Book by B.C. psychiatrist prompts Bollywood movie
Biju Mathew, MBBS, FRCPC, is the author of a bestselling novel about famed Indian mathematician Anand Kumar. Mr. Kumar started the Super 30 program to train poor students to take the Joint Entrance Examination for admission in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) — “India’s MIT.” This July, Mr. Kumar’s life story is the subject of a Bollywood film starring the popular actor Hrithik Roshan.
The film is based, in large part, on the contents of Dr. Mathew’s book Super 30: Changing the World 30 Students at a Time. It was published by Penguin Random House India in May 2016.
“I took up this book to assist Anand Kumar and Super 30,” explains Dr. Mathew, whose name doesn’t even appear on the cover of the book. “I told him I will write this book; you sell it and the money will go to Super 30. I’ve not taken a penny from the sale.”
How a doctor from Maple Ridge, B.C., wrote a bestseller
Dr. Mathew initially read about Mr. Kumar in a The Globe and Mail feature. At the time, he was looking for an inspirational speaker to invite to the Ridge Meadows South Asian Cultural Society’s annual fundraising gala in Maple Ridge, B.C.
“I didn’t think that he would come because our organization is very small and he already had an international reputation for his teaching abilities. But he accepted. He gave a 25-minute talk on Super 30 and had a 10-minute standing ovation; people were so impressed,” says Dr. Mathew, a psychiatrist at Fraser Health Authority and past president of the BC Psychiatric Association.
As president of the society that held the gala, Dr. Mathew hosted Mr. Kumar at his home. In the days to follow, they got to talking about his life. Dr. Mathew was so impressed that he asked if he could write a book about it. Mr. Kumar agreed and the rest is history.
The success of Super 30
Super 30 is an educational program in Patna, the capital of Bihar, one of India’s poorest provinces. It was started in 2002 as a way to train promising, but poor, children for university entrance exams. The program is funded by Mr. Kumar’s for-profit school, the Ramanujan School of Mathematics. While the Super 30 students are being trained, they are provided with food and lodging. Their exam fees are also covered. The program gained notoriety in 2008 when it was publicized that all 30 of the students in the program that year had passed the IIT entrance exams.
“He became a national hero,” says Dr. Mathew, who describes Mr. Kumar as “exceptionally bright, gifted” and “a very good teacher.” He believes Mr. Kumar can relate to the students he trains since he has experienced similar difficulties like deprivation, poverty and psychological trauma.
A crash course in book writing
Dr. Mathew visited Bihar twice in the process of writing the book, to gather interviews and to meet with Mr. Kumar’s students, family, teachers and associates. He also conducted numerous telephone interviews from home and learned about Bihar’s collapsing educational system, as important context for the book.
“It was not easy because I’d never written a book. I don’t even know how to type! So I typed the whole thing with one finger — my index finger,” he says with a laugh.
“By the time I finished one chapter, I took it to a literary agent and this person told me, ‘Dr. Mathew, you write well but no one wants to read a book about a mathematician from the slums of India.’ That was the worst day of my writing career.”
Thankfully, Dr. Mathew persisted. When he was about halfway through the book, he signed a publishing deal with Penguin Random House India, who helped him navigate through deadlines, edits and legal reviews. After more than three years of effort, the book was published in English in 2016. It was then translated into Hindi, Tamil and Marathi.
The official book launch surpassed expectations. It was marked by a crowd of more than 2,000 people and audiences with Bihar’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, and the (then) President of India, the Honourable Pranab Mukherjee. The book became a bestseller, receiving positive reviews in leading Indian magazines and newspapers. This success led to offers for the movie rights, which Dr. Mathew left in the hands of Mr. Kumar and his family (though, he did get a chance to share his thoughts on the script with eventual director, Vikas Bahl).
Super 30, the movie, released in India on July 12 with Dr. Mathew on hand to walk the red carpet.
View the trailer
Read more about Dr. Mathew’s experience writing Super 30 in “Psychiatrist + mathematician = best seller,” (BCMJ, vol. 59, No. 9, Nov. 2017).