When we meet Winnie Mehta, the creative aspiring filmmaker at the heart of Nisha Sharma’s new novel “My So-Called Bollywood Life,” she is about to start a new chapter of her life. Her relationship with her longtime boyfriend Raj is over and she’s marking the occasion by burying all of the gifts he had given her while they were dating. But this isn’t the end of just any teen relationship, it’s the end of what the New Jersey teen thought was her destiny.
Because a pandit Winnie’s family once consulted told her that she would meet and (eventually) marry someone who fit Raj’s description before she was 18, she is startled when everything ends so abruptly. To make things even more complicated, Winnie finds herself drawn to her classmate Dev, who seems to be as interested in film as she is.
We reached out to Sharma to chat about her debut novel, classic Bollywood and what it was like getting feedback from Gurinder Chadha on her early drafts.
The Teal Mango: I loved the title of this book. Did you watch “My So-Called Life” growing up? How did this title come about?
Nisha Sharma: I did watch “My So-Called Life” a little bit growing up but the title itself was a play on the word ‘Bollywood.’ One of the things I wanted to address while writing the book was that fact that Bollywood was starting to be used as a generic term that didn’t really have anything to do with the Hindi language film industry. I thought it would be fun to do a play on that, which is why I kind of combined “My So-Called Life” with “My Bollywood Life” to describe the main character’s lifestyle.
TTM: For people who don’t know much about the book, how would you describe your main character Winnie Mehta?
NS: I would describe her as a New Jersey high drama teen who loves Bollywood movies and who is trying to find out whether or not whether she should believe in a predetermined destiny or if she has the right to choose her own path.
TTM: It was really interesting because Winnie is told by a pandit that she’ll meet someone before she is 18 and that person will eventually be her husband. And she buys into it for a long time and I feel like a lot of readers can relate to that because their families get their horoscopes done or visit spiritual readers and their futures are predicted whether they chose it or not.
NS: Absolutely. And growing up my family is relatively religious so we got our horoscopes done and there were pandits my parents would consult every once in a while for astrological direction. I think that kind of culture hasn’t really been addressed in South Asian fiction before. I wanted to highlight that.
TTM: Where did you grow up? This book is set in New Jersey and it felt so authentic.
NS: I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, which is not diverse at all. But after college I moved to New Jersey and I loved it and I thought, ‘you know, after law school, I’m going to come back here and I am going to settle and that’s what I did and I’ve been here for years.
The Indian community in Central New Jersey is so much bigger than Edison. That’s why this story is set in Princeton because that’s where the high-brow community sort of moved. There are all kinds of communities in different towns. I wanted to show that it was more than Edison.
TTM: Winnie obviously loves Bollywood films. Did you grow up watching Bollywood to the extent that she did?
NS: I grew up with a healthy appreciation of Bollywood movies. My parents would have the Indian channels on when we would come home from school. To this day she is an amazing cook and she would always listen to Bollywood music while she was cooking. So I have been watching Bollywood movies since I was a kid. My interest was a little more elevated because I was a dancer. I started studying kathak when I was around six, so as a kathak dancer we would do a lot of numbers to classic Bollywood songs from the 1970s and 80s. That also helped develop my appreciation of classic Bollywood movies.
TTM: At the end of the book you also include a list which is billed as your character Winnie’s definitive ranking of movies. And for one of them, the description is simply, “Madhuri Dixit is my god.” I loved that.
NS: That I would say is pretty accurate to how I feel. There are a lot of descriptions and movie ratings in the book where I really do separate myself from the story and I do have the main character have a different feeling and appreciation for the movies than I would. So a lot of the rankings are what Winnie would think of the movies objectively. But for myself, I would give everything five stars and the Madhuri Dixit line was from my thoughts.
TTM: What made you decide to make this book a teen story rather than one about adults?
NS: I always like writing young adult books because there is this ability to basically write a story where anything is possible and anything can happen. And when you are writing a book for adults you are hampered by realism a bit more. Adults have to have jobs and bills to pay but with teens, they have a little more space for self-discovery. They can live in a more in the fantastical and that’s kind of where I wanted to be and that’s why I really liked writing it in a YA story.
TTM: And your book also has a love triangle, which is a classic Bollywood thing.
NS: I didn’t intend to write a love triangle from the get-go. But the way it turned out, I’m really happy with it, because it really does mirror the love triangle storyline that is so popular in the Hindi film industry. And I think that in the end, it was a good choice.
TTM: But we also have to say that ‘My So-Called Bollywood Life’s is going to be a movie! And Gurinder Chadha has signed on to direct.
NS: So far it’s going to be a movie, we’ll see if it goes through. Movies move a lot slower than publishing. But I have such passionate and amazing people behind it, and that alone I think to me is the most exciting part about it.
TTM: This seems like the perfect story for Gurinder Chadha because there are a lot of parallels to “Bend It Like Beckham.” Also, Gurinder Chadha is mentioned throughout the book as a filmmaker Winnie admires.
NS: She had input into the story. I ended up writing the story as part of my MFA thesis and then one of the professors who was on staff at the university where I got my MFA was friends with Gurinder. She asked if she could share my manuscript with Gurinder. And she did and ended up providing input into the manuscript. And then I ended up writing her into the book.
TTM: And you can also see why Gurinder Chadha would like a character like Winnie because as a director, Chadha is known for creating ambitious characters who break away from tradition. What kind of input did she have?
NS: I think a lot of the input was coming from a filmmaker lens. She kept saying that as a filmmaker and as a lover of movies that Winnie the heroine needed to have a full appreciation of all kinds of films. A wide variety of films. And that’s why in the book there are references to a wide variety of stories, just to round out Winnie’s knowledge of the medium a little more.
TTM: I can’t imagine saying no to Gurinder Chadha if she wanted to read my book.
NS: That’s kind of what I was like! I was like, ‘definitely send it to her!’