JOINT REVIEW: Bollywood and the Beast by Suleikha Snyder
Kaetrin: I like Beauty and the Beast stories and I enjoy stories set in India – although most of what I have read in that regard has been historical and it’s difficult for me to tell how accurate they were. I’m asked Sunita to review Bollywood and the Beast with me because there are aspects of the story I am unqualified to comment on.
Unlike me, Sunita has read one of the earlier stories in the Bollywood Confidential series (reviewed here with Janine). I did ask on Twitter whether Bollywood and the Beast could be read as a stand alone and was assured I could. In hindsight, I think it would have been better had I read the earlier books first because I felt like an outsider in relation to some of the in-jokes of the series. I gather that the villain of the piece has featured in the previous books too so I expect some of the characterisations would have felt deeper to me with the benefit of that history. Some of the parts I was a little confused about may have been explained in the earlier books.
Sunita: I haven’t read the second book, and I too felt a bit at sea about the backstories of the characters. In particular, it would have helped to have more exposition or dialogue that filled me in about Ashraf’s history. Apart from that I didn’t think that reading the earlier book made that much difference, especially since so much of the story takes place on location, outside Mumbai.
Kaetrin: Rahkee “Rocky” Varma is half Caucasian (from the side of her American mother) and half Indian (from her father) and was born and raised in Chicago. She has decided to become an actress in Bollywood and she and her family have moved to Mumbai to pursue her dream. Apparently she has a reputation as a bit of a snob and it is well known that she doesn’t speak Hindi (she speaks her lines phonetically while she is learning the language) and there is an element within Bollywood who resent her intrusion into “their” space. She has landed the lead part in “2 luv in Delhi” co-starring with Ashraf Khan and, after getting into some media hot water following her comments during an interview, it is decided she will stay in the Khan family home when the location shooting is taking place. Ashraf’s elder brother is Taj Ali Khan. He was a famous action star in Bollywood and was horribly injured in a car stunt gone wrong – he was burned on the left side of his face and body and lost his left eye. His legs were badly broken and are now held together with pins. When Rahkee first meets Taj, he is using a wheelchair and takes great delight in scaring her with his visage.
Over the course of the shoot, Rahkee challenges Taj’s “stay away from me” vibe and spends a lot of time with him. Taj finds himself attracted to this beautiful young woman who isn’t fazed by his appearance and despite his better judgment, they begin an affair. Apart from some medical visits, Taj has not left his estate for nearly 10 years. He has no intention of ever doing so. Rahkee is just starting her career. She cannot remain locked away in an estate in Delhi and be happy, even if she is with the man she loves.
What I didn’t realise from the blurb of the book was that there is also a secondary storyline involving Ashraf (affectionately called Ashu by his family). Ashraf has been abused by his former agent, a woman by the name of Nina Manjrekar (who I gather has been in earlier books making trouble). He has recently broken away from her but is scarred (inside rather than the more visible scarring of his brother) and not coping with the trauma he has experienced. It appears he only became an actor following Taj’s accident in some kind of effort to replace him on screen. He feels like a fraud and during the course of the book, he breaks down and by the end, he is remaking himself.
Sunita: While the title tells you this is about Taj and Rakhee, it turns out that Ashraf is just as central to the storyline. There are long sequences from his POV and much of the second half of the book revolves around him. I have the same complaint here that Janine and I had with Spice and Smoke, which is that there is too much going on to be able to do it justice in a novella-length book.
Kaetrin: I liked the latter half of the story better than the first – I felt like I missed the part where Taj and Rahkee went from enemies to lovers. The shift seemed abrupt and I would have liked to have seen it more described. There was one part where Taj had horribly insulted Rahkee and he decides he needs to apologise. But the apology is not on the page – the reader learns about it from Ashraf’s more distant perspective as he watches the pair in the rose garden. When we return to Taj and Rahkee, the apology has already happened and Rahkee is trying to convince Taj to take a chance on a relationship between them. I felt like a lot had happened off page and I didn’t quite get enough to make the transition, to see the attraction between them.
However, once they get together, despite their age difference (she is 21, he is 35) they appear to have a lot of things to discuss (although, most of that discussion was described rather than revealed in dialogue) and their relationship is not just physical.
Sunita: I had the same reaction. Not only did they go from enemies to lovers abruptly, I felt as if the interactions that would have shown them falling in love mostly happened off-page. We were told they met for dinner, engaged in increasingly enjoyable and rich conversations, etc., but it would have been helpful to have seen some of these.
Kaetrin: Oh yes, I would have loved that.
I was a little confused by Taj’s injuries. The left side of his body and the left side of his face is burned and scarred, but he seems to have all of his hair (which is long and useful for hiding behind). He uses a wheelchair but his legs are described thus:
Her palms slid up his calves, then his legs and thighs. Hewn solid from exercise, even if he didn’t trust them to carry him.
I needed a bit more exposition about this because he can clearly walk and, when he has to, he can move quite quickly. But at the start of the book, he was almost always using a wheelchair. My real life job involves working with people with injuries and it seemed incongruous that he could be so well muscled and be wheelchair bound. Even with exercise – muscle wasting happens very quickly and the narrative didn’t give me a clear indication that he walked and exercised regularly enough that he was unaffected by it. There may well be an perfectly reasonable explanation for it all but there wasn’t enough for me on the page.
Sunita: This is a really good point. I didn’t notice it when I was reading, but you’re quite right, and I know from personal experience how quickly muscles can degenerate from lack of use. It’s possible for him to have maintained a strong upper body through exercise, but again, we weren’t given any indicators that he was doing that. I would chalk this up to the “fairy tale” aspect of the book, I suppose, but it’s an example of the tension that exists when you read a fairy tale that is set in the present but has regular humans as the characters.
Kaetrin: The Beauty and the Beast references are overt in the story – Rahkee and Taj talk about themselves as those characters and map the fairy tale as the story progresses – specifically noting when things are the same (the rose garden and the Beast’s beautiful roses, for example) and when things are different.
“Is that how I transform? I thought you were going to kiss me and turn me into a prince?”
“I already kissed you, and you stayed you: a gorgeous Beast who drives us all completely crazy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In fairy tales, characterisation is usually very light and perhaps it was a deliberate decision to mirror some of that here but I would have liked more character exposition of Rahkee and Taj – I don’t know if they appeared at all in the earlier books – Sunita? How did you find the characterisations?
Sunita: I approached the story as a fairy tale and that definitely helped with some of the abbreviated characterizations, but even so I had problems with some of them because they felt like stereotypes. Rakhee was presented as this sweet, hard-working young woman who was unfairly seen as snobbish by the other actresses, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she hadn’t learned any Hindi. She’d been there for over a year and she hadn’t found herself a private tutor? She could have at least learned the script; I taught it to an American grad student who was spending eighteen months in India because of her husband’s job and she said it made her transition much easier, and it didn’t take her that long to learn it. Since Rakhee had basically fallen into lead actress roles almost by accident, I sympathized somewhat with the bitchy Indian women. It didn’t make sense to me that she was hard-working and respectful of the industry and the culture but didn’t apply herself to learning the language of her job until she met Taj.
I found the characterization of her mother really uneven too. I thought at the beginning that she was a loving, supportive mother, but then when she came to the haveli she had morphed into this Ugly American role. That was jarring, especially since the traits that made her an Ugly American were traits I’ve seen in plenty of upper-class Indians in the last couple of decades. It seemed liked the wrong insult (there are plenty of ways foreigners are clueless where Indians are not), and it felt inconsistent. The whole “bitchy women” thing in the book bothered me. I realize they were part of the melodramatic, soap-opera atmosphere, but that’s one thing I don’t like about soap operas so it didn’t work for me.
Kaetrin: Hindi is sprinkled liberally through the text. I had my iPad next to me as I read and Google was my friend for some of the words I didn’t understand. Some words were obvious from their context – haveli was the word used for the Khan estate and some words were easily translated online. But there were quite a few words and phrases I didn’t understand and my Google-fu was not up to the task. I wondered what I was missing. I would have dearly loved a glossary of the Hindi words and phrases – it would be helpful for people like me who don’t understand the language but it wouldn’t get in the way for those who understood the words when reading. I don’t mind having to look up words when I’m reading – it happens occasionally that I see a new word and my natural curiosity means that I want to know what it means. It wasn’t so much that I had to look up words which was the problem but that when I tried, I couldn’t find any meanings. The Hindi to English translator was little help. I did find a site called Bollywhat.com which apparently has the English translation of various Bollywood films and songs but you have to know the name of the movie or song to know where to start. It wasn’t practical to ask questions on their forum and still keep reading. Because I am easily distracted by the shiny, I found my reading interrupted constantly by my search for the meaning of the words and then following links down various rabbit holes. After about halfway, I gave up and just kept reading. The second half of the book did work better for me and perhaps that was because I was paying more constant attention to it without interruptions.
Sunita: This appears to be a deliberate authorial choice, which I didn’t think worked in the first book and didn’t work here either. You didn’t actually miss much of the Hindi because almost everything that is written in Hindi is then repeated verbatim or closely paraphrased in English. But you can’t know that without knowing the language, so you wonder what you’ve missed. I do know it and wound up reading the same thing twice. I found the way the Hindi was inserted to be quite distracting. There are other ways to signal that people are speaking a different language, and the way it was interjected here didn’t always ring true to me.
There is an additional problem here, which is that a number of the phonetically spelled words are not transliterated accurately, so if you try to look them up you won’t find them (e.g., transliterating a vowel as a long “aa” instead of a short “a” can create a different word). Moreover, some of the Hindi words used are plural but the dictionary will only give you the singular form so you can’t always tell if it’s the same word. South Asian languages are tricky to transliterate because there is no standard English format (as there is in Chinese), but there are some agreed-upon conventions and they weren’t always used here.
Kaetrin: I found Ashraf’s character to be the most developed in the story. I felt for him and I was glad that his mental trauma was handled with sensitivity and medical attention. The character of Kamal, Taj’s mysterious attendant/therapist, on the other hand, was almost completely opaque. I had a hundred questions about him – perhaps he will feature in a future story?
Sunita: I agree, I think we learned the most about Ashraf and he had the most on-page character development over the course of the book. I thought Kamal’s characterization was a bit strange and at times it made me uncomfortable. He was so mysterious, so all-knowing, that he felt a little too close to a “magical minority” type, and since we didn’t get his POV there was nothing to offset the mystical-magical stuff. I couldn’t decide if he was being set up for his own story or was primarily a vehicle for everyone else’s redemption/salvation. Either way, I would have preferred a regular human.
Kaetrin: I found the cultural differences really interesting. I haven’t watched any Bollywood movies but I gather that there isn’t much physical intimacy displayed? Rahkee has been forbidden by her father to kiss on screen. She is 21 but her father is clearly very much in charge. Even that her family came with her to India was different to me. I’m used to reading about 19 or 20 year olds leaving home and striking out on their own but my impression was that Indian society was very different. I had a lot of questions when reading but I appreciated that the story wasn’t there to teach me about the culture and answer every question I had. So that is not a criticism of the story at all. Rather, it piqued my curiosity and almost guaranteed that I will read more contemporary Indian set romances.
That said, Rahkee was raised in America so many of her sensibilities were familiar to me and in some ways hers was an outsider’s perspective as well – Rahkee doesn’t feel terribly welcomed by Bollywood, even though she’s been in India for some time.
Sunita: Yes, Bollywood and other Indian films have a lot of restrictions around sexual content (there is still a Board Of Censors for Indian and foreign films, and they can order cuts or even stop films from being shown). And while urban Indian society is becoming more liberal about these issues, it’s still much more conservative than US or Western European culture.
Kaetrin: I’m definitely interested in reading more Indian-set contemporaries.
I wonder how Rahkee and Taj will go in in the future? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say they get a happy ending here – I hope they will appear in future books so I can see how their relationship grows. Their time isolated at the haveli was unreal in many ways. Negotiating the wider world will no doubt bring challenges.
Sunita: Yes, absolutely. The fairy-tale setup is intriguing as a way of bringing them together, but it doesn’t really translate beyond the HEA/HFN. I’d like to see how their relationship plays out beyond the boundaries of the haveli.
Kaetrin: I liked the story but agree with you Sunita that there was a bit too much going on for its length. I do plan on reading the earlier books now and I hope Ms. Snyder writes one for Ashraf. I was quite moved by his story – his character really shone out to me. I give Bollywood and the Beast a C+.
Sunita: I would also like to see what happens to Ashraf in the future, especially with a deeper and more real-world situated context for Kamal (if he is part of that future), and I’d like to follow Taj and Rakhee on their personal and professional journeys. I give Bollywood and the Beast a C.
Kaetrin & Sunita