Multi-faceted and incredibly talented are words that best describe Chetan Bhagat. An alumnus of the prestigious IIT-Delhi and IIM-A, Chetan slowly and steadily grew up the corporate ladder to become a successful investment banker. However, he came into the limelight as the author of the international best-seller Five Point Someone followed by another best-seller One Night @ the Call Centre. The latter became so popular that there were many offers to adapt it into a motion picture. Finally, Chetan received an offer (which he couldn't refuse) from actor-director Atul Agnihotri who wanted to make One Night @ the Call Centre into a film and this was how Hello came up. With Hello set to hit the screens this week, Chetan opens up to us in this exclusive interview and talks about his first cinematic experience as the story/screenplay writer of Hello, his bonding with the 'Khan-daan' and how he manages to juggle his time between investment banking, writing bestsellers and scripting Bollywood flicks. You simply don't wanna miss this one!!!
After being a successful investment banker, and a well known writer of 3 international best selling books you are now entering the big bad world of Bollywood as the story / screenplay writer of Hello. How does it feel?
It feels great, of course. Especially with Bollywood, I am now getting such a big platform to tell my stories in Hindi. I don't think you can call yourself an Indian writer if you are not reaching the Hindi speaking audiences. I feel like I am destiny's child. I have always got more than I deserve - whether it is my reader's love or movies being made out of my books. And I believe these gifts are being given to me so I can do something greater for my country - whether inspire a generation or make India a better place.
How did 'Bollywood Calling' happen? Was it something which was always at the back of your mind or was it all of a sudden and completely unplanned?
When my first book came out and became popular, I started getting some enquires from Bollywood. I have always been a big Hindi movie fan, and there is a desire in me to touch as many Indians as possible in my lifetime. So what better way than Bollywood!!!
Hello which releases this week is based on your best seller One Night @ the Call Centre. Could you brief us a little on what the film is about for the benefit of all those who have not yet read the book?
Quite simply, as the book's title says - it is the story of one night about six people who work in a call center. The night is special because they get a phone call from God.
How similar is the film to the original book?
It is quite similar as I only wrote the script and Atul was clear he wanted to make the book. He said, "I've loved the book as it was fun to read and it made me more self-confident after I read it. I want the same effect with the film". There are some changes that had to be made due to the requirements of cinema - but they don't really take away much from the book.
The film is directed by Atul Agnihotri. His first film as a director Dil Ne Jise Apna Kaha bombed at the B.O. Does it bother you?
I had discussed Atul's past film before I gave him the rights. However, he is a non-egoistic person who had a very good idea of why his first film bombed. First, he had scripted it when he isn't much of a writer. Second, he had chosen to make what he thought will work with the trade rather than what genuinely moved him. I did several gruelling interviews with him and told him that under no circumstances can I embarrass my readers. He answered each and every question. He is well educated - from Sydenham college and he has trained under Mahesh Bhatt as an asst. director for five years. In fact, he never planned to be an actor - he just had a chance casting in Sir. He read the book twenty five times and knew it better than me. He wanted me to be fully involved at every stage and write the entire script, screenplay and dialogues. Finally, he told me "If Shyam, who is a loser in your book, can come back and achieve his full potential and deserves a second chance, why can't I?" The fire in his eyes at that point told me the film belonged to him.
In the West, it's quite common for films to be made on popular books / novels. This trend has not been seen so often in Bollywood. Why so??
Because Bollywood is still evolving. There was a relatively set formula in earlier years of making a film work which wasn't so dependent on the script. Today, the script is critical and the money at stake is huge. To avoid creating time bombs, it is a lot better to invest in a tested story than special effects. Hollywood knows this, and Bollywood is learning its lesson the hard way. Of course, the other issue is Indian literature tended to be extremely high brow and not popular, so making popular films with such books was out of question.
People often feel that a film can never have the same effect / magic as the book Do you agree with that?
I agree, it can't have the same magic. But it can have its own magic. A well made film on a book is a treat - for readers to relive the story and for non-readers as they will be assured of a tight plot on screen.
Hello has six principal characters...Could you tell us something about them...Describe them in one line each
The six characters are Shyam, who is having a breakup with Priyanka; Esha, who wants to be a model; Vroom, a hot-headed yet fun guy who likes Esha; Radhika, an overworked housewife and Military Uncle, a retired army man who now works in a call center. The six of them are having the worst night of their life.
Salman Khan makes a guest appearance in the film...yet the film is being promoted as a Salman Khan film...do you think it is fair?
I don't think Hello is being promoted purely as a Salman Khan film. It is very clear that Hello is One Night @ the Call Center and we have millions of readers who already know what role Salman is playing in the film. I also feel Salman's role is important to the story (it is the role I play in the book, so it is obviously important!). So in a way, it is more than a guest appearance anyway. My readers/audience have made me, they trust me and I plan to have a longer innings in Bollywood - so misrepresenting to them would be unthinkable.
How has it been working with the 'Khan-daan'? Salman - Sohail- Arbaaz etc?
The Khan-daan is pretty cool. I have seen them over two years now, and I must say they are really blessed to have a family so bonded with each other. They are simple, straightforward, emotional people, and if they like you, they will go all out for you. The head of the family (Salim Khan) is a writer, so they give a lot of respect to writers. So I had a great time with them.
How involved were you during the making of the film?
I was involved in all stages. Atul drove me mad on the script. He kept making me revise it, he'd say, "It's great, but I know if you look at it one more time, it will only get better." I liked being challenged that way, rather than everyone nodding their heads because I was a bestselling author. Even later, Atul would show me set designs, song samples, and rushes to make sure I was happy with it. I tried to be on sets as much as possible. Otherwise, he would give me shoot updates at the end of the day. He'd say "That joke came out so funny even the light man laughed during the take." Hello is our baby, really!!!
Is Hello targeted at the metros and multiplexes or will it find its audience even in smaller towns and single screens?
I think herein lies the surprise factor. The trade believes Hello is mainly a metro/multiplex film. However, the Bollywood trade is not aware that my books sell a lot in smaller towns. Around sixty percent of my fan mail is from smaller cities. So I think it will go beyond the multiplexes. Of course, the Salman Khan factor will help in single screen business too.
Is there a need / scope for songs in a film like Hello?
Yes...in fact I insisted on it. The book is very emotional, and music is a good way to express emotions. Of course, you can't have eight songs in a book about one night. We have three songs, and they fit into the story or are played in the backdrop. Also, the book is considered a fun book, and we wanted to make a fun movie. Where's the fun in taking Salman Khan and not having his bare-chested song in the film?
The film has been in the making for a while...Why the delay?
The two main reasons are we wanted to get the script absolutely right, so we took a year in adaptation. Secondly, there are a lot of actors in the film, and matching their dates and night schedules took a lot of time. There are no marks for coming first in filmmaking. You need to make the film right.
Your first and most popular book Five Point Someone is being adapted into 3 Idiots by Rajkumar Hirani...How did that deal happen?
During the release of my second book, I happened to meet Raju. He was working on Lage Raho Munnabhai at that time. I gave him my first book and he said he won't be able to read it until his film finishes. However, in a few weeks the Mumbai cloudburst happened and Raju was locked in at home with my book. He read it and called me down to Mumbai. The rest we all know. As you can see, the terrible cloudburst became a divine intervention for me.
Have you also written the story/ screenplay for 3 Idiots?
No, I am not involved in the adaptation process. Raju has a great team (the Munnabhai team) and I trust him. Raju is adding a lot to the story and so it is better he works on it. Also, I'd rather do a new story than stay on with my old works.
You have two of the biggest stars Aamir and Salman starring in two films based on your books...you surely must be a happy man...any other actors on your wish list.
I am a happy man anyway as my readers have given me more than I deserve. Having the two Khans is great and glamorous, and will make my story reach more people. No desire to work with any particular actor as such - as long as they are competent and good human beings, I'd love to work with them.
Are there any plans for filming your third and most recent book 3 Mistakes of my life?
No plans as of yet. Many offers but I cannot say anything until I experience the full Bollywood cycle with Hello's release. '3 Mistakes' has a big scope as it tackles tough issues, so will make sure a competent team is in place.
Coming back to your first love, writing...could you tell your million fans what are you currently working on for your next book and when should it be out by?
I won't reveal any details on my fourth book. Suspense is an author's biggest weapon. I have a script to finish after Hello releases, and then will work on the fourth book. I am hoping to have it out by 2010.
How do you manage juggling time between a fulltime top corporate job, your profession as a writer and now as a screenplay writer?
I am good at multitasking, and I only write when inspiration comes. At other times, I am in office. Still, it is difficult. But just as a working mother who commutes two hours and looks after her kids at home - I somehow manage.
Books are often the best way to spend time...so what does Chetan Bhagat do in his spare time? Are you an avid reader yourself and what do you like reading?
I like to read, but not when I am in the middle of writing something. I read a lot of bestsellers. I also love spending time with my twin boys. I went for my first PTA meeting as a parent last week and the teacher praised them both. I was sort of disappointed as I like naughty kids. My parents were always embarrassed to go to PTA meetings.
In the few months that you have been in Bollywood, how has the experience been?
It has been a good experience overall, though there are highs and lows. There is a lot to navigate, a lot of people to convince and hard to keep grounded through it all. And yet, you are working on creating something beautiful that all the hard work and frustration seems worth it. Still, for me the attraction of Bollywood is not the glamour but the stage it provides me to channel my thoughts to the people of my country. Let's see if I get to keep my place on this stage.
Are you a big fan of Bollywood films? In recent times (this year, last year etc.) which films have you enjoyed watching?
I am a huge fan of Bollywood films. I am so into them that there is a censor certificate before my dreams at night. But aren't all Indians? In the last two years, I've loved Taare Zameen Par, Namastey London, Khuda Kay Liye, Om Shanti Om and Partner (huge Salman/ Govinda bias I admit).
Being a writer yourself which writers' work do you admire most in Bollywood among the current lot?
I have always found Mr. Gulzar to be an inspiration, as he does books as well as scripts. In fact, we share the same publisher (Rupa&Co). Among the current crop, I like Jaideep Sahni, Anurag Kashyap, Prasoon Joshi and Raju Hirani's writing.
Finally Hello opens across cinema halls this week. Why do you think audiences should shell out 200 bucks on a ticket when they have already read the book and know what's in store?
All I'd say is my fans and Salman's fans are different from other fans. It's an emotional relationship and they treat us like a big brother. And if your big brother is getting married, do you need a reason to come? Hello's release is as important to me as my wedding day. So our fans know what they have to do. For the rest, all I can say is you'll have super fun in the theatre and come out a more self-confident person. And a few million people have loved the story. Is that reason enough?