching them as a romance reader and you say, “Oh!” What are the things in common that you recognized?
All of it. When we watched, my dad would say, “Okay, you guys watch all these Bollywood movies but what is it? It’s really boy meets girl.” So they were the boy-meets-girl movies. And really this is the boy-meets-girl genre. Well, now it can be boy meets boy and girl meets girl, but it’s human meets human. There’s all these things keeping them apart but they’re going to get over them and get to a happily ever after and that’s structurally exactly what every Bollywood film that I grew up with is like. They’re doing much more experimentation right now in both Bollywood and romance, but that’s basically it: boy meets girl, faces immovable obstacles, moves them and gets to a happily ever after.
The other thing is what the readers are seeking and what the audience is seeking are exactly the same, which is an emotional connection, emotional highs and lows. People who criticize the predictability of romance or of Bollywood films misunderstand the point of both. The point isn’t logic. It’s feeling. We hunger for that emotional bite, those highs and lows and that—I call it a heartgasm. That’s what both have.
And of course you can throw a lot of things into the mix. With my books I also try to do the social evils, feminism, the things that I think women across the board face in terms of what society expects us to be, where we’re finding ourselves and that whole tightrope between freedom and personal responsibility and familial bonds and all of that.
One of the things that was really interesting about A Bollywood Affair was the way it presents a boarder, more complicated picture of India. For instance you were saying when we first sat down, you were happy that the cover of the new book features a specific type of sari from a specific area of India. Could you talk about weaving in that extra level of detail?
I just had lunch with six other Indian, South Asian authors. If you talked to each one of us and asked us what’s India like or what’s your culture like, I think you’ll get an entirely different answer. A lot of them are born and brought up here, so that’s one angle, but even people born and brought up in India, it depends which state you’re from. There’s 28 states (I think—they’ve been adding them). There’s 26 languages. There’s an innumerable number of dialects. So when I say to people who are not familiar, I always liken it to Europe, if you thought of Europe as a country. Before the Brits came, it was all these little kingdoms. It’s like saying, you take the Swedes and the Brits and the French and the Germans and you make them one country. That’s exactly how India is, when you take the Marutis and the Gujaratis and the Bengalis and the Punjabis. Entirely different cultures, often different religions, kind of.
And truly Christians and Hindus and Muslims and Jains and Buddhists coexist. We grew up celebrating Eid with our Muslim friends. And when I say celebrating, going into their homes and eating the food and getting gifts from the elders and all of that. So it was very much more of a true secularism. Not a “you practice in your home, I practice in my home” kind of thing.
So it’s a very complex kind of society. The thing about Indian culture is that there’s no one definition, and the diversity is incredible. Culturally but now also in terms of urban/rural, there’s the more western. There’s a lot of dividing lines that people cross every day. It’s not a segregated society. Here you tend to stick in your socio-economic cultural bubble and you kind of do that in India, too, but if you are a wealthy urban modernized Westernized person, you still have all of your servants, your maids coming in, your driver coming in. Day to day, you’re interacting across lines, and you’re interacting very closely because these people are in your home. I have lived in this country for twenty years but I will go back to my mom’s house and my mom’s maid is the same one we had whenI was a kid, so she’s very much part of the family. So you’re interacting at a human level on many many levels. The cross-section of society is so varied, which makes a great backdrop for books, because you’re crossing those lines.
So you’re selling books in America, where a lot of folks probably don’t know the number of states in india. And romance has historically not been as diverse as it could be. As you were writing and shopping the book around, how was the experience? Did it feel like people were receptive? How did it go?
I feel like it’s my biggest advantage and my biggest hurdle. It’s both ends of that. Fortunately, the advantage part—I don’t know if it’s that I choose to focus on that, or it has really been great. And I’m in the advantage phase, and I know this thing is cyclical.
But when I was selling it, I was a little bit in the disadvantage phase, too, because you’re trying to sell something that hasn’t been sold before. So I’ve had things like I’m pitching to an editor and the editor’s like, “Can you make one of the two characters white?” You get that kind of thing. Because everybody wants more readers and everybody wants to talk to readers in the language that they think readers understand. But I feel like that doesn’t in today’s world necessarily mean having a white character. It’s just that white has come to mean neutrality and everybody can relate to that.
The thing there is the reliability. If you can, through your story and your language, make this seemingly alien person relatable, then you’re golden, because you’re looking for two people who have no reason to be together and every conflict to get over that. That’s what you gives you that heartgasm. That’s what you’re looking for.
It was a challenge, but also when you go to someone and you say, I have a Bollywood romance for you, you don’t have the invisibility problem. A lot of people who go to someone and say, “I have a contemporary romance set in a small town,” and they’ve heard that a thousand times that day. But when I say, “I have a Bollywood romance,” they’ve heard it that one time. And right there, they can decide. Unfortunately, that can mean “Oh, that’s not for our readers.” Or it can mean, like it did for my editor, “Oh, wow.” And fortunately I was able to find that.
There’s been a very long history of, say, Mills & Boon/Harlequin novels in India, too, right?
Yes. I unfortunately didn’t read that much of that—I was too busy reading Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins—but you’d be amazed, in every little market in every little town there are these little things we used to call libraries. Unfortunately we don’t have the gorgeous public library system that this country has, which is one of the best things about this country. But there’s these little private libraries in India, which are these little stores in these little lanes which are just books from floor to ceiling and you have a monthly membership and you can go in and swap out. And based on what I’ve seen, like 80 percent of them are Mills & Boon, Silhouettes. People just inhale them.
Which is not the same as Mills & Boon in India toady, which is actually Indian authors doing indian stories. There’s lots of really nice homegrown Indian stories by [writers like] Adite Banerjee. But even before that, people were inhaling these. In everything from a small town to a big city, they were ubiquitous, everywhere. And these are the same people who inhale the Bollywood films and this is exactly the same high, hitting all the same emotional notes that you want.
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