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A British-Chinese actor plays him in the Facebook movie The Social Network. Six years ago, Divya Narendra and his friends sued Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea. The Indian-origin student still "has ownership issues" but, yes, you'll find him on the world's most popular social networking site

One fine day in September 2008, Facebook found itself with yet another new user. He uploaded a suitably flattering picture of himself, and dutifully filled in some personal information.

Sex: Male

Relationship status: Single

Interested in: Women

Interests: Tennis, Running, Guitar,

Chelsea Art Museum 

This might not seem too different from the sort of thing you'd see on the accounts of the social networking site's 500 million other users, give or take a virtual barnyard animal or three. But it swiftly got incredulous reactions. "I cannot believe you are on Facebook!" "I never thought I'd see the day…"

That's because Divya Narendra, the new user in question, had a chequered past with Facebook.  

Shortly after the social networking site was first launched in January 2004, Narendra and his two friends — identical twins and Olympic rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss — had sued its founder Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the idea behind their site, Harvard Connection

(later called ConnectU), as well as the source coding intended for it. Barely a month earlier, Zuckerberg, a sophomore at Harvard, where they all studied, had been entrusted with programming the site — intended to be for dating and networking, and open to students of the Ivy League, and other universities.  

Though Zuckerberg had initially shown enthusiasm, he reportedly dithered for weeks, avoiding the trio's phone calls, and evading their questions the few times they met, all the while at work on his own pared-down competing version, thefacebook.com. Their case was initially dismissed as "tissue thin" as it was based on an oral agreement and no non-disclosure agreement had been signed. Later, however, leaked Instant Message exchanges between Zuckerberg and his close friends at the time would reveal that this delay was intentional; intended to give his site first-mover advantage and tank any chances its potential rival had at gaining critical mass in user adoption. A settlement valued at $65 million was finally reached in 2008, but the trio have since been trying to appeal it, as, among other things, they believe the stock they received was overvalued; its real worth being closer to $31 million.  

The two disputing parties (or "disgruntled litigants", as Facebook calls them) seldom meet these days, at least, not outside of a courtroom. But they were reunited earlier this week, through their hunky Hollywood stand-ins, in the much-awaited film The Social Network.  

The film tells the tumultuous "origin story" of the world's most popular networking site through Rashomon-style shifting and contesting perspectives. It's the product of a collaboration between filmmaker David Fincher, the master of dark, compelling films such as Se7en and Fight Club, and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter behind A Few Good Men and to whom the hit TV series The West Wing owes its sharp dialogue and devastating repartee. Not too surprisingly, it had an explosively successful opening in the US, racking up $23 million in the first weekend alone, and was swiftly proclaimed a "zeitgeist-capturing" film sure to score at the Oscars.  

Mark Zuckerberg, who actor Jesse Eisenberg plays in the film with sullen unease, has seen the film, as have several busloads of Facebook employees in Palo Alto. The Winklevosses and Narendra have seen it too, twice. The first time, at a private screening in Chicago, and the second, at its New York Film Festival premiere on September 24. 

"I thought the film did a good job of capturing the story and the emotions from the perspectives of all the parties involved without taking strong sides," says Narendra, adding, "It's a balanced film, not to mention very funny." The 28-year-old, a teetotalling vegetarian, is the son of Indian immigrant doctors, was born in the Bronx, and grew up in the prosperous New York suburb of Bayside, Queens. Which was why he was mildly puzzled at the choice of the actor playing him onscreen. "I was a bit surprised at first that my character was played by someone of British/Chinese descent (actor Max Minghella)," Narendra admits, "but I think he did a good job of conveying a sense of urgency upon hearing that our idea had been stolen. Besides, I've actually met him in person at the Henley Royal Regatta (on the River Thames, where a scene of the film was shot), and he's a great guy."    

The film plays on several juxtapositions — most significantly, that the founder of the world's most successful social networking site isn't generously endowed with social skills. It also sets up various opposing tropes: jock vs geek; Ivy League preppies vs sneaky, talented outcast; boat shoes vs Adidas sandals. The twins are the square-jawed faces of entitlement and assurance, while Zuckerberg is self-made — all seething, suspicious ambition.  

Nevertheless, fearful of the impact of the film on his public relations image, the thus-far reclusive Zuckerberg has made positive pre-emptive strikes: he's giving a $100 million donation to Newark public schools, as he announced to the squealing housewives on the Oprah Winfrey show. But Narendra reckons he has no cause for concern. "Though Facebook may argue otherwise," he says, "I actually thought Mark received a generous treatment. I am, of course, biased."

Narendra, who completed a degree in applied mathematics in Harvard in 2004, currently juggles a dual degree in law and business in Northwestern Law and the Kellogg School of Management, and runs his own start-up, SumZero. Borne out of his stints as a hedge fund analyst, the venture, he says, is "inspired by Wikipedia and social networks such as LinkedIn", and helps professional investors connect and share investment ideas.  

Facebook — which he held off joining until after the settlement — is evidently not an inspiration. Nevertheless, the onscreen Zuckerberg voices an interesting defence. He wonders aloud whether "a guy who makes a really good chair owes money to anyone who ever made a chair". Narendra, too, concedes, "I have nothing against the website itself, as it is clearly a useful tool based on a powerful concept. I simply have issues with the ownership of it." But could ConnectU have ever outdone Facebook's runaway popularity, its insidious omnipresence? "It's impossible to predict how it would be different if all of this had never happened," Narendra says. "One thing I'm quite confident about is that ConnectU would not have been embroiled in lawsuits as Facebook has."

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