S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.

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One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories — we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella’s plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I’m free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I’m going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj’s career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he’s stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: “he’d built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid” (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel’s end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale’s narrative arc, but to rebel against it — to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast’s domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that — damn you, Theraflu — but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj’s seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it’s hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large — but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There’s a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds — as RNFF put it there’s a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: “[Her mother said,] ‘This is no fairy tale.’ Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons …? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered” (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella’s arc, like Beauty’s, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince — but Cinderella’s arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you’re the same person when you’re dressed up as when you’re in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It’s an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there’s our heroine’s nickname. “Rocky” is an American error: “The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly” (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she’s made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry’s expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I’m imagining all this happening in a montage set to “Eye of the Tiger,” or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj’s house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine’s mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood’s hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment — but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj’s, of course — but also his younger brother’s.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother’s departure from the industry. There’s a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven’t (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf’s bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother’s phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina’s oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood’s conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol — at least not where anyone can see you. It’s a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu’s growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally — eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It’s a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it’s also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am — they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression — his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else’s narrative — not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf’s burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I’ve included a few links to this effect in the extras — just because I don’t know what to say doesn’t mean there aren’t other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is “Dhoom Taana,” a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There’s an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

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On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood’s mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood’s use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people — which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

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Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

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2 thoughts on “S is for Suleikha Snyder

  1. I like bullet points too!
    This one also looks amazing. I love re-imagined fairy tales, especially in romance settings. I’ll go look this one up now.

    Also, feel better soon. 🙁

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