Hailing from the stables of British publisher Harlequin UK Ltd., Mills & Boon (M&B) was and still is the most famous romance imprint of all time. Criticisms ranging from misogyny to 'lowbrow themes' have been a constant but done little to impact sales.
A household name in India way before its official introduction in 2008, M&B expanded its reach with the Passions Aspiring Authors Contest, which saw a slew of entries from first-timers and many established writers as well.
Like Adite Banerjie. The former journalist, who also penned scripts for documentary films, was among the top three winners and went on to write two books for Harlequin India: Trouble Has a New Name and The Indian Tycoon's Marriage Deal. Despite being a greenhorn in the romance genre, Banerjie had grown up on a steady diet of M&B romances. "One of my favourite M&B authors in the early days was Anne Mather," she says.
For Jyoti Singh, whose Temptation in Paradise was published in March this year, M&B was a marker of her journey into adulthood. The author of several short stories and children's books says the jump to M&B was an expansion of her horizons. "I believe all stories are love stories, be it of people, things or places. Telling a story is all about a character's journey into themselves and that is what you need to focus on, whether you are writing for children or adults," she explains.
Both Banerjie and Singh rubbish the perception that M&B fare is mindless and misogynistic. "How do romance stories that showcase the power of true love make them anti-women?" asks Banerjie. "I like strong personalities in my heroines – no submissive mindsets," adds Singh.
Journalist Aastha Atray-Banan, who won the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity, also believes that women in M&B's India series are smart and independent. "None of our Indian M&B heroines is a doormat," stresses the author of Her Monsoon Wedding. She is currently giving finishing touches to a supernatural romance for Harlequin India's 'Nocturne' series.
"A book's function is to make you think, make you happy, make you feel like you spent your time well. That is good writing. I don't believe in these 'intellectual' definitions of a good book or good or bad writing," she says.
Unlike the other three authors who participated in the Passions contest, US-based Falguni Kothari bagged a deal with Harlequin India through her agent. Her 2012 book, It's Your Move, Wordfreak!, was her gateway into the world of romantic fiction. But it was her M&B novel Bootie and the Beast, released earlier this year, that earned her accolades.
M&B writers have to follow a certain set of guidelines – there has to be a happily ever after, and 'bad words', if used, have to be retracted. "It was a bit hard for me to swallow that a modern Indian-American man won't cuss. Not that it detracted from the story in any way," Kothari says.
"This is a $1.3 billion industry," she points out. "On an average, more romances are read per minute than any other genre. Maybe heroines were damsels in distress 20 years ago. But books reflect the needs and mindset of the times. Clearly, the days of innuendo are long gone, and it's a great thing."