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Chetan Bhagat: Kai Po Che is better than the book

Last updated on: February 21, 2013 14:48 IST

Chetan Bhagat: Kai Po Che is better than the book


Aseem Chhabra in New York

Chetan Bhagat has been many things in his life -- an IIT and IIM graduate, who spent 11 years as an investment banker in Hong Kong, a best selling author ("the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India's history" according to a 2006 piece in The New York Times), popular columnist writing for The Times of India and a leading Indian voice on Twitter (he had 1.3 million followers).

He has opinions on all sorts of issues and often lands in controversy with people who either take offence at his statements or feel that his views appear naive.

He is a youth icon in India, speaking at college campuses across the country. Many of his readers would not pick up books by authors who often win prestigious international awards.

Bhagat is well aware of the power and reach of his books. He is equally aware that critics and many authors do not appreciate his writings, and that he is not a part of the intellectual literary circles in India and abroad.

Three of his books have been made into films. The latest, Kai Po Che, opened on February 13 at the Berlin Film Festival, and will release in India on February 22.

With KPC, Bhagat appears to be moving closer to the film business, as a scriptwriter.  

Bhagat talks to Aseem Chhabra about Kai Po Che, and his ambitions for India.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che. Inset: Chetan Bhagat


'I initially found writing the screenplay challenging'

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This is new for you, being billed as the scriptwriter of Kai Po Che.

Four people have written the screenplay. There's me, (director) Abhishek (Kapoor), and Pubali Chaudhuri, who worked with Abhishek on Rock On!!. Supratik Sen wrote the dialogues in Hindi.  

What was the process like for you, converting your book into a script? 

It was very different. I learned a lot. It took a long time, over two years, to do this. We thought it would take less time since we had the book and we knew the characters.  

I initially found writing the screenplay challenging. It was one-fourth the size of the book. So I had to capture everything and still keep it simple.  

Were you writing on your own and then sharing it with the team? Or they wrote sections and then shared with you?

We did that, taking turns and then sharing with others. Then Abhishek and I took many trips to Khandala and went over the script, scene by scene. We would re-enact the scenes reading the dialogues.

We were carrying a portable printer, so whenever we felt something was going right we would print it right there.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che

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'I am not very possessive of my books, like other writers'

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Did Abhishek suggest any additions or changes to the story? After all, this was your novel.

Well, the novel is mine, but the film is not just mine. It belongs more to Abhishek because he's the director, the captain of the ship.  

I felt it was a chance to improve the book. I have opinions on what worked and what didn't work. And whatever didn't work, it's time for us to accept it. So we fixed it.

In the promo of the film, you see the characters in a car and the car turns out to be on a trailer that is carrying the car. In some ways that represents the young restless Indians who have aspirations, but they still haven't achieved them yet.

All that is covered in the book but you cannot show it the same way in film. So those kinds of translations were required. And I am okay with that. I am not very possessive of my books, like other writers.

You decided to become a novelist, after switching careers. So why is film so important? Don't you want people to read your book first?

Basically, I want to create some change in people's thinking in India.

Initially, I just wanted to be a novelist. But now I am trying to reach a wider audience.

The reason I do what I do is first to get people's attention by entertaining them, whether it is in the form of a book or a film. And then I talk to them about what needs to change in the country. I do that by writing columns about current affairs.

But now that my readership has grown a lot, and for the next level of Indians I want to reach, cinema is a great medium. By writing the screenplay, I can contribute to the movie as well.  

In my head, I don't have this identity that I am an author or a film writer or a columnist. I have ideas that can make India a better place. But people will always want to be entertained first, and I always plan to do that as well.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che

Tags: Abhishek , India

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'I have a lot more say now than I did in 3 Idiots'

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I want to refer to the whole 3 Idiots experience. It became a very public spat. What did you learn from that experience and how was it different this time?

I learned to be cautious and to assert myself better. I learned that it is not only important to work with people who have the right talent to make a good film, but also with people who have the right ethics.

The first movie deal I did was for 3 Idiots. It's not that I didn't know things. Some people believe that I was naive and didn't know.

Now I do have a lot more say in how things should be done. But I also know that miscommunications can grow very wide and deep if not addressed early.

Somewhere along the line, there was miscommunication on both sides and that unfortunate incident happened. It's part of learning in life.

You never had any problems with 3 Idiots the film? You were happy the way they had taken your book and transformed it?

3 Idiots -- the quality of the film and what it achieved -- I will very much defend. I think Raj Kumar Hirani and the producers did a fantastic job.  

I had an issue with the credits. Apart from that, 3 Idiots has given me a lot. There's a large part of India that knows me through 3 Idiots 

Do the book sales go up when the film is released?

No, that doesn't happen. Kai Po Che or The 3 Mistakes of My Life was a very popular book. It happens more with books that are obscure and they become successes.

They will issue a special edition with a new cover. But to put it in perspective, the book sold 1.3 million copies so far and for the new edition they issued 30,000 more copies. It does increase the awareness.

Image: A scene from 3 Idiots

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'I deviate from the norm of good literature that is traditionally taught. That upsets some people'

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You mentioned that you want to bring a change in the country and in the thinking. How successful have you been? Are you able to quantify or see your readers changing their behaviour patterns?

The only quantification I can do is the number of people reading it and that's a very nice big number.  

The second is the reaction I get from people who are more influential. So I have met a lot of politicians who tell me how they reacted to my columns. Sometimes politicians call me, giving me their views on the columns. And they do read them. Somewhere down the line it is having an affect.  

There is no box office for this. But at the end of the day, you are one person who has a little more say in shaping public opinion. It will be naive of me to think that I make a major change at this stage, but one makes a contribution.  

And the fact that there is a reading culture in the country and more and more people are reading columns -- which was not happening before. The editorial page used to be a very niche page.

Now, because of the way some columns are being written, more people are following them and want to be a part of the dialogue. People have more access to the conversation. My columns are simple and people read them and have a view of it.

But you also have a lot of detractors. There are many people who are very critical of your columns and your writing style. When you take positions on Twitter, sometimes people get very angry with you. What is that about?

You have to ask them why they are angry and cannot control their emotions. But I guess at some level, it is because I give opinions and when you give opinions, not everyone is going to agree with you.

Then, people believe that literature should be of a certain kind because that is how they were taught in school. They have forgotten that literature is supposed to mirror society and reach out to people. They believe good literature is what their teacher told them and these are the good books.

I deviate a lot from the norm of good literature that is traditionally taught. So that upsets them.

I know what I am doing. I have to reach the masses and for that, I have to lower the eloquence, the vocabulary. But they might think that I am too simplistic.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che


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'I like Booker Prize winning books. But I also like Salman Khan movies'

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Isn't it important that you find the right audience by doing your best kind of writing? Are you trying to reach the masses by diluting your writing? 

I don't think so. I have had the masses reading me. Constables and drivers read my books. Students read me. Thomas Friedman commented on my columns. So I know what I am doing.  

But if certain people are being emotional and angry, then you have to say that sometimes they are not being fair.

Do you read books by Booker and Nobel Prize winners?

Of course, I do. Nobel Prize winners not so much, but I have read Booker Prize winning books. I read all kinds of books. I just finished reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 

There is a lot of elitism in India, as I said in one of my recent columns. When people achieve something, they want to be considered elite. And that is leading to a lot of problems in the country, this elitist way of looking at things.

I refuse to be elite, so I will defend my right to reach the masses because I think that is the right thing for our society. 

I like Booker Prize winning books. But I also like Salman Khan movies. I know both are serving different purposes. I am not going to flaunt the books I have read and position myself as somebody cool because I hate something popular.

Doesn't your success make you one of the elite in some ways? As an opinion maker, your columns, appearances on TV shows, and you say ministers talk to you... Doesn't that give you an elite position?

But I also talk to students and I am also on Twitter and I am as grounded as I can be.

I am not socialising with them; they are not my circle. It's not that I am from the elite set. I was in Kanpur and Bokara last week. So it's fine. I am from the privileged class, but I am not the elite.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che

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'I am working on another screenplay, for Salman Khan'

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So what are your expectations from Kai Po Che? Your book was successful, but how do you want people to react to the film?

I think the film is better than the book.

Really? Not many writers will say that.

Well, I have also written the screenplay so I can say it (laughs). But very objectively, it is much better because I have evolved as a writer since that book came out.

We are lucky that we had the director of Rock On, who took this story to a new level. Many people liked the book and maybe comparing it is not the right thing.

Is there a new novel coming out soon?

No. I am working on another screenplay, for Salman Khan. It's called Kick. It's a Telugu remake.

Image: A scene from Kai Po Che

Tags: Kick , Telugu

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