15 May 2017

Relative Value: Irreverently Speaking

Humour and ‘uncensoredness’ are traits journalist Vinod Dua shares with his daughter, internet star Mallika.

Vinod Dua has the proverbial elephant’s memory. Asked about his Delhi childhood, the veteran Hindi journalist begins with the address of his Jangpura home (R-10, Shiv Market), informs me that his first and sixth birthdays were celebrated there (1955 and 1961 respectively), and ends with the perfect historical anecdote. After a fire at the local Eros Cinema, Dua’s elder brother, then about 12, salvaged some burnt Mughal-e-Azam ticket books. “Unko ghar laake bahut khush ho rahe thhe bhaisaab (Bhaisaab was pleased to have brought them home),” Dua says. Then he turns to his daughter Mallika and says: “Yaad hai? (Remember?)”

Mallika groans on cue. Vinod’s deadpan humour — casually asking his 1989-born daughter if she remembers an incident from 1960 — is clearly integral to their equation. And though Mallika might find herself on the receiving end here, in her public comedienne avatar she gives as good as she gets. After all, calling people out, puncturing pomposity, and generally being irreverent is a Dua family tradition. “We make fun of everything at home. Hum toh god ko bhi nahi chhodte (Even god is not spared),” says Mallika.

“This uncensored way of addressing people” is something she’s got from her father. The Instagram/Snapchat generation may be more familiar with Mallika’s madly popular dubsmashes, populated by an ever-growing tribe of hilarious characters with pitch-perfect accents — the always-wounded Make-Up Didi; the insufferably sunny Shagun (who calls her fans ‘Shaggers’); the aggressive Komal didi egging on the mournful Khushboo. But those who’ve grown up on Vinod’s astute political analysis are familiar with his trademark dry humour. From Aap ke Liye and Janvani in the 1980s, through Parakh, Pratidin and Vinod Dua Live in the 1990s, right down to the superb Jan Gan Man ki Baat internet videos he currently does for the Hindi edition of a news website, he has always taken on the issues of the day with acerbic wit and a file of facts by his side. If he refers to the PM — with gleeful accuracy — as our ‘Pradhaan Sevak’ (Chief Service Provider), he does not shy away from mocking Congress leaders by name for the cushioned comfort in which they live, or attacking the ineffectualness of the Left. One imagines this is the same tenor in which Vinod told Mallika and her sister stories of “bhagwaan ji” when they were kids: “basically cutting him down to human level.”

A self-declared proud and secular liberal, Vinod may now inhabit a stereotypical Lutyens’ Delhi universe, with an office on Prithviraj Road, membership of the India International Centre, and a predilection for Khan Market. But he grew up as the son of a bank clerk and a homemaker, living in post-Partition refugee colonies in North Delhi such as Hakikat Nagar, Derawal Nagar and Ashok Vihar before moving to Delhi University hostels. His transition from a Hindi-medium education gained in government schools (and a private DAV-affiliated school in Roop Nagar) to a BA in English makes for a great story. As Vinod tells it, “I scored 48.7 per cent marks in Higher Secondary and got admission in BA Pass Course Hindi Medium in Hansraj College, where, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, they don’t teach you how to pronounce the word dichotomous correctly.” He then managed to top an intra-class English test, defeating what he calls “the pehelwans of Sports Quota” who dominated his class. “Immediately I wrote an application to transfer to BA Hons English Medium. The moment [it was accepted], I knew that I had crossed the class barrier: I will make something of my life now.”

But while determined to improve his spoken English (by reading the classics on his syllabus, watching Doordarshan News and practicing on his supportive English-speaking friends) Vinod remained aware that it was spoken Hindi that was his metier. Actively involved in street theatre and in Delhi University student politics, he applied to anchor a youth programme for Doordarshan while still in college in 1974. “When they asked me why I thought I could anchor, I said, your anchors look like jilted lovers,” he guffaws. “They were not used to this sort of speech. Because they were used to Hindiwallahs — ki “Didi main idhar se nikal raha thha, socha aap se milta chaloon” (Didi, I was passing by and thought I’d pay my respects).

Vinod has made a career of defying that culture of obsequiousness. Whether on-screen or off it, he is that rare public figure who still calls a spade a spade: “In the initial phase of news channels, we really experienced freedom. Until three years ago, most channels were editor-driven. Now they are owner-driven. Because we are living in an era of undeclared emergency, most channels have become sarkaari. Now that media freedom is being attacked, there is a larger role for political satire. Earlier we didn’t need it.”

In her ‘uncensoredness’, as well as in the comfortable bilinguality that makes her mimicry so acute, Mallika is a chip off the old block. Unlike the comedy collective AIB, her humour is more zany than political (“The news depresses me, that’s my excuse for ignorance”). But her instincts are sharp, and her bullshit radar sound, especially when it comes to the nuances of relationships, gender and social stereotypes. A Delhi girl used to her car and driver, she is unapologetic about wanting to live the good life — but be unsparingly funny while at it. After majoring in theatre at Franklin and Marshall College in the USA, she took an advertising job in Delhi for three years “because I didn’t want to sit around waiting for roles and anyway theatre doesn’t make money”. 

After her dubsmashes started to go viral, she ditched the job for influencer marketing gigs, and Delhi for Bombay last August. She’s signed up to act in three web series to be made this year. She may be producing content for our most impatient generation yet, but Mallika Dua wants to be the proverbial tortoise who wins the race. “I want to do films also. But the calls I get are ‘Alia Bhatt ki friend hai, thodi chubby si’ and I’m like ‘Don’t even bother’. If Tina Fey can have shows made around her, why can’t we? I’m not in a hurry. I’ll wait.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

14 May 2017

A Mixed-Up Tape

Meri Pyari Bindu’s attempt to merge our nostalgia for old Hindi songs with 1990s adolescence and a Calcutta childhood feels well-intentioned but muddled.

Abhimanyu Roy (urf Abhi urf Bubla) is slain by Bindu Shankar Narayanan the very first time he meets her. Bindu is perched on a pile of old boxes in the ramshackle room on the terrace of the old North Calcutta house her Tamil parents have just moved into. Abhimanyu has been sent to greet the new neighbours with a plate of keema samosas made by his mother. The year is 1983, and they are approximately six years old.

Meri Pyari Bindu traces the Bubla-Bindu relationship over the next two-and-a-half decades, as the six-year-olds grow into Ayushmann Khurana and Parineeti Chopra: he an MBA who effortlessly manages a shift to bestselling writer and she an aspiring singer. The enduring question is the same one asked in a growing number of Hindi film romances over the years, most recently in Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Can the best friend who is obliging sidekick, perpetual partner-in-crime and dependable shoulder-to-cry-on cross over into boyfriend territory?

What is meant to set Meri Pyari Bindu (MPB) apart, I suppose, is the nostalgia trip it launches us on. The centrepiece of that nostalgia is a surefire one for almost any one who likely to walk into a cinema hall to watch MPB: Hindi film songs from the 1950s to the 1980s. From the forever seductive ‘Aaiye meherbaan’, sung by Asha Bhonsle for Madhubala’s nightclub singer in the 1958 Howrah Bridge, to Mithun’s tragic romancing of his guitar in the action-packed ‘Yaad aa raha hai tera pyaar’, sung by Bappi Lahiri in the 1982 Disco Dancer, these songs are the soundtrack to a lot of our lives. It is thus perfectly believable that they should be the soundtrack to Bubla’s and Bindu’s, on the romantic fixture of '90s adolescence: the personally-recorded audio cassette, or mixtape.

As someone of the same generation as the film’s protagonists (who spent some of my childhood in Calcutta), I also enjoyed other components of the film’s nostalgia trip: the Ambassador as a space of romance; dumbcharades, powercuts and fests; postcards and STD booths; email addresses like muqaddarkasikandar1977@hotmail.com. But the present -- the grand old North Calcutta house filled with even older furniture, the perfectly-cast crew of overenthusiastic family members who assemble at a moment’s notice to greet the prodigal nephew – feels a tad too picture-perfect, in exactly the Bollywood way we’ve seen in other recent Bengal-set films, eg. Piku, Barfi, Te3n. And really, must there be two Durga Puja moments bookending the film just because we’re in Bengal?

Still, there are some Calcutta scenes where the dialogue is spot-on: like the father of a prospective arranged match for Bubla who insists that his daughter loves books. “Rabindranath is her favourite, of course. Then Satyajit Ray. Then Edin Blyton [sic],” he says before declaring reassuringly, “You come a close fourth,” and proceeding to read aloud a particularly steamy scene from one of Bubla’s novels. Suprotim Sengupta’s script does the dynamic between Bubla’s Bengali parents with a light touch, punctuated by predictable bouts of irritation but never without affection. “I can’t do natural overacting like you,” says his exasperated father to his mother. The one time the parents are allowed to break into Bangla, it is again his father berating his mother for not treating Bubla like an adult: “Jotheshto bodo hoyechhe, ja bhalo bujhbe tai korbe! (He’s grown-up enough, he’ll do what he thinks is right!)”

But the film wants to transcend Bengaliness. So it whisks us away first to Goa and then to Bombay, mentions Bangalore several times, makes the backdrop a ‘national’ one of Hindi film songs and Bigg Boss, and turns the Bengali-Calcuttan hero into a writer of Hindi sex-horror novels. And yet the sweetly bhadra Bubla, with his sweetly bhadra parents, seems absolutely wrong as a writer of abhadra pulp fiction with titles like Chudail ki Choli. Still, I suppose one should appreciate having a cross-community romance where the linguistic or cultural differences don’t seem to matter to anyone (unlike a Two States or a Vicky Donor).

Bindu is weighed down by greater ambition and a much heavier family narrative than Bubla: her army-man father is alcoholic and sour-faced (and of course he is played by Prakash Belawadi, who is becoming a fixture for those characteristics in Hindi movies, from Madras Cafe to Talwar); she gets along much better with her mother, but doesn’t get enough time with her. Parineeti tries zealously, but mostly there isn’t enough in the script to bring her character’s ambition or angst fully to life – and her repeated engagement-breaking just feels like Shuddh Desi Romance redux. The one time Bindu truly moves us is a superb scene where she calls Bubla from an STD booth. One wishes the rest of their romance had that intensity.

As for Bubla, he may seem the more loving one with Bindu, but his comic girlfriend interlude shows us that he’s quite capable of treating a romantic partner badly. Between that and the fact that he channels his romantic angst into a book (rather than losing his marbles — think Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil or Rockstar), this might be among the more well-rounded tragic heroes we’ve seen in a popular Hindi film. That’s a win.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

8 May 2017

A Political Actor

My Mirror column:

Balraj Sahni would have turned 104 on May 1. What made him such an unusual figure in Indian filmdom?

Measuring a film actor's contribution ordinarily means enumerating his screen appearances: "In a film career spanning 25 years, Balraj Sahni acted in over 125 films." But Balraj Sahni was no ordinary actor. Delivering the 1972 convocation address at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sahni stated the above fact - but far from sounding proud, he expressed regret at the "the special conditions of film making in our country" that had enabled it. 

"In the same period, a contemporary European or American actor would have done thirty or thirty-five. From this you can imagine... A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in have passed me by... the frustration increases when I ask myself how many of these... films had anything significant in them?...Perhaps a few."

There are few people in any field, let alone the Indian film world, who can speak with such astonishing honesty about their careers or their industry. And Sahni's perspicacity went together with grace.

"[A] great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you... even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves," said Sahni in the same address. "It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today." (That last sentence might betray a subtle sarcasm: PC Joshi, respected Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and Sahni's old friend, has written of how CPI(M) students at JNU had threatened to protest because "the university was being disgraced by inviting a filmstar to deliver its convocation address".)

Otherwise, Sahni's speech was exemplary: asking students to think about the great questions of their time, in a style that was lucid but not dumbed down. Reading it forty-five years later, in the week of Sahni's 104th birth anniversary, I am struck not just by the quality of his thought - asking sharp questions about the meaning of freedom, at a national level and an individual one, that no-one seems capable of asking even in 2017 - but by his keenness to reach out to his audience. That desire to communicate may well have been what united the disparate parts of Sahni's life: wanting to make other people think along with him.

After graduation, he may have considered teaching and journalism as a possible route to this. He and wife Damayanti spent 1937-39 in Santiniketan, with Sahni teaching Hindi at the university and absorbing whatever they could from what was then a uniquely fertile artistic environment. He also worked briefly in journalism in Lahore; then, in a year spent at Gandhi's ashram in Wardha, he helped edit a journal called Nai Taleem. When he sailed to war-time Britain, it was to work as a Hindi radio announcer at the BBC from 1940 to 1944. In Britain, the young couple arrived at two decisions - one, to join the Communist Party (it was Damayanti who joined first), and two, to return to India and work as actors.

Soon after their arrival in Bombay, they discovered the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). At the first meeting Sahni attended, K.A. Abbas - then an acquaintance -- dropped a bomb by announcing that the next IPTA play, Zubeidaa, would be directed by Sahni.

The association with IPTA was to last for many years. Writing, directing and acting in plays that drew upon Indian folk forms - jatra in Bengal, tamasha in Maharashtra, nautanki in Uttar Pradesh -- but delivering progressive messages turned out to be something Sahni was very good at. IPTA also produced a film called Dharti ke Lal (1946) - directed by Abbas, with a script based on two Bangla plays by Bijon Bhattacharya about the Bengal famine and a Krishen Chander story. Sahni was an Assistant Director, as well as playing the elder brother who struggles to keep the family land from being sold.

Balraj Sahni in Waqt, as the still-in-love Lala Kedarnath
Sahni soon became a popular actor, appearing in more mainstream films. He never developed anything like a star persona. And yet, the roles he played did perhaps have something in common. In Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, he played a character very different from but sociologically akin to Dharti ke Lal - afarmer who had lost his land to the moneylender and been forced to work as a rickshaw-puller in the city. The alienation of labour from land and the miseries of forced migration have never been more powerfully embodied in an actor's face.

In unlikely milieus like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, he had already offered glimpses of the loving, even companionate, long-term marriage. And then there is Yash Chopra's Waqt, where his romancing of on-screen wife Achala Sachdev as his Zohra-Jabeen remains a fixture for singing uncles.

But in several other films (Amiya Chakrabarty's 1955 Seema, Shahid Latif's 1958 Sone ki Chidiya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960 Anuradha), Sahni played the idealistic man who places a larger social cause above a woman's emotional needs - and his own. His last great role - in MS Sathyu's Garm Hava - also showed us a man torn between the personal and the political. Perhaps that was where his strength lay: in knowing how deeply those two things are intertwined - and being able to convey the hurt when they insisted on pulling apart.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 May 2017.

30 April 2017

Friend and Lover

My Mirror column:

Vinod Khanna’s star persona combined sexy shirtless masculinity for the female gaze with an intense rendition of male friendship.

A male film star, people might assume, is a man whom women like. By that account, all our heroes ought to be sexy. But of course it isn’t so simple. One, because plenty of Hindi film heroes are men whom other men like. In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur II, Tigmanshu Dhulia, playing the mining mafia don Ramadhir Singh, offers a pithy rendition of this gendered history of film heroes: “First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." In more recent years, it’s been men liking Salman and women liking Shah Rukh. And two, because Indian women for many years weren’t quite allowed to confess to liking sexy men. It was more socially legitimate to like the sweet, enthusiastic good boys, or the dramatically tragic ones.

The late Vinod Khanna seems to have managed the rare feat of being both: a man’s man, as well as the sexy creature that women couldn’t stop looking at. Watching Qurbani after Khanna’s death this week, I was struck by how clear Feroze Khan seems to have been about the sexiness quotient of both the film and his friend Vinod. The highest grossing film of 1980, Qurbani is filled with the hotness of Zeenat Aman, and the camera caresses her curves in exactly the way you’d expect, in song after song as nightclub dancer Sheela. It was only two years after Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Khan ensured that he got Aman into a drenched sari: in Qurbani the excuse is an innocent little girl spraying her with a garden hose. In the legendary Hum tumhe chahte hain aise song, the already betrothed Aman looks sadly and sexily away as Khanna’s Amar turns upon her the full blaze of his yearning look.

But director Feroze Khan makes sure that in his film, Khanna is not only the owner of the lustful gaze, but also its object. Qurbani has at least two sequences that have passing women characters giving Khanna’s fit bod the once-over: one is a Parsi lady who casts appreciative glances in his direction even as her husband picks a faux-fight with him (Bawa masculinity is comically derided); the other is a youthful nurse who gives Khanna the most loving spongebath ever (when he’s recovering from grave injuries in the hospital).

Qurbani also homes in on the other crucial aspect of the Vinod Khanna persona: the loyal friend. In Qurbani, having been twice the recipient of Feroze Khan’s life-saving skills, it is Khanna who performs the film’s titular sacrifice – giving up the girl as well as his life. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), where he played second lead and loyal friend to Amitabh Bachchan, it was Khanna’s character who got to save Bachchan’s life early on, in exchange – this might be the necessary way the trope worked – receiving both the love of the heroine (Rakhee) and the longer life.

Friendship and loyalty also had a crucial role in Khanna’s persona in at least two of the star’s important earlier films, both directed by Gulzar – Mere Apne (1971) and Achanak (1973). In those though, it was the reverse side of it –betrayal – that made the character what he was. In Mere Apne, Shyam’s neighbourhood friendship with Chhenu (Shatrughan Sinha) turns sour and their enmity becomes a defining feature of his life. In Achanak, based on a KA Abbas story somewhat inspired by the Nanavati case, Khanna plays a loving husband and army man who murders his best friend in cold blood when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with him. In both these films, the women are disloyal – one is weak and leaves his side out of family pressure, while the other’s actions are minimally explained as those of an incorrigible flirt.

To cynical postmodern eyes, films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar or Qurbani may seem to brim over with an emotional excess most of us think we’re too cool for. Think of Farooq Qaiser’s lyrics to the film’s titular song about friendship as sacrifice, sung by the two heroes, Khan and Khanna – in real life, one a Muslim and one a Hindu, both playing Hindus on screen and yet shown dancing on Eid in the house of a character called Khan Baba:

“Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Aandhi aaye ya toofan
Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Yaari meri kahatee hai
Yaar pe kar de sab qurbaan
Ho qurbani qurbani qurbani
Allah ko pyari hai qurbani

And later, in extending its ode to friendship to
the bond between religions:

“Do haathon ki dekho shaan
Ye allah hai yeh bhagwaan.”

And yet, clearly we imbibed something from those filmi definitions of friendship, something that continues ineffably to shape our understanding of reality. No wonder that the death of Khanna on April 27 was remarked upon, over and over again, as having taken place on the same date as that of his friend Feroze Khan, eight years ago. In life – which is to say in death – Khanna seemed to prove, yet again, that he was the extraordinary friend.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30th April 2017.

27 April 2017

Journalism Blues

Noor’s fluffy portrait of a thoughtless journalist made this columnist think about other films that have dealt with the media’s murkiness.

Sonakshi Sinha's portrait of a journalist in Noor (2017)

Last week, I wrote in these pages about the 1986 film New Delhi Times, in which Shashi Kapoor’s ethical Delhi news editor finds himself pushed to the edge by political pressure and physical threats. Rakesh Sharma’s under-watched film traced the beginnings of a threatening climate for honest journalism. So it felt strangely serendipitous this week to be watching a film which might be said to bring Hindi cinema’s portrait of the crisis in journalism up to date.

Noor Roy Chowdhury, the titular protagonist of this week’s release, Noor, works as a journalist at something called The Buzz. We’re told she wants to be the next Barkha Dutt, but director Sunhil Sippy’s targeted vibe for her is more desi Bridget Jones. Noor trips clumsily on her way into her office, cribs constantly over her maid not getting the geyser fixed, obsesses loudly over her weight (which – this being Bollywood – seems totally under control), and makes louder faux pas as she waits for the hot boyfriend and big story of her dreams.

Our heroine’s blissful obliviousness about most things – journalistic and otherwise – is put to the test when a real scandal falls into her lap, pretty much alongside the much-desired hot boyfriend. Goggle-eyed with excitement at the thought of catching a big fish, Noor pushes hastily forward with the story – only to have to repent at leisure.

It’s interesting that something very similar happens to Shashi Kapoor’s character Vikas Pande in New Delhi Times – although unlike Sonakshi Sinha’s Noor, Vikas is both seasoned and conscientious, and his failing is not thoughtlessness but an inability to see that he is being used – until it is too late. Although thirty years apart, and hugely different in intent and tone, both films focus on journalists so caught up in what they thought was the big picture that they sacrifice the individuals at the centre of their story.

In the same period as New Delhi Times, Jagmohan Mundhra’s Kamla – based on a script by the legendary playwright Vijay Tendulkar – also tells an acerbic tale about a journalist intoxicated on his own power. In Mundhra’s film, Marc Zuber plays a star reporter called Jaisingh Jadhav who decides to ‘buy’ a young woman from a tribal area in Madhya Pradesh and bring her back to Delhi. His reason, he says, is “Desh ka aam aadmi jo bhayaanak nashe mein jee raha hai, usse jhatka deke jagaana hai.” Which is all very well. But right from letting Kamla believe that he’s ‘bought’ her, to cruelly forcing her to wear her ragged saree to a press conference that ends up as a sexist free-for-all, Jadhav’s insensitivity to the bewildered, childlike Kamla belies all his high-minded statements. If it is the tragic state of humanity he is out to expose, one begins to feel, he should perhaps have started with himself.

Kamla’s depiction of Delhi’s journalistic world is bleak. The film’s Press Club scenes have journalists either sitting around playing cards, or talking trash. Once a female journalist is seen retouching her lipstick before her supposed meeting with a minister – who is ‘Suresh Darling’ to her. Later, in the drunken, orgy-esque ‘press conference’ (which contains no sex but the pervasive suggestion of it being on people’s minds), far from offering the poor tribal woman a buffer against a horde of camera-wielding men, the same woman emerges as the flag-bearer of the press’s urban middle class hypocrisy, making crude remarks about Kamla’s adivasi way of wearing her sari as her ease with ‘displaying her body’. 

Meanwhile, Jadhav’s penchant for sensational exposes is juxtaposed with the old-school journalism of his wife’s uncle Kakasahab (AK Hangal), who makes a caustic remark that rings truer now that it probably did then: “Haan bhai, nowadays a man is as successful as the number of phone calls he receives”. Later he makes the point that journalism cannot only be about showing us ‘how’ and ‘what’ is happening – it must also try to say ‘why’.

Cinematic censure against journalism, of course, reached its peak in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2005 hit drama Page 3, in which Konkona Sen Sharma’s Madhavi tries her best to move from covering high society to exposing its grimmest underbelly – which turns out to be child prostitution: it was a Madhur Bhandarkar film, after all. Naturally, her big story is nipped in the bud. Over a decade later, Sonakshi Sinha in Noor is struggling to make a similar leap, and after a difficult interlude that is actually much more difficult for her informant than herself, she triumphs – with the aid of social media.

Page 3
, Kamla and New Delhi Times may feel dated, but in their clear-eyed pessimism, they seem much more in tune with the journalistic present than Noor is.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Apr 2017.

26 April 2017

New Testament

A short profile of the madly popular romance writer Nikita Singh, for Elle.

An advertisement for a Nikita Singh book tour, in the supplement Bhubaneshwar Buzz
Bestselling author Nikita Singh’s millennial-friendly fiction is easy, glossy and still profoundly truthful.

Nikita Singh seems deceptively like any other smart, with-it 25-year-old. She’s fresh out of an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School in New York, USA, works as a fashion stylist and spends a fair bit of time on the Internet: on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat— and a little grudgingly, even Facebook. But she’s also the bestselling author of nine books.

“Someone asked me, how do you break it to people you meet in New York? I said I don’t. They’ll add me on Facebook and then be like, ‘Oh, you have a book?’” laughs Singh. Her relatively anonymous Manhattan life is a world away from Delhi, where, on a recent visit, she “wore a cap all of the first day, but still got recognised twice”.

Born in Patna and raised in Indore, Singh grew up in a family of book enthusiasts. Her mum read Jhumpa Lahiri and Chandrakanta, her brother “comics and superhero stuff”, and she herself Roald Dahl and JK Rowling, when she wasn’t raiding her dad’s shelf for thrillers and romances. She was pursuing a Bachelor’s in pharmacy and had never written anything when a “really bad book” someone gave her made her think she could do better. Her first novel, Love@Facebook (Pustak Mahal, April 2011), about a 19-year-old who falls in love with a VJ she meets on the social networking site, came out when Singh was 19. “I had nothing to lose, nobody to disappoint. It did well, so I wrote a sequel: Accidentally In Love (Grapevine, September 2011). By the time I graduated, I had written three books.”

Her latest, Every Time It Rains (Harper Collins, February 2017), is also a sequel, starring Maahi and Laila, the Delhi-based best friends, who set up their own bakery in Like A Love Song (Harper Collins, March 2016). With app-developing start-ups and cupcakes, Tinder dates and Shahpur Jat cafés, Singh consciously serves up the romantic possibilities of an aspirational post-liberalisation milieu.

But her bright and shiny protagonists don’t always get bright and shiny lives: she’s had characters deal with HIV, domestic violence and marital rape. Being in the commercial space hasn’t stopped the New York-based author from delivering believable relationship trauma and some solid advice for her female readers. “It comes naturally to me,” Singh says. “I am not about chasing people. You have to know your own value first. Women need to know that.”

Published in Elle India, April 2017.