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Nirmala and Normala (Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam)

(Penguin, 2014)

Bollywood has so done to death the story of twins separated at birth that it would be quite an unusual experience for a certain generation to have grown up in India without at least a passing familiarity with this plot. However, with their graphic novel Nirmala and Normala, Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam put an imaginative new spin on things.

Nirmala and Normala are, in case you haven’t guessed, twins separated the moment they were born, as their mother died giving birth to them. One twin is set adrift on a bamboo basket by the attending midwife, while the other is left outside the orphanage. If at this stage you’re asking yourself the question, “Why?”, let me remind you that this is partly Hindi-film world and logic does not apply. Anyhow, Nirmala is found and raised by a rich and fanciful film producer who goes by the snazzy epithet of GVM (he’s forgotten his real name). Normala, brought up by nuns, ends up with a far more mundane upbringing.

Twenty years go by before we meet the young women again. Nirmala’s life is straight out of a movie—she checks the day’s “script” to figure out who she will be today. The world rearranges itself around her, her hair is always in place, and guitars and syncronized dances materialize at opportune moments. Oh, and she doesn’t own an umbrella but does have a white sari that comes out when it’s rainy. Normala, of course, has a “normal” life—rainy days mean old jeans and T-shirts, and young men who can’t take no for an answer are stalkers, not potential love interests.

Nirmala and Normala’s reel- and real-world stories unfold side by side, one of them hilariously reminiscent of (all?) Bollywood films, bearing no resemblance to reality and coherance. Normala, of course, is supposed to be like you and me, and that’s the story we all know, right?

Full marks to Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam for trying, but Nirmala and Normala falls short of being truly epic. Though it is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the ridiculousness of Hindi (Indian?) cinema, the final effect is still very filmi, including the resolution of Normala’s supposedly “normal” story. There are some truly epic moments, such as: the Harvard scenes, where Nirmala goes into full “mera Bharat mahan” mode (which seemed eerily like something one has seen many times over!); the completely senseless story of winning over Rahul; and the stalker-later-to-be-husband’s underworld-don father. On Normala’s side, the creepy stalker’s fate deserves a round of applause. There were also a few missed opportunities—I was waiting for the identical birthmark that each twin had to make a significant appearance, but it never turned up.

It’s an entertaining one-shot read, but leaves you somehwat disappointed overall.

RATING: 6.5/10

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