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Passion Pulls -December 11, 2009

“I am an entertainer and I love caring for people. It is in


my DNA. I love making people laugh and nothing gives
me more pleasure than that”
- Chetan Bhagat in conversation with R. Sridhar
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

©IDEAS-RS. 2009
All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be copied or reproduced in
part or full in any form, without prior written permission from R. Sridhar,
Innovation Coach, IDEAS-RS.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

Chetan Bhagat is the author of four blockbuster novels, Five Point Someone
(2004), One Night @ the Call Center (2005) and The 3 Mistakes of life (2008)
and 2 States (2009) all the four books have remained bestsellers since their release
and three have inspired major Bollywood films. The New York Times called Chetan
the ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.’ Seen more as a
youth icon than just an author, this IIT D/ IIMA graduate is making India read
like never before.

Chetan also writes op-ed columns for leading English and Hindi newspapers,
focusing on youth and national development based issues. Many of the issues
raised by Chetan’s columns have been discussed in Parliament and among the top
leadership of the country.

Chetan quit his international investment banking career in 2009, to devote his
entire time to writing and make change happen in the country. He lives in Mumbai
with his wife Anusha, an ex-classmate from IIMA and his twin boys Shyam and
Ishaan.

This interview presents Chetan Bhagat, the thinker, the creative writer, an Indian
who is concerned about the youth of our country and their future. The views he ex-
presses come with candour, clarity and conviction.

We with hope with this interview you get to know Chetan the person behind the
youth icon.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: Is there a philosopher hiding inside the Chetan Bhagat we know ?


I find that even in your books there are instances where you have some experience
with a guru or a philosopher. In your blog, you have written about your meeting with
His Holiness Radhanath Swami of ISKON.
Chetan Bhagat: I would say I am more a philosophy The answer lies
student than a philosopher. I guess after writing some where in
four books and observing humanity and its con- spirituality and
flicts for several years, I have tried to see if there is some where in
a unified approach to life’s problems. It starts with worldly wisdom
the question – what does it all mean, which I guess and I am still
is the basic question philosophy tries to answer. The seeking it.
answer lies somewhere in spirituality and some-
where in worldly wisdom and I am still seeking it.

R.Sridhar: I have read your speeches from your site.


Are these extempore speeches ? Or prepared ones ?
Chetan Bhagat: The ones on the site are prepared
speeches, though I give many extempore ones as
well. When I am called to a more prestigious or a
formal venue, I like to be prepared. When I am
with my fans or readers, I like to be spontaneous
with a basic structure

R.Sridhar: How did the people at the HT leadership


summit people take your 3 point advice ?
Chetan Bhagat: The speech was very well received. I remember Lord Billimoria, who
also was a speaker and is an MP in the UK, wrote to me asking for the transcript and
quoted it in parliament there. Many others invited me to their own organizations. I
think it sort of launched a mini speaking career for me and positioned me as some-
one who can talk about national issues just as well as writing romantic stories.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: What are the issues from your book that


have been raised in the parliament ? I have no interest
Chetan Bhagat: Mainly on the education in having the title
system. My short story in HT Brunch and of an MP or a
column on higher education has been exten- Minister,unless I am
sively discussed as well as it was backed by a lot
empowered to
of data. Also, my column on defence has led to
change things.
some debate, and senior Army officials have
invited me to their policy panel discussions.

R.Sridhar: Would you consider joining politics? You


have a strong point of view and you are building support
for yourself.
Chetan Bhagat: I’d never rule politics out but
no point going there without a sizable support
base or a position in which I can make change
happen. I have no interest in having the title
of an MP or a Minister, unless I am empow-
ered to change things. If joining politics means
I have to please seniors and thus accept the
system to climb up, I don’t think I’d care much of this is beyond my control so it
depends on what opportunities may arise in the future.

R.Sridhar: You have been talking about the importance of promoting the English language
across all classes. You think it is fundamental. Would you consider starting a movement for
this? Or an innovative company to teach English that can reach many people?
Chetan Bhagat: I am trying to convince the people who matter the most in this
people who set our school curriculum - the NCERTs and SCERTs. I am also doing
as many columns on this issue as possible, to change the people’s thinking (See my
article in Times of India December 06, 2009 issue). There are many companies that
are doing such projects and they have approached me after my speeches, and I will
try to give them a lift using my popularity.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: You have said somewhere that your books are used in rural India to teach
people English.Would you actively consider Learn English in 30 days kind of books but
as interesting fiction? May be collaborate with British Council?
Chetan Bhagat: I might not write textbooks myself,
but can help in designing them. My own books, I feel,
can be good text books as students actually enjoy read-
If Catcher in the Rye
ing them and get familiar with English. The profani-
can be a text book
ties will have to be removed though! The NCERTs
in the US, why not
have shown interest. If Catcher in the Rye can be a text Five Point Someone
book in the US, why not Five Point Someone in India?. in India?
R.Sridhar: Have you considered joining hands with
something like Teach India, to promote this cause?
Chetan Bhagat: Yes, in fact I am working with them
to promote their cause and we are planning events.

R.Sridhar: Have you considered joining hands with


something like Teach India, to promote this cause?
Chetan Bhagat: Yes, in fact I am working with them
to promote their cause and we are planning events.

R.Sridhar: I notice t hat these days your writings, speech-


es and blogs are full of interesting insights and quotable
quotes. Here is one I liked:“Fame and success, while
sought after, have the power to disorient you and
cloud your judgment.” Do you speak like this or such ideas spring forth when you write?

Chetan Bhagat: This one just came quite spontaneously I have to say. I think
these ideas come out more when I write, and that is my gift. Sometimes I re-
read what I wrote and I am like – wow, I wrote that? That’s kind of cool.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: When you were in school, college, IIT & IIM did you think of yourself as
a creative person? Did others think so?

Chetan Bhagat: I did think of myself as a creative person, though I cannot say if oth-
ers felt the same. I wasn’t creative in the traditional visible stuff in college – like mu-
sic, art or dance. In fact, I am quite terrible at it. My creativity works best when com-
bined with something practical and I had only so many opportunities to show that.
I did however write articles and plays. Though I
wouldn’t say I was this hotbed of raw talent waiting Ideas just come
to explode! to me. I guess my
own life experi-
R.Sridhar: I went through your website - very well put to- ences have a big
gether. Would you say you are marketing savvy? role to play in it.
Chetan Bhagat: I don’t think having a decent website
alone makes you marketing savvy. In today’s world, and
especially with the young generation, having a proper
website is a basic requirement. However, it won’t attract
people by itself so it only helps so much in marketing.
I think I am ok at marketing but I am severely con-
strained by the budgets of my medium, which is a
book. You’ll never see a Chetan Bhagat ad. Books
have limited distribution channels in India. The pricing is locked since the last
six years. Hence, I have little to play with. And yet, young people know about me and
read me. It’s a bit of a miracle.

R.Sridhar: I am keen to understand how your creative process works. Where does it start?
How do you develop the plot? How do you give it flesh & blood? How do you build the sce-
narios, the characters, the dialogues? Do you discuss your ideas with any one?

Chetan Bhagat: Ideas just come to me. I guess my own life experiences have a big
role to play in it. However, not every idea is good enough to carry through to a
whole book. An idea has to knock on my head a hundred times to make me realize,
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

yes, this is something I really want to do. After that I focus on it and try to let it ex-
pand in my mind. If I like where it is going, I let it unravel. Once I have some idea, I
start to write. The scenarios and dialogues just come on their own – unconscious to
my mind. I am still baffled by how it happens, even though have done four books.

R.Sridhar: Can you elaborate a bit more here? What ex-


actly happens? How do ideas come to you? When? What It is a bit like ask-
triggers it? Can you give a few examples? This is the mys- ing Rahman how
terious creative bit and you can help readers get a bit of he gets his tunes -
insight here.
not an easy one to
Chetan Bhagat: It is a bit like asking Rahman how articulate.
he gets his tunes - not an easy one to articulate. Let
me try. I think some of us think a lot - the neurotic
mind so as to say. I have one, and some of those
thoughts directly hit my emotional centres, and
those become more relevant than the others. For
instance I may think I need new socks, but that
won’t affect me emotionally. At the same time, I
may get a thought how difficult it must be for stu-
dents who need 95% to get into college. And that
hurts somewhere. I try to build on that, imagine
how it really would be and a world develops. And I
guess that imagination is the gift. Hope that helps.

R.Sridhar: Do you read books on creativity, writing etc ?


Does that help ?

Chetan Bhagat: Sometimes. I think they can help as it will help you iden-
tify your thought patterns so you can optimize your creativity. Also, we
are brought up in a system that kills creativity, so these books may help
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

unleash it. However, something has to be there within you first place.

R.Sridhar: Your foray into Bollywood was an accident or is it by design?


Chetan Bhagat: I definitely wanted to be part of Bollywood, but a lot has happened
also because Bollywood came to me. I’m one of the fortunate ones who got a lateral
entry and toehold in Bollywood. It’s a great medium to connect with my audience,
but I still have a lot to prove in it. Let’s see what is in store for me in the dream factory.

R.Sridhar: You are a good looking man. Would you consider acting in a movie if of-
fered a decent role? Would you insist on being the hero?
Chetan Bhagat: Thanks for the compliment, though people who’d vouch for my
good looks are far fewer in number than people who’d like to read me. I don’t have
a big desire to act, but it could be fun – to do a Woody Allen type thing. I am a
bit old for romantic leads though. I also feel being a writer is far more satisfying.
I can kill the character on page 25 if I want. An actor has to follow instructions.

R.Sridhar: Do you write the screenplay and dialogues too


for movies being made based on your book?
Being a writer
Chetan Bhagat: I did for Hello, though a lot of
modifications were made to what I gave the makers.
is far more sat-
I prefer not to now, though I like to be involved in isfying. I can kill
reviewing the drafts etc. I prefer to do a new sto- the character on
ry as it is more fun than rehashing what you think
page 25 if I
you have done in the best way possible anyway.
want. An actor
R.Sridhar: In your last book I got the feeling that you
has to follow
were writing for a movie. Is that correct? (Most situations
were so vivid I could see the story.) instrutions.
Chetan Bhagat: I don’t think so, though my stories
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

lend themselves to good screenplays. However, a book has to have a lot more insight
than a fun movie. The ethos of 2 states, the kind of emotions it captures as well as the
observations on the two cultures, is far beyond what has been seen or can be shown in
a movie. I like to be entertaining, and movies entertain. That’s the commonality. How-
ever, I wish I could get away by writing a screenplay and turning it into a bestseller. For
the record, a screenplay is twenty thousand words, and 2 states is eighty thousand words.
R.Sridhar: There is a wry sense of humour I notice. Just
a dash. Is it your natural style or you cultivated it?
It is my natural
style, and I love
Chetan Bhagat: It is my natural style, and I love sar-
sarcasm. Though
casm. Though India is still developing a taste for that
India is still devel-
kind of humour I think.
oping a taste for
R.Sridhar: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? What
that kind of
do you do then? What works for you?
humour I think.
Chetan Bhagat: I do. I have learnt to live with it and
not get anxious as that only makes it worse. Also, I
have my columns and other events so I keep myself
busy until inspiration strikes again.
R.Sridhar: You worked in what is normally considered a
‘straight-jacketed-industry’. Did you feel stifled then?

Chetan Bhagat: I am firmly anti-establishment in the literary world, though Indian


publishing has become more inclusive in recent years. I don’t limit myself to publish-
ing, and the movies, speeches and the twittering is all part of the other ways to commu-
nicate ideas across to my audience. That makes me less dependent on publishing and
thus avoid me feeling stifled.

R.Sridhar: What kind of a manager did you make? As a creative person how did you
manage interminable meetings, people issues, office politics etc?
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

Chetan Bhagat: Not a very good one, I guess! I am a very easygoing person and
people found me fun to work with. I believe people work best when internal-
ly driven and I never used to put deadline pressure or use fear as a motivator. It
had its pros and cons. I hate corporate meetings that have no point, and the one
up-manship that happens. 2 States shows that frustration in Krish’s character.

R.Sridhar: What inspires you? And who inspires you? Why?


Chetan Bhagat: I think the partially deluded belief that I can change the way my coun-
try thinks inspires me now. I’ve seen the fame, success, hi flying job, perks and more.
More of the same will have lower marginal utility for me. But the power to shape young
minds is enough to make me want to do that next column or write the book. I also am
worried because if I set myself up against very high expectations, I am only going to be
disappointed. It is one thing to entertain people, quite another to change their value
system and thought processes. But fact remains, Indians must change their thinking
if they want to be a modern progressive nation, and I want to keep trying to do that.

R.Sridhar: What kind of stuff do you read? Watch? Lis-


ten to? What helps you unwind? Relax?
Indians must
Chetan Bhagat: Everything and anything – provided
it has something new to say. It could be a fresh ro- change their think-
mantic comedy, or it could be the Black Swan book ing if they want to
– what is original or originally presented is fun for
me. I like movies, traveling, spending time with kids be a modern pro-
and they all help me relax. gressive nation, and
R.Sridhar: From your writings one could make out you
I want to keep try-
are very close to your family. Do you sometimes find such ing to do that.
affection a burden and a distraction? How do you handle
unexpected interruptions from family?
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

Family is a big positive, but it also brings responsibilities. I couldn’t leave my job
earlier, as the hurdle rate for security was higher with the family. Similarly, there are
demands on my time as well. However, the time away from my work keeps me sane.

R.Sridhar: Do you have a preferred time to write, a preferred location? Etc.


Chetan Bhagat: I now write when my kids go to school. Though I’m lucky I can
write almost anywhere. I have written paragraphs in local trains of Mumbai.

R.Sridhar: Are you superstitious? Like Sachin Tendulkar looks at the Sun, before taking
the crease, do you do anything before starting to write?
Chetan Bhagat: I don’t think so. I do try to ask myself if I am in a good mood. For
if I am not, the writing will be terrible. I do pray, but not before I start to write.

R.Sridhar: There is a view that you are overdoing this national integration bit through
interstate-marriages. There is even an opinion that it
When I got mar-
is all a part of a publicity gimmick for your book.
ried, a hundred
How do you react to such criticisms? Punjabis came and
met a hundred
Chetan Bhagat: For an evolved, uber-educated urban
Tamilians, which
audience, some of my overdoing the national inte-
would have never
gration bit is surely over the top. However, my books
happened other-
are read in the interiors as well where I felt they’d wise. Do this a mil-
like things spelt out a bit more. It does take away the lion times, a num-
subtlety, I admit. However, in the book it is also re- ber not so big for
ferred to as a joke, so if you don’t buy it, laugh it off. India; you have sig-
Personally, I do believe inter-state marriages are the nificantly greater
only way the country will be ultimately united. When understanding be-
I got married, a hundred Punjabis came and met a tween cultures.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

hundred Tamilians, which would have never


happened otherwise. Do this a million times, English speakers
a number not so big for India; you have signifi- are opinion
cantly greater understanding between cultures. leaders, and their
Is this still over the top? Cynicism has no answer, and behaviours do
I cannot answer people who say – nothing will ever percolate down.
change in India. That’s not an argument, that’s an at-
titude, and that’s what I am here to change over time.

R.Sridhar: The million inter-state marriages is an impres-


sive number. If you truly believe in this, do you think it
is enough to be a writer of English fiction? How can you
accelerate acceptance for this idea? This is a huge social
marketing challenge. What are your plans for this?
Chetan Bhagat: English is reaching more and more people. Translations of my books
are available, and a movie adaptation will expand the audience. Also the English speak-
ers are opinion leaders, and their behaviors do percolate down.

R.Sridhar: What is your fight with elitists? Eliticism? Is it because people say you write
for the front benches and not for a literary audience?
Chetan Bhagat: The fact that some people now believe that there is a front bench in
English readers shows you how deep rooted elitism is in our country. My books are
read in virtually all top colleges by the smartest kids of the country, and still the elitists
find an axe to grind. I’d have left them alone but they don’t know how terrible elit-
ism is for the country. If a bulk of Indians does not see progress, simple math will tell
you that India, as a whole will not progress. By the way, the front row is where all the
action is anyway!

R.Sridhar: What has been your high point in your career as a writer?
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

Chetan Bhagat: The truly personal and emotional mails, hundreds of which arrive in
my inbox everyday. I have touched people and that’s a very special feeling.

R.Sridhar: Who has been worst critic so far? Don’t give me a cliché like ‘my wife, my
mother-in-law’ etc.?
Chetan Bhagat: Well, I have so many critics; I do not want to play favourites. I
remember Times of India writing a half page story ‘ Time to hang-up, Mr. Bhagat? ’ as a
downright, nasty review to One Night @ the Call Center when it released. It was so bad
that my mother called to check if I was ok. Time passed. Strangely, TOI only approached
me a few years later to write lead editorials for them. All’s well that ends well I guess.

R.Sridhar: What has writing done for you? What about


Well, I have so
your views on life has it confirmed for you? What new angles
many critics; I do
has it given you? What complete surprises has it thrown up?
not want to play
Chetan Bhagat: Writing has quite simply, changed favourites.
my life. I have a different career, different set of
values and goals, and a new identity. It has en-
abled me to understand my country, else I would
have spent my life in an intellectual/ upper mid-
dle class bubble. The biggest surprise is it has giv-
en me millions of fans who see me as a role model.

R.Sridhar: What have you learnt about yourself


in the process?
Chetan Bhagat: That I am an entertainer and I love
caring for people. It is in my DNA. I love making people
laugh and nothing gives me more pleasure than that.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: You have been in the corporate world. You are


a writer. You are now close to film industry – considered I wish Indians
a highly creative industry. There is a view that companies
would just start
should ‘Democratise Innovation’ to meet the challenges of
reading more
the new economy. Is it possible? Desirable?
and do not think
Chetan Bhagat: Innovation is something India
so much about
doesn’t understand and needs to very badly. We
paying for a
don’t have capital to compete with the developed
book, especially
world – we can only do it with innovation. Howev-
er, we look down on talent (see my column ‘where’s
when they hap-
my Nobel prize’ on my site for my views on this)
pily pay for over-
priced coffee.
R.Sridhar: What have been some of your frustrations as
a writer? What bugs you about the writing business?

Chetan Bhagat: Piracy, elitism, excessive personal criticism, closed mindedness of the
people in the business is all upsetting to me. I wish Indians would just start reading
more and do not think so much about paying for a book, especially when they happily
pay for overpriced coffee.

R.Sridhar: Will you ever write a story about senior citizens? Or will you only address
the young?
Chetan Bhagat: I could, but I don’t have sufficient insight into senior citizens. Plus,
senior citizens can be quite skeptical about a young person writing for them. It will be
tough.

R.Sridhar: I believe the writer for Chak De got the words from a newspaper article. Has
anything like that happened to you? (Something completely unconnected that ignites
your imagination). your imagination).
Chetan Bhagat: I think the people I meet during my talks do inspire me. I see a
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

really driven guy in Hisar, and I feel what would his story be like? Newspaper stories

R.Sridhar: Can we try an example of you might develop


an idea into a plot. Newspaper reports that the 60 year A love story, for
old Chairman of a well-reputed large group of companies example, has to
collapsed in a 5 star hotel room, when he was with the 22 have boy and
year old young receptionist of one of his companies. How girl. So in such
will you take this forward as an imaginative creative writer. situations, a new
perspective may
Chetan Bhagat: Wow, that’s a tough one. make it fresh.
I’d probably not go for the obvious – that there was
an illicit affair going on. I’d also be more interested
in the point of view of the receptionist, as the Chair-
man side is done enough. I would go to the recep-
tionist’s middle class home, where she lives in a very
different manner from how she is in the five star
hotel. She’d come home and tell her mother over a
simple dinner that she might have killed her father.
So, sounds like a story you’d like to know?

R.Sridhar: This is great. I am reminded of Robert McGee, a Hollywood writer who said,
“Always give the audience what they want, but never in a manner have they expected.”
Your first starting point is not to do the obvious. I see the girl becomes the daughter and
the plot thickens because we start wondering what must have happened before. Is this
how you worked on plots for all your books?

Chetan Bhagat: No, not always. Ideally, I would not like to start with a clichéd setup.
But sometimes it is not avoidable. A love story, for example, has to have boy and girl.
So in such situations, a new perspective may make it fresh.
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R.Sridhar: One last question. What will be your advice to wannabe writers? What
worked for you as a new writer? Are there some tips you can give them? Or they have to
figure things out themselves?
Chetan Bhagat: They have to write and write and You have to be true
write. And they have to edit and edit and edit. And to yourself as you
come up with something that is an engaging read. cannot lie for 300
The rest - achieving fame, reward, praise is all much,
pages nonstop!
much later. And you have to be true to yourself as
you cannot lie for 300pages nonstop!
Passion Pulls - December 11, 2009

R. Sridhar
Innovation Coach
IDEAS-RS
57 Bharat Tirtha CHS
Sion Trombay Road,
Chembur,
Mumbai 400 071

Tel: +91 22 25209313


M: +91 9820183752

Email: vijisri@ideasrs.com
Website: www.ideasrs.com