"Ageism is also a big issue with females"
In a dazzling fusion of Bollywood magic and captivating storytelling, Puneet Bhandal burst onto the literary scene in 2022 with her sensational debut novel, Starlet Rivals.
As an author and former Bollywood film journalist, Puneet’s passion for Indian cinema shines through her writing, capturing the hearts of readers worldwide.
With Starlet Rivals making waves across the UK, USA, and Canada, Puneet Bhandal is ready to enchant audiences with her 2023 release, Melody Queen.
Both books focus on the aspirations to make it in Bollywood but also the hurdles that such a journey involves.
With two strong women at the centre of each story, Puneet’s storytelling offers a refreshing insight into why the allure of the entertainment industry is so high.
Starlet Rivals follows 12-year-old Bela, who finally has the opportunity to secure a coveted spot at the illustrious Mumbai stage school and become a Bollywood sensation.
Melody Queen, sees the protagonist Simi trying to graduate from the illustrious Bollywood Academy and follow in the footsteps of her showbiz parents.
But there’s a catch: the world of music, her true passion, is a realm dominated by men, their influence casting a formidable shadow.
Whilst the plot of both books are entertaining, they shed light on the more serious and underrepresented issues within the entertainment industry.
Ageism, sexism, gender bias and much more are covered in both stories.
So, these pieces do not just represent South Asian culture and the vibrancy of Bollywood, but also the daily hurdles that a lot of people, especially women, have to try and jump over.
In this exclusive interview, we delve into Puneet’s inspiration, the vibrant world of her books, and the meaningful messages that lie within.
What motivated you to get into writing books?
I never set out to be an author. I have been working as a journalist for more than 20 years.
While looking for books about Bollywood for my young daughter, who was 2 at the time, I realised there weren’t any. I was caught by surprise.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the potential for a series of books based around the film industry, I just felt like I had to make it happen.
But, I managed to gain valuable insight into the workings of the film industry through my work as a film journalist.
I didn’t realise at the time that some of the things I experienced, heard, and saw would come in useful for a book series in the future.
Did your journalism career influence the narratives in your books?
The focus on nepotism in Starlet Rivals for sure. I was shocked at how ‘interconnected’ the Indian film industry is.
So many people who work in the industry have grown up in it. ‘Outsiders’ can be neglected, ignored, and even blocked!
“I had to make this a focus for the first book.”
Secondly, the sexism and gender bias that is so rife in Bollywood became the focus of book two, Melody Queen.
Not only are women paid less and given fewer opportunities, especially as they age, but some parts of the profession are closed to women.
Take music production, for example. Some 98% of music composers in Bollywood are men.
It’s a staggering figure and that became a focus for Melody Queen.
‘Starlet Rivals’ took 15 years to make. Why was this?
It’s the toughest thing to become a published author, especially getting that first contract.
At the time I started writing the series, there were even fewer opportunities for ‘diverse’ authors or books.
Years ago, I had an agent but no publishing contract happened.
I then started all over again, and after pitching my idea to Lantana Publishing in 2020, a path to a real career as an author came into view.
The publishing industry has come a long way since 2008 when I set out on this journey.
But more work still needs to be done to open book publishing up to talented writers with no connections or previous experience.
Why was it essential to keep your culture alive through these stories?
I think it’s very important for young people to understand the world we live in.
When I visit schools, children are totally fascinated by the Bollywood film industry they are able to get a glimpse.
“I think it’s essential for children to learn about new places, cultures and ways of life.”
And for those children who love Bollywood movies but perhaps don’t like reading, my series gives them books they can love.
It could set them on a path where they foster a passion for reading.
Some children do tell me ‘I didn’t like reading but I love the Bollywood books’. That makes it all worthwhile!
Why the lack of books about Bollywood for young readers despite its global popularity?
I think the only reason is that perhaps nobody thought of it before me!
That and the fact that it is so tough to get publishers to accept a series that is a ‘first’.
Publishing is pretty risk-averse!
Your books delve into the challenging aspects of the entertainment industry, such as nepotism and the domination of star kids.
Could you share some of the “inside scoop” of Bollywood?
It’s well-known that the film industry is dominated by star kids.
Despite many people complaining about this, it’s a trend that seems to gather pace.
“Even today, a high percentage of film stars have famous actors as parents.”
I wanted to show how deep this is, and how unfair it is too for those who don’t have godfathers or forefathers from the industry.
Bela, from Starlet Rivals, helps to highlight this issue.
What challenges do your books address?
Melody Queen tackles gender bias, ageism and other issues. It’s crazy to think that women only make up around 2% of film composers.
There is no reason why women can’t compose music as well as men. Ageism is also a big issue with females suffering the most.
While male actors can keep fronting movies until their 50s and beyond, most women over 30 are sidelined as the focus is too heavily on the looks of younger starlets. It’s sad and needs to change.
Melody Queen isn’t directly based on any true story.
I am just very aware of the shortage of female music composers. Because of that, I feel many women don’t even dare to try their hand at music production.
The issue of gender bias cuts across so many other industries too.
We still need more women in the STEM industries…numbers are improving but still not high enough.
What do you believe are the perils of being famous?
Instant fame and the attention that young people can suddenly gain can affect mental health negatively.
We often hear about how pop stars, reality TV stars and child actors struggle to fit into society if they become suddenly famous, or just very famous.
“Social media can be cruel; it’s difficult to trust people when you are rich and famous.”
Do people want to know you for you, or because you are famous and wealthy?
Substance addiction is also all too common among young people who find a lot of fame and fortune.
Life is complicated for my characters because not only are some of them famous, or trying to be, they are also very young.
Social media is something some of them can use but they soon learn that it’s not always the kindest place.
They also have to learn, the hard way, that being competitive is good but not at the cost of friendships and family relationships.
What kind of impact do you hope the books have?
The primary job of the books is to entertain and bring about a love of reading.
But I hope readers also feel they can connect with the film industry by taking a little peek behind the scenes.
I also hope they will feel more connected to the countries and cultures that their parents and grandparents originated from.
Growing up, I desperately wanted to know more about India and the South Indian subcontinent and it was really difficult to find books that allowed me to do that.
I hope children especially will be encouraged to follow their dreams after reading the stories.
My books show that although things can get tough, and look impossible at times, everything is achievable if you have a dream, talent and the will to succeed.
Can you share any memorable reactions you’ve received?
The feedback and response to my books from the children who see them and read them has been incredible.
I didn’t envisage non-Asian children would be as interested as they are.
But in all the schools I have visited for workshops and talks, the demand is strong and the excitement is high from all the students. That really feels incredible to me.
I hope to start writing the third book in the Bollywood Academy series soon.
“I am also now working on another middle-grade series set across the UK and India.”
It feels very exciting. I hope to be writing for a long time!
Drawing upon her extensive background, Puneet Bhandal captures the electrifying energy of the Indian film industry while weaving in heartfelt messages about perseverance and, authenticity.
It’s clear that her unique storytelling and irresistible blend of glamour and life lessons have struck a resounding chord.
As she continues to write and inspire, Puneet Bhandal is a force to be reckoned with in the literary world, inviting readers to join her in a unique gaze into the dazzling lights of Bollywood.
Starlet Rivals and Melody Queen (Lantana Publishing) are available to buy online here and in all good bookshops.