Pretending to this day

It has been 30 years since my second novel, Starry Nights, was published. Forget the number of editions and covers the novel has seen over the past three decades—what interests me is its relevance today. Much has changed in India since the day Starry Nights outraged readers by its strong language, a liberal use of Hinglish profanities and its naked portrayal of Bollywood lives. But one thing remains the same—our hypocrisy.

We continue to express our disapproval, whenever rules are broken. Thirty years ago, women were expected to write a certain kind of book—if they wanted their work to see the light of day. An exotic version of Jane Austen in a sari, was hoped for by publishers, too, unsure of how any other style or story would work in the ultra-conservative market. They were bang on! Starry Nights was an unapologetic bodice-ripper, with cuss words and crude sex. I was writing about a rambunctious film industry, replete with rollicking affairs and clandestine rolls in the hay.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Our wonderful movie stars—sexually adventurous then, as they are today—needed to be depicted and celebrated the way they were and still are! Come on… we are talking movie stars. Not well-disciplined, chaste, obedient boy scouts and girl guides! Their antics were wild and awe-inspiring. That is what made them different and impossibly alluring. So yes, Starry Nights refused to take the sanitised route.

There was Aasha Rani, the luscious, predatory protagonist out to make it—and make a hero or two, while she was at it. Shocking? Hardly so… except that back in those days, without social media, movie stars could hang on to their secrets and flings, their sexcapades and romps in foreign locales, without the outside world getting even a whiff of it.

What has changed dramatically is all thanks to that beast called SM (Sado-masochistic Social Media). Nothing remains hidden, down to the last lip-filler and hair transplant. Actors themselves have become masters of media manipulation—mystique be damned. They go all out cranking up the publicity machine and upping their game by the micro-second. From risqué airport looks clad in what resembles inner-wear to glimpses of butt-cracks and cleavages as they slide in and out of luxury limos, our stars are ready to flash and flaunt at the drop of a g-string. Nothing is off-limits, nothing stays under wraps. Affairs, break ups, hook ups, divorce, proposals and propositions—bring it on!

Every celebrity is a commodity today. All movie stars want to monetise their ‘brand’. Not a moment in their hectic lives is considered too personal or sacred, not to be out there for the world to feast on. That is how the biskoot crumbles across the world. If you are in showbiz—you show!

Today’s stars are perfectly happy to play ball, provided someone pays for the ride. Thirty years ago, media itself was a lot less aggressive. There were no TRP battles raging and PR agencies rarely went beyond issuing bland press releases before a big movie launch. The private lives of stars attracted intense curiosity—but the real fun was to unearth a few juicy scandals, as we at Stardust did, with such aplomb.

Today, it is the stars who stage scandalous photo-ops, provided they are assured of getting a fat fee for letting it all hang out. There are price tags on every aspect of their lives. Having a baby? Do a book! Wedding? Call the networks for an exclusive deal. Divorce? Issue a public statement. Death in the family? Inform the media. Mental health crisis? Start a podcast. There are goals and goals to be scored and sold; fitness tops the list. Gain weight, drop weight, shrink, expand—but make sure it is all on Insta, kilo by kilo.

I love the new brazenness of Bollywood—no filters, no edits. Even the stodgiest of desis are getting used to the new normal where star kids hit international headlines on drug abuse charges, and reality shows stop at nothing. In a country where kissing was considered a mild form of perversion, gigantic movie posters now feature graphic lip-locks—and nobody dies at traffic signals.

But, yes, Starry Nights still raises eyebrows—aren’t I lucky?