Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life will make you aggressively swoon at least once while also making you want to add every Bollywood movie possible to your Netflix queue.
My exposure to the world of Bollywood films begins and ends with exactly one movie — Bride and Prejudice — which I absolutely love. Unfortunately, even though I know about Bollywood movies as a genre of film, and even though I’ve always thought that they’d be 100% the exact genre of film I would love, I’ve always been a little intimidated because I’ve never been quite sure where to start.
Luckily, now I have Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life and its fantastic protagonist Winnie Mehta to guide my path into the wonderful world of Bollywood films.
The story centers on Winnie following her breakup with Raj, her boyfriend of three years. This throws her for a bit of a loop — more so than usual — because a pandit literally gave her a prediction that said she’d meet her soulmate before she turned 18, his name would begin with the letter ‘R’ and he’d give her a silver bracelet. And Raj checks off all these boxes — so, soulmate acquired, right?
Except apparently not, since she comes back from film camp to find out that he’s dating someone else — and to make things worse, they still have to co-run Film Club and plan the huge film festival together. Add to this Dev, an old friend and a fellow film club member who she suddenly starts to see in new light, and you have the perfect story for how Winnie Mehta’s actual life became her very own Bollywood film.
I am a long-time, proud, and (some might say rather aggressive) supporter of the rom-com genre. I watch When Harry Met Sally every New Year’s Eve, will put on Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 version) on any given rainy day and will put on You’ve Got Mail at the end of any long and trying day.
There’s just something comforting about inhabiting a world where people fall in love in outlandish ways, where grand gestures are made, shenanigans occur, dramatic events take place — but no matter what happens, you always know that it’s going to end with a big damn kiss and a happily ever after.
Which is why I love this book and the character of Winnie, both for her love of Bollywood films — which offer all traits that I so love in American-based rom-coms — and for how she navigates her own romantic entanglements.
See, Winnie and author Nisha Sharma get it. They get the appeal of these slightly silly storylines. They get why these types of films are enduringly popular. They understand what it is they have to offer, both as a genre of a film and as a lens for viewing your own struggles and triumphs.
When clearly superior romantic choice Dev gently teases Winnie for her love of Bollywood films, she very succinctly and wonderfully explains exactly what it is this genre has to offer us —
“People love the movies because of the romance, the emotion and the passion that the characters feel. It’s easy to get swept up in the magic as long as you have a flexible suspension of disbelief.”
Romance permeates every page of this book. It’s at the start of every chapter, which offers us a short review of a popular Bollywood film. It’s in the idea of destiny and soulmates and prophecies, which are so intertwined in Winnie’s story and her romantic choices thus far. It’s in the flow of the story itself, which has all of my favorite rom-com tropes, used in all the best possible ways.
Honestly, I had to put down the book a couple of times with my hand over my heart because Nisha Sharma does romance so damn well. And it’s just so wonderful every single time to read a story about marginalized communities that doesn’t center around pain or crisis, but instead allows its characters to go through the very normal trials and tears of high school romance.
Additionally what Nisha Sharma understands so well — and what you understand best if you happen to watch a lot of romantic movies — is that the best romance stories can’t just be about romance. Love and romance and relationships can’t exist in a vacuum — it isn’t realistic or healthy or even all that interesting.
Instead, the best romance stories, like the best real-life romances, are those which are less about romance and more about growth — both as an individual and as a couple. And that growth can only happen if you have complex, complicated characters who challenge one another and work through difficult situations, who have a loving support system to help facilitate that growth.
Luckily for her — and for us who are reading her story — Winnie Mehta has all that in her life, which makes reading about her journey a pure joy. She has a loving best friend, Bridget, who supports her but keeps her grounded. She has an ex that isn’t just a one-note villain, but someone with whom she has a long history and cares for outside of romance. She has a love-interest turned boyfriend who she cares about but must also learn how to support and compromise with.
Last but certainly not least, she has two fantastic parents who support her, love her unconditionally and hold her accountable.
And it’s this very last facet of the story — her parents — that really elevates the novel from being good to one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.
“Oh, don’t give me that American ‘but, Mom’ attitude. You’re Indian. You face this drama. It’s in your dhadkan, your heartbeat.”
As a child of immigrants, I always love reading YA novels that highlight the sometimes fraught with frustration, often complicated, but almost always loving relationship between immigrant parents and their children. I think these relationships are important to highlight in YA lit, and I’m so thankful every time I see a YA novel depict these experiences.
What I liked so much about this novel in particular — and what felt so refreshing to me — was just how supportive Winnie’s parents and grandmother were of her. Yes, they tried to push her towards Raj more than was necessary, and they were a little bit overbearing in that way that all parents — but particularly immigrant parents — often seem to be.
But, at the end of the day, her parents always supported her — not just in her love life, but in her personal life. Far from micromanaging or dictating her every personal and professional move, they instead gave her both the freedom and the support to pursue her own dreams and make her own decisions, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with them or like them.
It’s a relationship between immigrant parents and their children that we don’t always see depicted in media but one that we’re so desperately in need of. Because yes, many immigrant parent-child relationships are tense and difficult and that deserves to be shown — but so do the ones which feature decidedly less difficult struggles.
It’s the experience I had with my own parents, both of whom I’m sure would’ve rather seen me to go law school or med school, but cheered just as loudly when I graduated with my degree in education. It’s an experience that so many immigrant readers out there have with their own parents, and I’m glad to see it presented here so lovingly and honestly.
“I knew that one day I was going to have a daughter who would do all this so much better than I ever could.”
“How did you know?”
“I followed my heart.”
The quote above comes toward the end of the book, when Winnie asks her father if he regrets making certain decisions in his life because of other people’s influence.
His answer not only made me cry a thousand tears, it also summed up so much of what I loved about this story. It highlights, again, the unconditional love and support of Winnie’s parents — their belief in their daughter and her choices, their understanding of just what it is she’s capable of accomplishing.
It also summarizes the theme of the story and what it is Winnie needed to learn — that the endless debating of destiny and prophecy and soulmates means nothing if you don’t know how to both listen to your heart and follow where it leads you.
Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life is a stunning, breathtakingly romantic, feel-good story that absolutely should make its way into your hands as soon as possible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch all the Shah Rukh Khan Bollywood films I can get my hands on.