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That Thing about Bollywood

LIST PRICE $17.99

Bollywood takes over in this “effervescent” (Booklist) and magical middle grade novel about an Indian American girl whose world turns upside down when she involuntarily starts bursting into glamorous song-and-dance routines during everyday life.

You know how in Bollywood when people are in love, they sing and dance from the mountaintops? Eleven-year-old Sonali wonders if they do the same when they’re breaking up. The truth is, Sonali’s parents don’t get along, and it looks like they might be separating.

Sonali’s little brother, Ronak, is not taking the news well, constantly crying. Sonali would never do that. It’s embarrassing to let out so many feelings, to show the world how not okay you are. But then something strange happens, something magical, maybe. When Sonali gets upset during a field trip, she can’t bury her feelings like usual—instead, she suddenly bursts into a Bollywood song-and-dance routine about why she’s upset!

The next morning, much to her dismay, Sonali’s reality has shifted. Things seem brighter, almost too bright. Her parents have had Bollywood makeovers. Her friends are also breaking out into song and dance. And somehow, everyone is acting as if this is totally normal.

Sonali knows something has gone wrong, and she suspects it has something to do with her own mismanaged emotions. Can she figure it out before it’s too late?

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
You know how in Bollywood movies, people sing and dance on mountaintops when they’re in love? I wonder if they do the same when they’re splitting up.

I walked my dinner plate to the kitchen sink, searching for the answer as I thought about all the Hindi movies I’d seen. The rules of classic Bollywood, from way back in the ’80s and ’90s, were pretty easy to remember: everything was loud, exaggerated, and colorful.

I scrubbed the miniscule remnants of green-bean shaak and daal bhaat off my stainless-steel plate. As the specks of spices, lentils, and rice slipped down the drain, I made a mental list of what you do when you’re feeling a certain way in an old Hindi movie:

When you’re happy, you sing, sometimes from a mountaintop.

When you’re sad, you sing.

When you’re really into what you’re wearing, you sing. Seriously. There are songs about scarves, bindis, bangles, anklets… any accessory will do. I’ll bet one day there will be a song about thermal underwear.

When you’re mad, nope, you don’t sing. But you can do an angry instrumental dance or scream while shaking in rage, and the soundtrack behind you will be full of dishoom dishoom as you beat up the bad guys and save the day.

And when you’re jealous, you can sing or take part in a bonus dance-off.

Basically, anytime you are feeling something, you show it. So, I guess, yeah, you would sing in a Bollywood movie when you were breaking up.

I dried my hands and walked past the window with the swaying jacaranda trees in our backyard. I glanced at the white house behind ours with the clay tile roof crawling with purple bougainvillea vines, my friend Zara’s house, and I headed into our family room. My grandparents’ four pictures hung on the light-gray wall there with dried sandalwood garlands around them, symbolizing that they had passed away. Across from the pictures, Mom and my little brother, Ronak, were already snuggled under a blanket on our long gray sofa.

“What are we watching tonight, Sonali ben?” Ronak asked, adding on the respectful Gujarati word for “big sister.”

“Something funny,” I replied, accidentally bumping into the stack of dusty books about the history of Hindi films on the end table. I straightened them out and opened the wooden armoire in the corner, which was covered in family pictures of us whale watching and at Sequoia National Park. I was extra careful not to knock over the new framed photo of my aunt Avni Foi, grinning with her fiancé, Baljeet Uncle, at their engagement party.

The armoire was stuffed to the max with old VHS tapes from when my grandfather owned Indian Video, a little store in Artesia that used to rent Hindi movie videotapes to people, before switching to DVDs. When Dada passed away last summer, he left all the store’s retired videotapes to me, because he knew how much I used to love watching them with him when I was little. Luckily, Dada had passed his old VHS player down to me too, or I’d have no way to watch the tapes at home. And now every Sunday, my family got together and watched an old Hindi movie.

I wasn’t sure how long this tradition was going to last, but I was going to enjoy it while I could. I moved the red, plastic, convertible-car-shaped VHS rewinder and grabbed a movie off the top shelf of the alphabetically sorted tapes. It was fun and silly, and from the lines in my mom’s forehead, which seemed to be permanent these days, it looked like she could use the laughs.

I put the videotape into the rewinder so it wouldn’t wear out the VHS player, popped it into the VHS player when it was back to the beginning of the movie, and settled in under the blanket next to Ronak as the ancient commercials that always played before these movies began. One was for a turmeric cream and featured a bride getting turmeric paste all over her legs before her wedding and a catchy song. Ronak sang along, tapping his toes. The next one was for a pain balm and also had a catchy song, of course, so Ronak kept singing. And then the censor certificate flashed, showing the movie’s rating.

“Wait.” Ronak reached for the remote in my hand and pressed pause. “What about Dad?”

“What about him?” I asked, swiping my silky black locks out of my eyes.

“We always wait for Dad.”

I sighed. “And he always works and makes us wait forever.”

Mom’s fingers were clenched tightly around one another as she squeezed her hands in her lap like she was trying not to say something. “I block my whole evening schedule off at the hospital for this every week. But clearly he doesn’t prioritize—”

Whoops. It seemed she didn’t squeeze her hands hard enough and something slipped out. Ronak’s eyebrows furrowed with worry, but Mom gave us a tiny smile with her chapped lips.

“Why don’t we start the movie, and if Dad wants to see what he missed, after his client dinner, we can always rewind it for him?” she asked.

“But you always tell us to think about how we would feel in someone else’s shoes, and I would feel sad if you started the movie without me,” Ronak replied.

Ronak was sensitive and kind and not afraid to show the world how he felt. He would be a perfect fit in a Bollywood movie.

“Well, we don’t wear shoes in the house,” I said. “So don’t pretend you’re in anyone’s shoes right now and just enjoy the movie.”

I clicked play on the remote that Dada had always kept wrapped in plastic to keep it clean. It may have saved the remote from sticky fingers, but it meant I had to press extra hard to make the buttons work.

“You have no feelings,” Ronak muttered as the colorful titles began.

“You have too many feelings,” I retorted.

“Shh,” Mom said as the opening scene played. She smiled as Ronak giggled uncontrollably at Aamir Khan’s antics.

I let out a puff of air through my nose at a particularly hilarious line. “That’s funny.”

Mom raised an eyebrow at me. “Is that your laugh? ‘That’s funny’?”

“Wouldn’t want anyone to see your emotions or anything,” Ronak said, before laughing loudly at the next line.

“Stop fighting, you two,” Mom said gently, leaning into us.

I gave Ronak a small look out of the side of my eye. He was two years younger, but even at nine, he understood the irony of Mom telling us not to fight when she and Dad fought all the time. His eyes glistened, and I was afraid he was going to start crying.

I poked his arm. “This is the funniest part, remember?”

“Yeah.” Ronak smiled, wiping his eyes. “You might even actually laugh out loud instead of just saying, ‘That’s funny.’?”

But I didn’t, even as Juhi Chawla made the most hysterical expressions at Aamir Khan on-screen. “That’s funny.” I said, and smiled with a small puff of air.

Ronak was holding his belly and laughing as loudly as Mom when we heard the garage door open, and Dad walked in, his briefcase full of papers from work.

“Hey, Rony-Pony and my little Soni,” he said to us, setting his briefcase down and taking a seat on the other side of me without a word to Mom.

Mom suddenly stopped laughing, and those laugh lines that were on her face were outnumbered by the frown lines between her eyebrows as she stared hard at the screen.

I guess, unlike in Bollywood, in real life, people don’t sing when they’re growing apart. Nope. They’re just silent.
Reading Group Guide for

That Thing about Bollywood

By Supriya Kelkar

About the Book

Sonali’s family has a Sunday evening tradition: family movie nights watching Bollywood movies. In these movies, feelings are often shown dramatically through elaborate song and dance routines. Unfortunately, Sonali’s parents show their feelings by fighting. Their constant arguing and the fact that they might separate upsets Sonali’s little brother, Ronak. Sonali refuses to get upset, talk about her feelings, or discuss her parents’ unhappiness. That is, until she is struck by something she calls “Bollywooditis” and begins to publicly sing and dance about her feelings. The Bollywooditis isn’t affecting Sonali alone; instead, she watches as her school, family, home, and closest friendship change before her eyes. No one else seems to notice these changes, however. It’s up to Sonali to figure out her feelings and how to express them in order to cure the Bollywooditis, make sense of her family, and save her treasured friendship. Can Sonali face her feelings before her life is completely made over by Bollywood forever?

Discussion Questions

1. Much of this book is about feelings and how they are expressed, or whether they are expressed at all. About Bollywood films, Sonali says, “Basically, anytime you are feeling something you show it.” What might life be like if we were always dramatically expressive with all our feelings? Do you think that would make daily life easier or harder? What does the story illustrate about the importance of feelings? Explain your answers.

2. Sonali’s best friend, Zara, has started spending more time with a friend named Air, and Sonali is adjusting to the new friendship. Air also seems uncertain about her role in the threesome. How can adding new friends change a dynamic? What are some exciting experiences and challenging moments you’ve had while making new friendships? Why can it sometimes be hard when our friends make new friends?

3. Sonali’s dad has a strict “no lying” rule, yet he also believes in keeping things secret and private. How can these two positions be contradictory? What questions would you have for your dad, if you were Sonali?

4. Think about how and when you convey your emotions. Do you think “showing your bad side” is part of sharing feelings? Is not showing it being dishonest? When you don’t share your feelings with the people closest to you, are you lying by omission? Explain your answers using examples from the book or your own life.

5. When Ms. Lin is talking to students about preparing for their monologues, she tells them to get out their metaphorical shovels and dig deep. When we are reflecting on and expressing our feelings, what other metaphorical tools do we use? What kinds of words or expressions help you explain your emotions?

6. The night before Bollywooditis strikes, Sonali’s parents tell her and Ronak about their separation and the new apartment. Sonali goes to bed determined to handle everything herself. “I could save myself just like I always had. I was strong and brave. I wasn’t going to shed a tear or puke over my parents separating.” How does this determination relate to the “filmi magic” she wakes up to the next morning?

7. Throughout the story, Sonali reflects on the presentation she made when she was younger about her parents’ fighting. Her mom, dad, and Dada each had a different response that affected her deeply, in what became a pivotal moment in her life. A pivotal moment is a critical instance at a precise point in time that may affect attitudes or actions going forward. Have you ever witnessed or experienced a pivotal moment? Can you think of pivotal moments that our country has experienced? How does something become a pivotal moment, and do you think we can see these moments coming? Explain your answers.

8. Before she is struck with Bollywooditis, Sonali thinks that Ronak needs to stop getting emotional over things, deciding that “feeling nothing was better than feeling sad or angry or crushed, and sooner or later he was going to figure out it was just better that way.” Do you agree or disagree with her statement that feeling nothing is better than feeling certain emotions? Do you think good things can come from these kinds of feelings? Explain your answers using examples from the book or your life.

9. Sonali tries wearing a denim jacket from when she was younger as a way to fight the Bollywooditis. At first, Sonali observes, “The elementary-School-era jean jacket had worked.” This return to elementary school doesn’t last long, however: “I tossed the jacket to the side, watching it fall limply into the grass, dark pink imprints visible all over my arms from the tight sleeves. I rubbed them with my hands, but they still hurt. It was useless.” What do you think the jacket means to Sonali? Do you think holding on to the past helps or hurts us?

10. As Sonali sings, dances, and shares her feelings, she watches her home, school, family, and friends all get Bollywood makeovers. Everything is more colorful, decorated, and overemphasized. What do you think the Bollywood world is trying to tell Sonali? How might being vulnerable and revealing our feelings change our worlds, even create a space for “magic”?

11. Sonali keeps looking for things around her to change. She wants her parents to stop fighting, Zara to understand her, Ronak to be less sensitive, and Ms. Lin to ask less of her. Do you think she has the power to change the people around her? If she does, should she? Where do you think she should focus her efforts on change? Can we expect others to understand our feelings better than we do ourselves? Explain your answers.

12. One evening after Sonali watches Zara rehearse her song for the school play, the friends have a big fight and say some very hurtful things to each other. Their fight even becomes physical with some filmi magic. At the end of their fight, Sonali says she “walked away from Zara, every part of me in pain.” Why do you think she’s in so much pain? How do you know how much Zara’s friendship means to her? What advice would you give Sonali in this moment? Do you have a meaningful friendship that affects you this deeply? How do you convey to your friends how much they mean to you?

13. When Sonali’s parents decide to divorce, her mother tells her that she and Ronak deserve better than their parents are giving them. Thinking about Sonali’s experiences, what can be some of the benefits and challenging effects of a divorce? Do you think it can ever be seen as a way to save a family rather than a way to break a family? Explain your answers.

14. While eating an uncomfortable family dinner together, Sonali’s mom gets spinach stuck in her teeth. Ronak gestures for Sonali to tell her, but Sonali doesn’t, so he does. Later, Sonali explains to Ronak that, “‘Divorce is like spinach stuck in someone’s teeth, it makes you uncomfortable, but you ignore it and eventually you forget about it and no one is bothered.’” Ronak disagrees and asks Sonali, “‘What kind of person wouldn’t tell a friend they have food stuck in their teeth?’” What is your answer to Ronak’s question? How do you feel about Sonali’s statement?

15. Sonali’s family is part of a larger Indian community that shares heritage and culture. Her family realizes that they have been keeping secrets from their community instead of relying on it. Describe your community or communities. What do you bring to your community, and what do you need from them? What do they mean to you? How do you show them that you care about them?

16. Review chapter one and think about your first impression of Ronak. Then review chapter 36 and chapter 38. Did Ronak change over the course of the book? Did your perceptions of him change? Explain your answers using examples from the novel.

17. When Avni Foi’s and Baljeet Uncle’s sangeet finally arrives, Sonali is no longer worried about it. In fact, she is confident and talks about her parents’ divorce with her cousins: “I could handle this. The magic was gone, and this wasn’t a grand finale anymore. More like a new beginning.” How are grand finales and new beginnings similar? What do you think the next chapter in Sonali’s life will be about?

18. Discuss the drama class Sonali is taking. Do you think there are parallels between her life at home and what is happening in the class? Explain your answer.

19. Sonali is Indian American, and Zara is Pakistani American. Over the years, there have been many times where India and Pakistan have been engaged in divisive conflict. Review chapter 20 for a brief explanation of this conflict. Do you think this conflict in their parents’ homelands affects Sonali and Zara? Do you think it impacts their friendship? Describe the importance of communication and understanding points of views, both in a friendship and in large-scale conflicts.

20. This novel can be viewed as an extended metaphor in which Sonali’s experiences with filmi magic are amplified versions of what is happening in her real life with her family and her friendship with Zara. What other themes or emotions might it represent? What does it make you think about in your own life?

21. Think about the book’s title, That Thing about Bollywood. What is the “thing about Bollywood,” and how is it important to Sonali’s story?

Extension Activities

Spotlight on Music

1. When her world changes, one of the first things Sonali discovers is that everyone has their own background music. They can’t hear one another’s music unless it combines. If you had your own theme music, what would it be and how would it change throughout the day and week? Create a playlist for a day of your life, either a school day or over a weekend; choose instrumental or vocal songs, ideally across several different musical genres, and explain when that song or music plays and why. Plan music from the time you wake until the time you go to sleep.

2. The lyrics in the Bollywood songs are simple, and include topics from lemonade to divorce. Write a short song about an occurrence in your day. Remember, in a Bollywood movie, you might sing when you’re happy or sad. You might sing about your clothes or what you are eating. You might sing about emotions such as love or jealousy. What feelings or experiences will your lyrics capture? Review the songs in the book to help inspire you to reflect on a moment in your life.

Spotlight on Senses

3. This book has many descriptions of sensorial experiences that include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. As a class, create a sensory fair. Divide into five groups, with each group responsible for one of the five senses. Each group will make an interactive station for their group’s sense; note that the taste group will need to follow all class and school allergy protocols. On the day of the fair, you and your classmates will walk through the stations to experience each of the senses; the group’s members should take turns staffing their station so everyone has time to explore. Then write about the object(s) at each station using the format below.

A sentence describing the object using a form of figurative language.

A sentence about your sensorial experience with the object: The (object)

felt/smelled/tasted/sounded/looked like_____________________, and that

made me think about _____________________,

because_________________________.

4. This book has many descriptive passages about food. Review some of these, especially the daal dhokli that Avni Foi craved when she was sick. Using the dishes listed in the book, create a restaurant menu that describes each dish with language and detail that makes it appetizing. Write it as though you are opening a restaurant and want to entice people to order your food. List spices along with descriptive words to let people know what’s included in the meal. Use editing tools and clip art to make your menu visually interesting as well as verbally enticing.

Spotlight on Drama

5. For their midterm assignment in Ms. Lin’s class, each student has to prepare a monologue in the role of a mythical creature. Their monologue has to express this creature’s feelings. Read some monologues to get a feel for them, such as those found at https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/monologues-for-teens-73115/, and then follow the same assignment, writing a monologue for your mythical creature. You can start by working as a class to generate a list of mythical creatures for inspiration, and even brainstorm or draw what they might look like. If there’s class time, you may choose to perform your monologue for your classmates, or you can record your monologue in front of a camera and then submit it as a video assignment.

Spotlight on Poetry

6. An interval is like an intermission, or a space of time between events. In Bollywood films, an interval is a dramatic midpoint when the film freezes. It gives the audience a break, but the characters are suspended, and often not in a comfortable place. When Zara and Sonali have a big fight at school, it is their literal and figurative interval. Take the word interval and think about it both literally and figuratively. Then think about a situation in which you experienced a space of time between events, further communication, or resolution, when things felt “frozen” in place. This could be a conflict, a goal not yet reached, an anticipated event, or any other number of experiences. Using the letters in INTERVAL, create an acrostic poem about your experience and what you were feeling. In an acrostic, each letter of the word starts a line, and each line relates to the word. An example is:

Dashing forward

Arrow straight

Running fast

Target in sight

Spotlight on Writing

7. Using the internet and your school library, research the history of the Hindi film industry and how and why it came to be called Bollywood. Write a five-paragraph essay about the favorite facts you’ve learned.

8. How is everything that happens due to Bollywooditis, or filmi magic, a metaphor for Sonali’s real life? Write a descriptive essay that explains the definition of an extended metaphor, and give examples from the book of passages that help demonstrate this.

Spotlight on Graphics

9. Zara is enthusiastic about both Bollywood and Hollywood. Read about the history of both; then make lists of key facts about their filmmaking industries and films, focusing on similarities and differences. Once you have at least twenty terms each for Bollywood and Hollywood, plot these terms on a Venn diagram to illustrate their similarities and differences. Consider working with a partner or small group.

Spotlight on Wordplay

10. The word Bollywood is a portmanteau because it’s a combination of the name of the city of Bombay (now Mumbai), the center of the Hindi-language film industry, and Hollywood, the center of the American movie industry. Bombay + Hollywood = Bollywood. A portmanteau is a word that blends two other words into a new word; the name comes from a type of suitcase that opens into two halves. Portmanteaus are different from compound words because compound words combine two words, but keep those two words intact.

Examples:

Portmanteaus

Compounds

Breakfast + lunch = brunch

Costume + roleplay = cosplay

Romance + comedy = romcom

Spoon + fork = spork

Body + guard = bodyguard

Eye + ball = eyeball

Milk + shake = milkshake

Sun + flower = sunflower

After discussing common portmanteaus as a class, work with a small group to create some new blended words. Your group should come up with five blended words that could belong together and create meaning. For example, we often refer to excessive social media time as “doom scrolling.” This can become “drolling,” which has a great double meaning as something that is droll is dryly amusing, and people turn to social media for amusement. After the new words are created, share your words with the class.

Guide written by Deirdre Sheets, Education Director at the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Supriya Kelkar learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. She is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AhimsaThe Many Colors of Harpreet SinghAmerican as Paneer Pie, and That Thing about Bollywood, among others. Visit her online at SupriyaKelkar.com.

“A musical and a novel in one! Sonali’s journey literally has its own beat in this poignant novel about growing up and learning to manage one’s feelings.”

—Krista V., Senior Editor, on That Thing about Bollywood

"A love letter to Bollywood that offers heartfelt encouragement to the lonely." 

– Kirkus Reviews

"Effervescent."

– Booklist

"Hilarious and harrowing." 

– Shelf Awareness

More books from this author: Supriya Kelkar