written by Supriya Kelkar
I grew up in a town that didn’t appreciate diversity. If I brought Indian food to school, I’d get made fun of for it. So I stopped bringing it to school. My languages, culture, religion, bindis, and skin color were ridiculed on a daily basis.
To make matters worse, I grew up never seeing myself in an American book, TV show, or movie. Books written by South Asian-Americans, and books with South-Asian American characters weren’t being published then. South-Asian American actors weren’t getting roles in TV shows or film for years, and the few times they did, the roles were racist stereotypes.
But there was one place where I found a little of the representation I was searching for. And that was in the magical, colorful, often over-the-top world of Bollywood.
Bollywood gave me a space where people who looked like me were heroes, and where my food and cultures and languages and clothing were celebrated. So when I grew up, I knew I had to be a part of that magic.
I started working in Bollywood right after graduating from the University of Michigan’s screenwriting program. I started as a writing assistant on the writing team for one of the biggest producer-director-writers in Bollywood. And I eventually became one of his writers, working on the writing teams for the highest-grossing film of all time in Bollywood at that time, and working on the film that went on to be India’s entry to the Academy Awards.
The whole time I was writing scripts in Bollywood though, I was trying to be an author in America. I used what I learned about structure to plot out novels. I used what I learned from the dazzling sets and costumes and dances in Bollywood to take readers through thrilling, fun, and entertaining worlds in my books. I wrote dozens and dozens of manuscripts and received hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters over more than a decade of trying to find an agent or publisher in the kidlit world, until finally, Ahimsa won the New Visions award and I became a published author.
I went on to publish several more books but there was a part of me that I couldn’t fit into any of those stories. And that was the part of me that was formed by Bollywood. I tried for years to come up with a way to put my love for Bollywood into a book, throwing in references in American as Paneer Pie and Bindu’s Bindis, until one day, I got the idea for That Thing about Bollywood.
That Thing about Bollywood is the story of a Bollywood-loving girl named Sonali, who is really bad at showing her true feelings. One day a life-changing event causes her to get a magical condition called Bollywooditis, which makes her express herself in the most obvious way possible, through Bollywood song-and-dance numbers. As the magic starts to take over her world, Sonali must figure out what’s causing it and put a stop to it before it’s too late.
I was so thrilled when I got the idea for this book and hope readers connect to it as strongly as I connected to Bollywood when I was their age. I hope it empowers them like Bollywood empowered me. I hope it helps them be proud of who they are and find their voice, like Bollywood did for me.
Because we could all use a little Bollywood magic in our lives.
**If you’re looking for a Bollywood movie suggestion, my kids and I love to watch Lagaan, an Oscar-nominated film from 2001. It is a historical epic about decolonization, cricket, and of course it has songs and dances in it. Lagaan is streaming now, as are hundreds of other Bollywood films. But as with any movie from America or anywhere else in the world, adults will want to screen the films ahead of time to ensure they are appropriate for their family.
About Supriya Kelkar
Supriya Kelkar was born and raised in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi films a week. She is a screenwriter who worked on the writing teams for several Bollywood movies, and is an illustrator and award-winning author of books like That Thing about Bollywood, American as Paneer Pie, Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame, Ahimsa, Bindu’s Bindis, The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, and more.
Note from Melissa: Thank you so much for sharing your story, Supriya. Your journey and grit are so inspiring. I know my readers are as excited as me to read your newest book, That Thing About Bollywood; it sounds incredible — funny and engaging. (I have LOVED all your other books.)