All that glitters in not gold. The old adage succinctly sums up the world of Mumbai show biz, graphically depicted in Gajra Kottary’s Once Upon Star. A racy account of the tribulations faced by a top film family, it lays bare some star secrets and scandals while thinly disguising identities. This is titillating content, especially for movie buffs, but, mercifully, never deteriorates into smut, unlike some books in this genre. On the contrary, the writer consciously avoids detailing sexual peccadilloes, the staple of pulp fiction, in which no carnal encounter is too lurid. Instead, the narrative is laced with robust morality, evoking the innocent charm of English romances of the last century. Those bored with the surfeit of porn in popular literature, foisted on to a thin storyline, will certainly enjoy this book for its revealing insights into high life, verging on the low.
The tale veers between Simran, the central protagonist and former heroine, her super star husband Raj Mehra, their kin and the personalities who impinge on their lives. As a successful script writer for television and cinema, having co-written Balika Vadhu, the award-winning TV serial, and a novelist, Kottary has the knack of getting under the skin of her dramatis personae. They come alive, flesh and blood characters, driven by motives and emotions that are only too human. Raj, the reigning male icon, is involved in a passionate affair with Sia, the reigning female icon, who has no compunctions about wrecking his marriage. The ensuing turbulence is sensitively depicted, as it affects adults and children in different ways.
The joint family, into which Simran has married, displays varied reactions to the scandal that bursts upon it. These are no cardboard cutouts, divested of feelings. The author deftly portrays Raj’s parents, yoked to old-fashioned mores; his sister Ashima, who chooses to break away from convention; his brother Karan, a lesser cine star; the latter’s wife Kavita, a career woman; and Sia, the femme fatale, who, however, is not demonised. She comes across as a child-woman, struggling to find an anchor in the tumultuous Hindi film industry, over which she ironically reigns.
The plot unfolds around Simran, tracking the process whereby she is forced to reinvent herself and come to terms with change that shatters her world. Kottary’s sustained contact with show biz and skill in crafting situations are evident in the credible emotional outbursts and interchanges that expose the grime beneath the glitter. The double standards that mark gender roles—with a married heroine morphing into an ideal bahu and bhabhi while her errant spouse sets up a cosy love nest—is easily reversed when neglected wives choose to turn to each other for solace and stigmatised pleasures.
The even tenor of the narrative makes Simran’s attempts to pick up the pieces and rebuild her life convincing. The struggles of the other personae are also believable. These really are living, breathing individuals, placed by fate and circumstances in an extraordinary milieu. They are neither uniquely aberrant nor morbidly carnal, as in hyped up portrayals of film personalities. And this is where Kottary triumphs, as she intelligently avoids the obvious pitfalls which usually derail such narrative.