Rajashree is a bestselling Indian novelist and award-winning film-maker. She’s been a film buff since she was a kid — she stood in a line for five hours to get tickets for Sholay once when it was re-released. She has been working in Bombay after studying direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, Poona. She’s assisted Mansoor Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. A film she wrote and directed, The Rebel, was screened at many film festivals, and won the National Award and the Golden Ten Award. She has worked as a producer on TV shows like Indian Idol. She is serving as a member of the Executive Committee of the Film Writers’ Association. Her critically-acclaimed debut, Trust Me, is the biggest-selling Indian chick lit novel – it has sold the highest number of copies amongst the books in this genre according to figures given in The Times of India and The Sunday Telegraph. It is a lighthearted romantic comedy set in the Bombay film industry, Bollywood. It has been published in India by Rupa and in France by City Editions. She is represented by Isabel Atherton of Creative Authors Limited, a literary agency based in New York and London.
Here’s a Q & A with her:
Do you identify with the protagonist of your novel, Parvati?
At one level, writing this book was like acting for me. It’s not autobiographical – trust issues have never troubled me much. But since this book was in the first person, I had to let go off my own personality and catch the sur (pitch) of this girl so that I could speak in her voice.
A friend of mine who’s an actor and director said to me today, ‘Acting is about being honest.’ I had to be true to Parvati’s character when I was writing even when I didn’t agree with her. For example, I’ve been a Hindi film buff since I was a kid, while she’s so condescending about Bollywood. I really love something Sharon Stone said about her role in ‘Basic Instinct’ – when you’re playing a bad girl, you can’t play her like ‘I’m playing a bad girl but, wink, wink, I’m actually a good girl.’
Actually, I identify with the hero, Rahul Kapoor, much more. Because he laughs a lot and he’s got his roots in Hindi films – he stood in a line for five hours to get tickets for Sholay when he was a kid. I did the same once when the film was re-released, and let me tell you, it was worth every minute!
How did you start writing? Why do you write in English and not in your mother-tongue?
I first started writing a novel when I was nine years old. I made out a list of characters – I used to pronounce the ‘ch’ in characters like in chance, but not being able to pronounce properly didn’t hold me back from writing in English.
In fact, my relationship with English started off on a bad note – I failed in first standard because I didn’t know English. I still remember the teacher writing the questions on the blackboard in a beautiful cursive writing and I couldn’t even understand the words. There was never much stress about my flunking – my elder sister distributed pedhas because she passed and I distributed pedhas because I failed. But my mother started teaching me English proactively, especially after we shifted to Southampton in England.
At home, I speak a mixture of English, Hindi and Marathi. It’s all a glorious mish-mash, which we call Hinglish. And that’s the language of my novel as well.
When I was a kid, I loved studying Physics, but even more than that, I loved watching films (even if that meant bunking school). My elder sister, Manju, and I started writing scripts when we were teenagers. She took admission in the Film and Television Institute of India, and I followed her (my mother calls me ‘sheput’, which means tail in Marathi.) I’ve been working in the film industry after studying direction at FTII.
What was the idea behind the title Trust Me?
The starting point for this book was a joke which I read many years ago:
“What does ‘trust me’ mean in Polish?”
It stuck in my head and I scribbled it down as a story idea. Quite a few years later, I was writing a novel about a drug addict (although I’ve never been addicted to even tea). I was attending Narcotics Anonymous regularly and trying to discipline myself to write fulltime by staying in a hostel in Poona. I made friends with a girl who lived in the next room and she would drop in quite often (I loved the excuse for getting away from my writing table.) She was going through a heartbreak and needed a shoulder to cry on. She’d been dumped by her ‘Mr Right’. Another guy was in love with her, but she wasn’t sure whether she should trust him. In the beginning, I used to listen to her because of friendly concern, but, slowly, like the ryme of the ancient mariner, her story drew me in. I forgot about my drug addict heroine and started thinking about her.
Around the same time, I worked with a producer who seemed to think that using the casting couch was his prerogative. I left that unit very quickly, but all these elements came together to form the storyline of Trust Me. The girl who’s been hurt so badly that she thinks that trust is a bad word. The guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and goes all out to woo her. And a sexually exploitative filmi setup which makes her withdraw into her shell even more.
What is your opinion about the issues that you have dealt with in your novel?
About trust, I feel that when in doubt, it’s important to ‘trust smart’. Rather than thinking, ‘Can I trust this person?’ it might be better to think, ‘Can I trust this person to do this?’ When we don’t make value judgments and blanket statements, we are more likely to find the right answers.
I exaggerated the sleaziness of the film unit in Trust Me to add to the drama of the novel and to make her trust issues seem more valid. I would like to clarify that this is definitely not the norm in the film industry. I have worked with many lovely people in set-ups where such kind of behaviour would be unthinkable.
Did you have a day-job when you were writing?
It would have been great if I could have, but I found that writing was demandingly full-time. I couldn’t work on two things simultaneously. I’d saved up some money – I thought I had enough to live on for the two years or so that it would take me to write a novel. Two years passed, three, but my novel showed no sign of getting completed. I did take breaks from writing to work in the film industry, but by the end of it, I also had to take money from my mom.
I was so broke that I’d walk into bookstores and look around hungrily, but the books were much too expensive for me to buy. One day, I told myself pointblank, ‘Raju, if you want to write a book, you can’t afford to buy any.’ After that, I accepted the situation and it stopped bothering me. But I’m very happy that my book has been priced for just Rs 95, not just because it’s a big factor in making it a bestseller, but also because I could have afforded it even in those broke days when I was writing the book.
What do you like the most about Trust Me?
I love the rap of the dialogues and the relationship between the girls – the way they depend on each other’s opinions so much so that when Parvati’s out on a date with Rahul, she’s thinking, ‘I wonder how Kavita and Saira would analyse this?”
Most of all, I love the characters – I’ve lived with them for so long, we’ve become old friends. They stopped listening to me quite a while back – I had to start listening to them as they told me what they wanted to do and how they wanted their stories to unfold. I love Jumbo, the director who believes in white shoes, black money and the casting couch. And I really wish I could learn from Manoj, who’s developed a very philosophical attitude towards rejection. He’s figured out that on an average, out of every eleven girls he asks out, one says yes. So he keeps on collecting rejections – an acceptance is bound to pop up soon. (He’s such a kind-hearted soul that he makes a pass at every girl he meets, because he doesn’t want anyone to feel unwanted). I’d love it if Rahul Kapoor were to come out of the book and start wooing me, but since he hasn’t shown much inclination to do so, I’m sharing him with all you girls out there…:-)
Your films seem much more serious than your book. Why’s that?
Actually, most of my stories, including my films, are about emotional healing. My last film, The Connection, is about a woman who throws out a Muslim boy from her house after her brother gets killed in a communal riot. And then she realizes what she’s done and tries to manao (cajole) him back. I like the way people change, this whole darkness to light thing. Even The Rebel is about the friendship between a sixty-year old woman and a sixteen-year-old boy who’s very angry with his mother because she’s remarried. So my book, like my films, are about getting hurt, closing up, then opening yourself to the world again.
What do you want to do now?
I went to a Nizami brothers concert the day the book was released in the bookshops and they were singing a beautiful bhajan by Kabir, ‘Lago man mera fakiri mein’. I felt released, free, like I’d finally let go of my novel, like it was a diya (light) on a leafboat I’d released in a river… Or many, many diyas which are floating down, waiting for other people to pick them up, waiting to make them laugh and cry…
It was great working on the book, but I’m happy to be moving on, to be entering a new phase in my life. I’m single and I want to fall in love. With my soulmate. And with a story. For a film or a novel. A story that’ll sweep me off my feet and compel me to drink, breathe, live it – till it finds its final shape.
POSTSCRIPT: Sales figures published in various newspapers show that your novel, Trust Me, has sold more copies than any other Indian chick lit novel. What are your plans? Have you found the story or the man of your dreams?
I’m still searching for my soulmate. Aayega aanewala… 🙂
I haven’t found one story – I have found several. I have written two full-fledged feature film screenplays – one is a lighthearted contemporary romantic comedy, the other is a coming-of-age film.
I also have three stories for feature films – the first one is a thriller, the second is a wild, freaked-out musical and the third is a socio-political drama. Plus, some people are interested in buying the rights for my novel, Trust Me.
Whew, that sounds like a lot when I list all six projects out, doesn’t it? 🙂 I’m talking to some producers and stars about these films. Hoping for some good news soon!