BY ANDREW MOODY
“People can be fickle. Today they hate you. Tomorrow they’ll love you. The industry works on this rule. That’s why they call it a gambler’s profession. Who knows, if your first comeback role clicks, you’ll get another, better role. It all depends on the people- they only accept and they only reject.”
Bollywood has a worldwide reputation for making films as fairy tales, with no nudity or sex, punctuated with expensive, glorious music numbers where the hero seduces the heroine with his dance moves, as opposed to any lustful or realistic instinct.
Starry Nights by the columnist and novelist Shobhaa De, her second novel (after her 1989 debut Socialite Evenings), was released in 1991 and became a huge hit in India. The trashily compulsive tale of a wannabe Bollywood actress, Aasha Rani, who enters the Hindi film industry after her pushy mother decides she is destined to become a star, brought De the reputation of the “Jackie Collins of India.”
Despite the family friendly output of Bollywood, Starry Nights takes a deeper look into the shark tank of Indian cinema, with its underbelly of organised crime, pornography, abuse and abusers. Having worked as a model from the age of 17, and an agony aunt in various publications, she began the film fan magazine Stardust at age 23. As she tried her hand at novel writing, Shobhaa De became a natural observer of the power struggles and power hierarchies within Hindi cinema.
“Her books are steeped in a lifetime’s observation of Bollywood,” wrote Urmee Khan in the Guardian in 2007. “They describe a side of the country that western audiences rarely encounter, her central themes being power, greed, lust and sex.”
In 1992, when interviewed by Mark Fineman in the Los Angeles Times, she told him how the Indian censors “said it was the first time they’d broken through the ‘F’ barrier, the first time they’d run the F-word without asterisks.”
The first run of the Starry Nights paperback also scandalously featured a naked woman on the cover, giving a tantalizing hint of what awaited the eager reader who wanted to immerse themselves into the world of enormous wealth, vanity, cruelty and fame. True to its Indian roots, characters talk with untranslated Indian flourishes, and the costumes and dress of the glamorous movie stars in Bollywood who comprise this indulgent tale are described with the clinical approach of the master fashonista. Invigorating female friendly sex scenes punctuate the narrative along with tense, glorious parties where the beautiful young women at the heart of the industry are preyed upon by salacious millionaires with links to the world of intelligence and espionage.
The movies made by the stars within the novel are never more than attempts to gamble on the fickle mentalities of the Mumbai slums; there are always movies to make and stars to create, and the females within the Indian Studio System find themselves cast out to oblivion once they hit thirty. The structure of Bollywood power is reminiscent for Western readers of the 1920’s Hollywood star system, a time in which a Producer could manipulate and “invent” a movie star and also in most respects “own” them.
Starry Nights maintains a mesmerising, subversive narrative. The heroine, Aasha Rani, begins the tale as an unwilling teenage star in the blue movies filmed in the nearby slums (on the video equipment that threatens the all encompassing cinema of Bollywood), and even though she rises to the very top of the star system, her phenomenal success (and her confusion throughout) hints at a dark Occult truth of Indian cinema.
The novel has aged well since its first publication thirty years ago, and retains a charming honesty and avoidance of political correctness now seen in most pulp bestsellers. Starry Nights is a marvellously put together novel, both a critique and a celebration of the always unique Bollywood.