In Search of ‘Real India’ with Chetan Bhagat

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

With the Wankaner residents on the village cot, Gujrat.

The piece appeared in Mumbai Mirror among other publications- Jul 2013.

‘’ Sir,  Chetan  is changing the schedule constantly. So we have no idea where he will go next’’, say the organizers.

I am readying myself on a five day road trip with the novelist  Chetan Bhagat who is the subject of   ‘MyEndeavour alterrain’  a 5 part adventure series for the National Geographic.

He  is to drive the SUV Ford Endeavour Alterrain in  Gujarat’s hinterland meeting interesting people earmarked for him along the way.  Already in the cans are  the drive bys of filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor,  pugilist Vijender Singh, actors Gul Panag and Rajeev Khandelwal.

When I  arrive in Ahmedabad,   I am told Chetan and the crew  haven’t arrived and would now reach  only the next day  and I am  free do  what I want with my time.

The next morning,  I try to get to the shoot location but no one is certain about the crew’s whereabouts. They were at radio station before then at a  university campus but no one could say where  they are headed next.

‘’We might tell you something right now but what if Chetan changes the program tomorrow’’, the organizers tell me  ominously.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

This is mostly how Bhagat saw the ‘Real’  India.

But when I finally meet Chetan, I meet a malleable, agreeable fellow. Easy of manners, casual in spirit, breaking into the colloquial to become one with the crew; he is as affable a celebrity you can find.  The blame for all the last minute changes had all quite unfairly been put on him.

He is  the star of the show but is  just as uncertain about  what’s next , where we are heading and how we are going about this  whistle stop tour of rural Gujarat.  This is his first major shoot of this nature  and he is just beginning to understand what goes on to making a documentary. ‘’ I have usually been behind the camera but this is  an eye opener. Now I can appreciate the kind of hard work  involved in putting a shoot together’’, he says.

Like the rest of us, he is dragged half- asleep out of his bed at about six every morning no matter how deep into the night  the shoot lasts the previous day.

Running the show that involves  more than a dozen crew members (including a line producer, makeup girl, two camera men, their assistants, sound engineer, assistant directors ) is of course the director.

Dressed up fashionably in a frilly summer  attire and  a wide brimmed hat and dark glasses firmly in place, Bindiya Murgai, the Director  exudes  absolute authority and cracks the whip on everyone including Bhagat.

As a director she has  to make quick  decisions and is hardly found wanting. For example  at the kite flying grounds in Ahmedabad where after few rehearsals with Bhagat she abruptly orders  a ‘pack up’ when the breeze fails to lift any of the gorgeous kites.

She also has to battle the cumbersome Gujarati officialdom. Permissions long granted for the shoot have to be endorsed, some are summarily rejected others delayed, belying the baritone message of hospitality relayed by its   mascot Amitabh Bachchan  exhorting us to visit the ‘vibrant’ state in those adverts.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Middle of the shoot but can’t resist the phone  can we?

Chetan Bhagat chose to drive in  Gujrat.  ‘’My book ‘Three Mistakes of My Life’ is based in Ahmedabad so Gujrat was an obvious choice’’, he says. But who he should  meet and the story line is  decided by Bindiya and her Blue Mango Films production house in consultations with Nat Geo.

‘’I want to see the real India.  Its important to see these people living at the grassroot level’’, Chetan tells me.   But accustomed to  dishing out   homilies though his columns and tweets,  Chetan is  clearly out of his depth when it comes  to asking questions  about other people’s lives.

‘’ Yes I face the same criticism when I try to do something good’’, says Chetan to an elderly Siddi woman in a Siddi village in Junagarh when she   begins to  speak of her  travails.

The director   has to intervene and  remind Chetan  that the lady’s story is not coming through. She then supplies  Chetan the right  questions and the  cameras rolls again.

Chetan has come to see the ‘real’ India but he clearly cannot   get enough of the India  he has left behind. Between shots,  in the jeep,  even between conversations with the locals, he twiddles briskly on his blackberry.

This surprises me.  I had known writers to be  like sponges.   They observe, they take note, they pay attention. But then there are  story-tellers and there are  writers. Bhagat is  a story teller but certainly not a writer. A storyteller  can spin a good yarn and find an eager audience to lap it up. And indeed, from pubescent collegians to bored housewives, Bhagat has   built a huge constituency for himself .   But   writers ask questions. They  probe the   status quo, upset the applecart and sometimes hurt sentiments.  Bhagat meanwhile has flourished on political correctness and mushy banalities. In  the  age of mediocrity the formula works.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Mr Bhagat looked up from his phone only when he was made to pose for the camera.

Chetan’s first port of call in rural Gujrat is  Wankaner where Prajapati Mansukhlal made a name for himself making refrigerators out of clay. Mitti Cool, his company,  makes  not only fridges but also  water dispensers and pressure cookers, and all sorts of pots and pans. They not only are affordable but also provide employment to vast number of  Wankaner inhabitants.

Bindiya has an esoteric reason  in naming her production house Blue Mango Films. ‘’Blue is the throat chakra  and Mango is sweet’’,  she explains.  But this unusual name results  only in hilarious consequences  in rural Gujarat.

At Mansukhlal’s workshop a clay water dispenser for the crew is marked ‘mango Blue Films’.  Even in Rajot the skittish hotel receptionist looking for my name in the list beams ‘’  Sir you from Blue Films no?’’.

It is a long drive to Junagarh from Wankaner where in  Sasan Gir’s buffer area,  Chetan is taken through the rigmarole of the Maldhari’s tribal way of life. He is  made to walk among the wood- gathers in the forests, climb an old village tree ,  talk to children and the pretty Maldhari women  – all in an effort to  make his rural investigations look authentic.

‘’I liked the Siddhi dance the best’’, says Chetan reminiscing on the trip later. ‘’It was amazing to see the ethnic African tribe  here in  Gujarat’’, he says.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Shooting a sunset moment in Junagarh, Gujrat.

In fact a local mela of sorts is organized at Sasan Gir village for the sake of the shoot ,where in a choreographed sequence, the author is made to stumble on the Siddi village and  is  welcomed by the dancers.

The racially African Siddis  whose ancestors were brought to India from Africa almost 500 years ago, put up quite an act for the cameras with their wild African dance and fire breathing. They eventually haul the reluctant Bhagat on their bare backs and prance  him   around the village square.

But  it is  Ankit Ahuja the associate  director, who with his thick   mop of wild, shaggy  hair, makes an impression on the  rural folk everywhere. ( I can’t help thinking ; he  probably has more strands  on one lock of hair than I on my entire scalp.)   Everyone wants a photograph with him,  even as Bhagat wanders by busy as usual  on  his blackberry.

It is only in the main towns and in the airport lounges where Chetan Bhagat reclaims  his celebrity; where his readers finally seek  him out and urge him for an autograph.

24 Responses to “In Search of ‘Real India’ with Chetan Bhagat”

  1. Tarun Goel says:

    hahah. Tweet India Tweet. What he writes matches what he does. No Difference!

  2. Kalyani Wakkar says:

    hehee…am actually not surprised! At all! Thank you for the candid account.

  3. Romel Dias says:

    Hahaha…he is probably making notes on good English that he can use..

  4. farah khan says:


  5. Mohtashim Hashmi says:

    Sanjay Austa thanks for keeping it REAL, I am sure the documentary will showcase a totally sensitive and sensible Chetan Bhagat.

  6. deej says:

    HAHAHAHAH……………he is super dumb….rofl…somehow over the past few years I have met some IIM smart people (heheheh)…..and they all are same …just like Bhagat ji…Thank god I’m not smart…..

  7. Dhiraj Singh says:

    Loved it!~!
    Funny and insightful… I had always wondered about the popularity of CB and I got my answer here esp when you say, “I had known writers to be like sponges. They observe, they take note, they pay attention. But then there are story-teller and there are writers. Bhagat is a story teller but certainly not a writer. A storyteller can spin a good yarn and find an eager audience to lap it up. And indeed, from pubescent collegians to bored housewives Bhagat has built a huge constituency for himself.”

  8. amazing blue film experience you had in gujju land 😀

  9. Jaya Mahajan says:

    Thanks for sharing your frank observations Sanjay. This is exactly how so many popular “celebrity “oriented documentaries get made these days,supposedly for this is what our audiences want. It is great to know what went on behind the camera!

  10. svk says:

    Give the guy a break. So he’s not a brilliant, insightful writer. I suspect he knows that and does not pretend that he is one the great ones. it’s easy to criticize him and a lot harder to appreciate the ingenuity with which he has found his niche audience, not letting his modest talent impede him.

    • Steve says:

      Agree entirely. It’s a social-media led hobby – celebrity bashing that is – and there are enough of tribe members to sing hosannas to their leader such as Sanjay…. CB will never be a Rudyard Kipling but he has never claimed to be one either. He got lucky ( with a bit of hard work) with his books and the media circus has done the rest. But unlike several flaky celebrities who tend to take themselves seriously ( IPL wannabes, Bollywood C grade listers etc), he seems to find it amusing and carries it lightly (though he profits immensely from it). At least unlike a few other ‘Andy Warholian’ celebs, he doesnt seem to do much damage to the wider society – not yet !

      • Steve says:

        hi sanjay, usually when you use reply , it is in response to that comment – in this case that of SVK.

        One the other bit, you got it wrong. Its the other way actually, if you read carefully. Quite a few comments seem to take pleasure at poking fun at CB ( and its entirely their privilege, I must add) which is in line with the general tonality of the blog – a distinctly patronizing view of the aforementioned CB

        • sanjay austa says:

          Ok i see. But on your point of celebrity bashing, I have no idea what papers you are reading. In my view there is not enough of it. Most interviews are PR exercises. We need to bash them a lot more ( for the right reasons of course).

  11. Good that you wrote about it, Sanjay. As a journalist, I am aware of the shit that floats around in the name of understanding India. Cheers!

  12. Sreerupa says:

    Hi Sanjay,

    It was a very interesting read. However I would like to point out, that belittling someone just because he is “famous” doesn’t cut much ice does it? I cannot for one second believe Mr. Bhagat is worse or better than any of our young Indian Political leaders. And,also if you care to read Mr. Bhagat’s books, they are almost entirely based on the urban and the urbane India. I am not supporting Mr. Bhagat, nor do I have any reason to… but is bashing him the right thing way to go about it? If you need to blame anyone for Mr. Bhagat’s apparent negligent attitude to the rural India, I think you should blame it more on the NatGeo producers who decided to rope him as the showman in the first place. I think “celebrity bashing” is becoming a new trend in India. Really hoping you wouldn’t get trapped into that.

    Good blog, very interesting read.

  13. Vinay Menon says:

    Wait! CB takes things light heartedly? Well obviously, you haven’t seen the likes of Jim Carrey/Steve Carrel off screen.
    Has anyone read his holier than thou articles? Has anyone noticed the bloated image he has on himself in his works? The guy is an easy target by the media and possibly one of the nicest guys around, BUT, he needs someone to parody him real soon in this, the land of free-speech-but-not-really.
    That being said, Sanjay, your paragraph on writers and story tellers, the best criticism on CB I’ve seen to date. You sir, have earned my self rightous FB share+like!

  14. Vitthal Patil says:

    “In the age of mediocrity the formula works.”

    Very true. I loved it. Chetan Bhagat is too over rated. His crap sales because the IIMers are over rated for anything that they do. For the media they are the “Know it all” people. But I wonder what National Geographic is doing here ? For me CB represents the new wave of crap that has engulfed India. Look around us & the newspapers need more & more of crap writers these days. Thanks Sanjay.

  15. Sanjay says:

    Fantastic shoot,travel,people and crew….I love this travel show, Thanks Sanjay ji for share this article …

  16. ashish says:

    “lourished on political correctness and mushy banalities. In the age of mediocrity the formula works.”
    loved it quite a read Sanjay, well done for making it anything but what you wrote above.

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