A frustrated novelist pouts at his laptop. Waving his spectacles in exasperation, he complains to his wife how he isn’t getting a single original thought. “Wannabe Chetan Bhagat,” he whines. “Wannabe,” she nods, “Still a genius.” In recent Amazon Prime thriller series Bestseller, Arjan Bajwa plays novelist Tahir Wazir, someone who gets crore-rupee book deals but exploitatively steals ideas for his novels. Based on a book by Ravi Subramanian, Bestseller is silly yet effectively pulpy; I laughed at it while needing to know what came next.
In the series, Bajwa emotes like a freelancer paid by the expression, doing a week’s worth of acting each time he is called on to act happy, sad or confused. The way he most acts, however, is obnoxious. Tahir Wazir — whose email address happens to be email@example.com — is an insufferable blowhard, nasty to everyone around him, untalented yet convinced of his own “genius”.
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This brought to mind another writer. In Gehraiyaan — Shakun Batra’s damp take on relationships and infidelity, also streaming on Amazon — Dhairya Karwa plays Karan Arora, a novelist struggling so hard to get his book published that he makes girlfriend Deepika Padukone take out the trash. He is the kind of self-aware procrastinator who wears t-shirts that say “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and while he may not have cheated on his girlfriend, his betrayal cuts deep: he ignores her (repeated) pleas to read his manuscript and instead gives it to a friend for her opinion.
Over on Netflix a few months ago, there was R. Madhavan being a sexist prig on Manu Joseph’s Decoupled, a show about a bestseller-writer who competes with the aforementioned Chetan Bhagat (who sportingly cameos as himself) and keeps placing his books above Bhagat’s in bookstores. Just as Bhagat’s books are English-language novels made for those who don’t read English-language novels, Decoupled is an adult comedy made to amuse those who don’t watch adult comedies. Madhavan’s character, in turn, is the sort of writer who should read more.
Novelists are suddenly being massacred across Indian film and television. Characters who write books are depicted as boorish, smug and arrogant. Also, they’re played only by men — “while women play journalists,” points out my irked wife, a novelist (and former journalist).
Where, I wonder, is this oddly specific trend coming from? Are the people creating filmed entertainment disdainful toward the ones who write books? Is the increasing distrust of the printed word in society making it tragically easy to paint novelists as ignoramuses? Have we, as a nation, championed the wrong writers, and now feel the need to laugh at the entire profession? Or are vengeful screenwriters harbouring dreams of crore-rupee book deals?
Ah yes, the money. Not only are these characters distasteful — which many writers can admittedly be, and I myself have pouted at my laptop a fair bit today — but they make unrealistically good money. “Once this book gets published, we’ll be okay,” says Karan in Gehraiyaan, a line most Indian writers can dismiss as science-fiction.
That film’s director Shakun Batra has a thing for writing writers. In his 2016 hit Kapoor & Sons, Rahul (Fawad Khan) is a successful London-based novelist while his younger brother Arjun (Siddharth Malhotra) is a part-time bartender who wants to be a novelist. While both characters appear perfectly likeable in this gradually escalating drama, it is revealed that Rahul’s first novel came from stealing his brother’s manuscript, something he did accidentally after their mother showed it to him, thinking Arjun wasn’t serious about becoming a writer.
This implies not only that Rahul was unscrupulous enough to hungrily lift from a manuscript his mother showed him, but that Arjun couldn’t get his own mother to believe in him. Rahul’s book had a different ending, but the characters and subplots were very similar, claimed Arjun.
I rewatched Woody Allen’s 2006 drama Match Point two days after watching Gehraiyaan, and realised Batra had done to that superb film exactly what the Fawad Khan character did. If the producers of the English film wanted to sue Dharma Productions/Amazon India, they’d win. Themes, characters, plot-points, conflicts… Match Point even opens with a voiceover about the inevitability of luck, while Deepika Padukone’s character in Gehraiyaan is introduced to her sister’s boyfriend as someone convinced of her own awful luck.
Batra changes the ending, picking a crowd-pleasing twist over a masterfully elegant one, but there are scenes he lifts whole, including one where Scarlett Johannson/Deepika Padukone hysterically threaten to reveal their affair, and their lover forcibly rushes them out of the building. Johannson’s character Nola, a struggling actress, is built on insecurity, and we see her gradually unravel so the hysteria hits right, but for Padukone’s quiet character this outburst seems jarringly forced.
Also read: Artists respond to the pandemic through printmaking
The makers of Gehraiyaan described it as “domestic noir,” but here’s the ultimate plot-twist: the writer did it. In a film peopled by murky characters, the most immoral act was the despicable creative theft. The writers of the film are its biggest villains. Therefore one possible reason writer characters are being depicted in such poor light could be that people writing them are trying to confess to their own shortcomings — while taking the edge off by casting people who look like Fawad Khan.
Gehraiyaan is to Match Point what Sanjay Gupta’s Zinda is to Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, well-shot thievery with a different ending, or even what Anu Malik’s Tu Woh Tu Hai song from Beqabu is to Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. It’s no match, and there isn’t much point.
Streaming tip of the week:
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is an absolute showstopper, proof that the 75-year-old is still king of the spectacular. Nominated for seven Oscars, his adaptation of the Broadway classic is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of 'The Godfather'.