What do Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Cage, Drew Barrymore, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have in common with Vijay, Suriya, Dulquer Salman, Prithviraj, Ranbir Kapoor, Pawan Kalyan, Sara Ali Khan, Alia Bhatt and Fahadh Fazil? Well, they are dynasts or the privileged who could be placed on the wrong side of the nepotism debate that is raging in Bollywood right now.
A recent Vanity Fair column observed that nepotism in Hollywood is as common as firing your agent or practising an awards speech in the mirror though sometimes it leads to incredible things. True, most of the names mentioned above have grown to be big, independent brands over the years that nobody can ignore them or keep them under the shadow of their family legacy.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide recently has shaken up the film industry and has rekindled the nepotism debate. Cases were filed against celebrities for abetment. Vile attacks were unleashed on social media on a number of people who we aren’t sure of having any connection to his depression.
Following Sushant’s death, his friend and actress Richa Chadha wrote a blog piece about nepotism in Bollywood in which she offered a perspective on the largely black-and-white debate that the fans in social media and sensationalist entertainment journalists are interested in. “It is being said that the industry seems to be divided between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. In my opinion the Hindi film industry and its entire eco-system is only divided between kind and unkind people," she wrote.
Incompetent, but privileged
We have watched with shock how filmmakers of great repute repeatedly cast incompetent actors with privilege in their most prestigious productions. Mani Ratnam pretty much throwing away the prospects of the Hindi version of his Stockholm syndrome-based retelling of Ramayana, Raavanan, by casting Abhishek Bacchan even before making the film is a case in example. Abhishek’s acting in the recently-released web series Breathe into the Shadows brought back the memories of cringing at his performance as opposed to the effervescence of Vikram in Tamil.
It’s a given that anyone who sets out to the tinsel town with dreams of making it big on the back of merit has to fight many demons. The non-existence of a level playing ground is one of them, which puts them in competition with the descendants of the insiders who are at an unfair advantage when it comes to getting a launching pad and repeated patronage. A talented actor without legacy and connections may quickly disappear into obscurity while an insider will get continued visibility, thanks to their connections and a glossy and elitist media.
Be it casting couch or nepotism, the debates are stuck in binaries and hollow statements dished out without conviction. The only result of playing up a controversial “bait” statement such as the one by Kangana Ranaut calling Karan Johar as the “flag bearer of nepotism” after participating in his talk show was increased popularity for that episode.
It’s not nepotism that is the biggest problem ailing Bollywood. An actor’s son or daughter pursuing the same profession is no sin that can be banned. It is a reality in virtually every profession the world over. A politician’s son chooses to be a politician due to the circumstances in which he grows up and a pressure to continue the legacy. Not all star kids take solace in their family name forever. Some of them have walked away from the beaten track to leave a lasting impression. Some of them had come a long way that people no longer talk about their legacy as a factor in their careers. It would be impossible for anyone to miss a Fahadh Faasil or a Konkona Sen Sharma film owing to the nepotism binary.
Despite prima-facie merits, the arguments against nepotism bail out a large section of offenders who unleash violence against the vulnerable. Regardless of whether they have a legacy to boast about or not, people exert their power once they are up the food chain. As Richa says, the same directors who had posted condolence messages after Sushant’s death had replaced actresses who refused to sleep with them.
Madhur Bhandarkar, a director who had exposed the unholy alliances, casting couch and nepotism through his films such as Page 3, Heroine and Fashion, had faced rape charges. An aspiring actress had accused the director of sexually exploiting her for years in the pretext of launching her career in one of his upcoming projects. He got a reprieve from the court in the case after a few years.
A scene from a Bhandarkar film comes to mind while we are on the subject of casting couch. An assistant excitedly talks to an award-winning director about a new face who would be the right fit for the lead role. The director responds with a shocking one-liner: “Degi kya?” (Is she okay to sleep with me?)
It is true that your connections determine your chances of becoming visible to the producers and directors, regardless of whether you are an insider or an outsider. An insider is at a huge advantage if you look at the number of people willing to invest in them. Getting a big budget production as a debut is still not a prospect that a newcomer without legacy can dream for.
Richa, who is known for her voicing opinions bravely, says that there are insiders who can be kind and generous and outsiders who are punitive egomaniacs. Revealing that the so-called outsiders often ‘cut her to size’ in the nascent phase of her career, she recounts that it took her all her strength to recover from various forms of subtle sabotage. The casting couch revelations of various actresses, such as Sruthy Hariharan and Parvathy Theruvothu, confirm that most of them have experienced a version of this during the early stages of their careers.
As platforms expand beyond theatres, opportunities will open up for talents who otherwise find the going tough. The rules of the game are being altered so rapidly that the emergence of new independent producers and their search for raw talent will result in positive changes.
The beauty of this industry is, for every Abhishek Bacchan or Uday Chopra, it produces an Irrfan Khan and a Vijay Sethupathy, and for every Sonam Kapoor, a Tapsee Pannu and an Anushka Sharma.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)