THE world\'s biggest film industry is not situated on the western littoral of the United States of America but can be found, a couple of oceans away, in India -- in Bombay, to be precise -- where, year in, year out, hundreds of gaudy, fantastical, escapist, preposterous action-musical-romance-epics are churned out to entertain the subcontinent\'s movie-obsessed masses. It\'s Hollywood, it\'s Bollywood, it\'s filmi-filmi land, it\'s "Show Business."
This is the setting for Shashi Tharoor\'s exuberant and clever second novel. His first, "The Great Indian Novel," was a loose contemporary satire on the Indian epic the "Mahabharata." The story of "Show Business" charts the career of a socially well-placed but indigent theater actor, Ashok Banjara, who decides to abandon his earnest attempts to bring Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter to a few dozen aficionados and go instead for the big bucks and the colossal fame of being a star of Hindi cinema. Somewhat to his surprise, he succeeds almost at once, and his second film, "Godambo," launches him into the role of dashing matinee idol virtually overnight. From then on there is no stopping him. He marries his co-star, fathers a set of triplets, makes 50 trashy and lurid films, acquires great wealth (which he salts away in a Swiss bank account) and beds anyone who takes his fancy.
The effortless rising arc of Ashok\'s celebrity reaches its apogee -- or so it seems -- when he is persuaded to abandon the dream factory for politics. His father -- an honest but junior minister in the Government, the Minister of State for Minor Textiles -- is persuaded to vacate his seat for his famous son. But here the seeds of destruction are sown. Ashok makes an appalling film, "Mechanic," ostensibly to dramatize his newfound piety and proper humanitarian principles, but the film turns out instead to be his first flop. It is enough to get him elected, but he discovers fame in Bollywood does not parlay automatically into success in political life.
Worse yet, when he is caught in a scandal Ashok has to resign his seat. Worse than that, the reverberations of his political downfall have irredeemably tarnished his screen image. In India, cinematic heroes strip away the veils of fantasy at their peril. Facing penury, in disgrace, Ashok tries to revitalize his film career but discovers he cannot get a part.
In desperation he agrees to start his comeback in an even lower rung of the Indian film industry (it is possible, apparently) by starring in a quasi-religious film, a "mythological," playing the god Kalki, come to right wrongs and visit destruction on the corrupt and evil. In the course of filming a crowd scene, Ashok\'s flaming sword causes his horse to bolt. He is thrown, the flames ignite some costumes, and the entire set is torched, with dozens of fatalities ensuing. A comatose, badly injured Ashok lies in a hospital, visited by family and friends. Irony heaps itself on irony: unconscious, steadily weakening, he is unaware of the fact that his star has never been higher -- his heroism has been transformed into something approaching sanctity; the entire nation prays for his recovery.
The portrayal of Ashok is both affectionately and fiercely done. He is a welcome member to the club of literary rogues that includes the likes of Barry Lyndon and Basil Seal. For example, he is quite prepared, when required, to act in a film that includes both his wife and mistress, and, on his P.R. man\'s instigation, to fornicate with Cheetah, a loathsome gossip columnist for Showbiz magazine, in the interest of getting his name mentioned more frequently.
"My lips remain locked on hers and I am aware of the pressure of her teeth: there seem to be about two thousand of them, each as large and strong as a key on Gopi Master\'s harmonium. She must chew neem twigs before breakfast, and unfortunate actors after. As I try to move she half rises, mouth still glued to mine, and pushes me down with a firm hand. Boy, she\'s strong. The other hand is pulling my T-shirt out of my waistband. Christ, this is serious! ."
Films in India are subject to Draconian censorship: until very recently not even the most chaste kiss was allowed on screen. A scene could be set in a bar, but the hero was never to be seen actually drinking anything, in case it reflected badly on his character. Musical numbers (Hindi films are filled with songs and dances) are mimed, very badly, to recordings. Such is the enormous level and rate of production that huge stars such as Ashok happily work on three films simultaneously. The day is divided into shifts, and the leading actors dart fro