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âFor me, being cool is being original, genuine and, most of all, compassionate,â he says. âIt doesnât mean owning the coolest gadgets, or being cool in appearance.â
Itâs easy to see why he is such a hit with young people â he talks to them in their language, touching on topics close to their hearts.
One of the fastest-selling authors â the Guardian called him the âpaperback king of Indiaâ â in 2010 Chetan was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 people âwho most affect our worldâ. Thatâs not all. The New York Times crowned him âthe biggest-selling English-language novelist in Indiaâs historyââ.
Rupa and Co, the publisher that has brought out all of Bhagatâs novels since 2004, said over one million copies of Five Point Someone were sold since its release in 2004. In 2011, his novel Revolution 2020 sold 600,000 copies, and Rupa ran out of stock a day after release.
Chetan made his mark in Bollywood with the phenomenal success of the 2009 film 3 Idiots. Loosely based on his book Five Point Someone, the film starring Bollywood icons Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor among others, became one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time in India while also grabbingâ¨16 International Indian Film Academy awards, 10 Star Screen awards and six Filmfare awards.
The appeal of films over books
Despite his fame, Chetan appears a little dazed by all the attention he is receiving here. âI didnât expect this in the UAE,â he murmurs.â¨âI didnât know there were so many people here who knew me.ââ
But his secret smile reveals this could be part of his game plan. Though Chetan wonât comment on this, it appears these exercises are his way of broadening his audience base as well as giving back to society. That is the reason why Chetan is now concentrating on writing for Bollywood. âMy books will only be read by the educated. Films, on the other hand, cater to the vast majority,â he says. âIâm experimenting to see how I can extend my reach through films. If I can put the values I spoke about with these children into a film that reaches millions, think of the impact.â
His first attempt at writing a film that is not based on one of his books, the Salman Khan-starring Kick, is likely to broaden his base beyond anything literature has done for him. But there are those who deny his books the status of âgood literatureâ. Though his stories may be engaging, reviewers have sometimes called his writing âcrassâ.
Celebrated writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan voiced the feelings of her contemporaries when she said, âHis significance has less to do with what or how he writes than the fact that an audience exists for his kind of writing.â
Chetan says, âOh yes, it hurt initially. I have now learnt to take it much better. Of course,â¨the success helped, but inside I changed as a person too.â
So what is it about his books â six so far over a span of nine years â that gives him this superstar status thatâs usually reserved for Bollywood stars? âI donât really know,â he says disarmingly. âThe youth may not see me as the best author, but theyâll say âheâs my authorâ. They feel a connection, probably because they see I am an ordinary person, a boy next door. They donât feel much of a gap between them as readers, and me as the author. âUsually an author who writes in English is quite intimidating for a kid in India, but Iâve had 10-year-olds standing up and asking me questions. I suppose they feel I understand them. They are quite relaxed and not intimidated by me or my writing.â
He, in turn, is not intimidated by his reviewers and critics anymore. âIâve come to the stage where I feel that if they like my work, great; if they donât, thatâs OK. How does it matter when you reach millions of people?
âI believe that, at the end of the day, my books are interesting for some, and notâ¨for others.â
Around the time he wrote his third novel,â¨The Three Mistakes of My Life, Chetan began to feel he knew the pulse of the people. âWhen the book came out I had a chance to meet a top psychiatrist in Delhi during an event,â heâ¨says. âAt that time although I was a popular writer, I was being beaten down mercilesslyâ¨by critics.
âThe psychiatrist gave me a good piece of advice. He told me, âThereâs something else going on here. You need to understand the power you have over the young generation. They are being influenced by you, they are latching themselves on to something in your books. You must take that seriously. Letâ¨others say whatever they want to. They donât know the power you have. Please focus onâ¨it properlyâ. Thatâs when I decided to quit my job as a banker to concentrate on writing. So, here I am writing syndicated columns and holding talks all over the country, and even abroad.â
Chetan says since that day heâs never bothered about the criticism that he still â¨keeps receiving fairly regularly.
âUntil then everybody had classified my writing as pulp, something like Mills & Boon. But I donât think so. If it was, why is it still being talked about years later? Itâs something more; though itâs difficult to put a finger on what that is. There is a connect; otherwise why is a 10-year-old girl in Dubai asking me a question about it?â
A long and winding path to success
Chetan began inventing stories early.â¨âI used to make up stories even as a kid,â¨because then television was still in its infancy,â he says. âThere were not many movies weâd get to watch, so weâd recite stories of movies to each other. I even wrote a play at the age of eight at a camp I went to for students at the Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan in New Delhi. I learnt the art of storytelling from there.â
As he grew up, storytelling faded into the background. He picked up culinary skills from his mother, and wanted to be a chef. âI really enjoyed cooking, I still do, though I donât get the time now,â he says. âI have the knack and I would have been a good chef, but my father, an army officer, didnât encourage me. Initially there was even some pressure on me to join the army, but I guess they realised that I was just not cut out for it. I was more of a daydreamer than a person who loves to do physical stuff.â
But he was a daredevil in his own way, climbing up lamposts to retrieve kites stuck at the top, shimmying up roofs to pick up cricket balls hit there… âYeah, but I was not the disciplined kind of daredevil required for the armed forces!â he grins. âThe problem is that I am too much of a rebel while the army requires conformity. I thrive on change, and would have been a total misfit in such an atmosphere.â
But then he proved a conformist when it came to college. He chose to study mechanical engineering at one of Indiaâs premium schools, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, and later acquired an MBA from the Indiaâs premier management school, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad.
It was while in college that he realised it is better to be âover-confidentâ than to be a wallflower. âSeeing how the shy guys were being pushed over by the brash ones, I learnt that itâs good to be confident, even over-confident because those are the people who tend to do better in life than those who lackâ¨in confidence.â
After his MBA he joined the banking sector and ended up working for 11 years in the industry, the last few with Deutsche Bankâ¨in Hong Kong. He didnât enjoy it, thoughâ¨he does point out the global experience he gained and the fact that it earned him a comfortable living.
It was at this time that he first began to dabble in writing. Three of his books â all of which were hugely popular â were written while he was an investment banker.
From there to becoming youth icon was accidental. âPeople used to invite me to give talks at small local functions,â he says, explaining this was because he was an achiever in that he had been to IIT and IIM â both prestigious institutions in India. âI gave a speech titled âSparksâ at a college in India, and when I put the text of it on my blog it went viral. Soon, I started getting lots of invitations, and now itâs become a part of my life.â
While it has got him the youth icon tag, Chetan doesnât claim that itâs always his way of giving back to society. âI canât claim that, because I do charge as a professional speaker for corporate audiences,â he says candidly. âBut with audiences such as this at government festivals where I talk to children, I donât.â
Chetan considers himself different from other motivational speakers. âThe idea is to give something to students to think about,â he says. âI keep my talks light, personal and honest. Mothers sometimes ask me to tell their children not to do drugs, because they listen to me. Strange! But I have to do that.â
But perhaps thatâs why heâs â¨a youth icon? âYeah, but itâs bizarre,â â¨he exclaims. âAll Iâve done is write a few stories. Thereâs nothing to it. Dan Brown also writes popular stories, but I donât think mothers would ask him to advise their children.â
He ponders this and â¨decides itâs probably âbecause they see me as someone on â¨the same wavelength as their kids. It happens to me everywhere, old people and young, kids and their parents ask me for advice.â
He may claim to be unconventional and something of a rebel, but Chetan tends â¨to play it safe where children are concerned. âWould you advise everybody to follow their heart when â¨it comes to choosing their professions?â asks the moderator at his talk at the Sharjah Childrenâs Reading Festival. âIâd say secure your future first and then follow your heart,â came the reply.
âI see my role as very responsible,â explains Chetan later. âI wouldnât want any child hurt, which is quite likely when you follow your dreams. Thatâs probably why I would not tellâ¨a kid to just follow their heart.â
Makes perfect sense. Thatâs perhaps why heâs not just a youth icon, but loved by parents too.