REVIEW: That Thing about Bollywood by Supriya Kelkar
Bollywood takes over in this contemporary, magical middle grade novel about an Indian American girl whose world turns upside down when she involuntarily starts bursting into glamorous song-and-dance routines during everyday life.
You know how in Bollywood when people are in love, they sing and dance from the mountaintops? Eleven-year-old Sonali wonders if they do the same when they’re breaking up. The truth is, Sonali’s parents don’t get along, and it looks like they might be separating.
Sonali’s little brother, Ronak, is not taking the news well, constantly crying. Sonali would never do that. It’s embarrassing to let out so many feelings, to show the world how not okay you are. But then something strange happens, something magical, maybe. When Sonali gets upset during a field trip, she can’t bury her feelings like usual—instead, she suddenly bursts into a Bollywood song-and-dance routine about why she’s upset!
The next morning, much to her dismay, Sonali’s reality has shifted. Things seem brighter, almost too bright. Her parents have had Bollywood makeovers. Her friends are also breaking out into song and dance. And somehow, everyone is acting as if this is totally normal.
Sonali knows something has gone wrong, and she suspects it has something to do with her own mismanaged emotions. Can she figure it out before it’s too late?
Dear Ms. Kelkar,
Unfortunately, this is another instance of a mismatch between what a book cover promises and what the book actually delivers. The blurb does include the conflicts of the story but in such a way that it still seemed to me that things would be lighter. Given the heavy nature of some of what happens, I think readers need to start by admiring the cute cover but then forgetting it.
Sonali, her younger brother and her parents live in Los Angeles as part of a large, extended family. Her grandfather immigrated from India and opened a movie rental business specializing in Bollywood movies so Sonali knows her Bollywood. When he eventually closed the store, he gave her all the old VHS tapes which serve as the basis of the family’s Sunday evening movie watching tradition.
As the story opens, Sonali, Ronak, and their mother are finishing dinner and getting ready to watch Sonali’s movie choice but all is not well as there are tensions swirling. Sonali’s mom and dad have argued for years but it’s getting worse. She once tried to point out the issue at a family gathering but was lectured by her angry and embarrassed parents. That cemented her decision to keep all her feelings buried and publicly pretend, as do her parents, that everything is fine.
As she won’t even tell her best friend what is really happening, this adds to the conflict now brewing between Sonali and Zara as Zara seems to be transferring her “best friends” friendship to the daughter, named “Airplane,” of a Hollywood power couple. Stressed on all sides, something’s gotta give for Sonali and it finally does when she wakes up one morning to a Bollywood world. People express their feelings by spontaneously singing and dancing, spaces get magically redecorated like movie sets, and for everyone else, this is the way it’s always been. Why is Sonali the only one to know that this isn’t real and how does she get it to stop?
The diversity and multiculturalism in the book is marvelous. Even though I didn’t understand all the Hindi words, I actually enjoyed that as it made me focus on how the meanings were conveyed in ways other than just parroting the translations. When I read the blurb, the idea of it sounded fun and in truth it was fun to read about. I wish I knew a little bit more about Bollywood movies to have caught all the references but I have watched a few so I got a teensy bit.
Sonali sure gets crabby a lot but she is also young (eleven-ish) and dealing with a lifetime of emotions that are hard to handle. To the world, her parents deny anything is wrong as they don’t want the Indian community gossiping about them. When her father’s younger sister was battling cancer, instead of reaching out to family and friends for help, they stonewalled everything.
The scenes of Sonali and her Pakistani-American friend drifting farther apart are sad but do a good job of showing the need for openness. At times this is subtly backed up news reports of growing tensions between India and Pakistan. The Bollywood song and dance scenes are fun to read especially as it’s “normal” for students and teachers to instantly become back-up singers plus everyone apparently has their own continuous background music tracks. I found the depiction of the simmering anger between Sonali’s parents to be sadly realistic and could understand Sonali’s conflicting feelings of sadness mingled with relief at their final decision.
The main problem for me was that, as an adult, it was fairly obvious what Sonali’s issue was and what she had to do in order to fix her “Bollywood-itis” yet it took her nearly the entire book. Because of that, the plot just seemed to drag and drag. Here’s another scene of the friction and tension in her household, the misunderstandings with her best friend, and then Sonali denying her feelings, stuffing them back down inside her leading to yet more Bollywood extravaganza song and dance numbers or set decorations in Sonali’s life.
There are many things about the book that are well done. I appreciate that Sonali had to unlearn what she had unfortunately taken to heart years before about not showing family troubles to others in the community. But as an adult reading it, this was a long, slow trip to get there. C+