Of nepotism and Bollywood (I)


Bisma Mehboob

“These houses have been constructed with my money,” I said, pointing directly to the adjoining houses of the late Yash Chopra and Dharmendra, located in a compact street of Juhu. Koyal, my Maharashtrian friend and an accomplished struggler in films — she had been auditioning left, right and centre for three years now — managed an inaudible chuckle. We were strolling around one sunny afternoon, on an exploration of North Mumbai, a space dotted with the residences of Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Javed Akhtar and the others.
That I as a person of Pakistani origin was so passionate about Bollywood and updated with all its gossip was both surprising and comforting to my friend. But here I was staking a claim in the stars’ riches, trying to make her see how we as audience members have continued to fund the luxurious lifestyles of film stars.
She and I were one-ticket-each spectators, who had over the years stood in countless lines outside cinema houses to watch Bollywood stars outperform each other on screen. We were the actual financiers of the showbiz world. “Tell Bobby Deol, his one and only fan in the world has come to see him,” I teased Dharmendra’s watchman who merely looked away. Koyal had been dodging calls from her mom all week long; just find a man and settle down now were the motherly demands. Koyal wanted to buy more time for her 70mm dream.
Bombay to me represented a city where the common man had a chance to shatter the rigid class divides that often hindered his or her growth. This was the place where Shahrukh Khan despite being an outsider became the ‘badshah’ (king) of Bollywood, but it was also the ‘nagri’ (city) of street-smart folks Hindi film songs had warned us about.
That was Bombay though; Mumbai as I discovered was also a hub of aspiring actors, filmmakers and musicians who lived in congested spaces with roommates, populated the theatre scene and filled the gyms. Each one of them had a compelling story of combating the odds just to land here. A majority of them were enrolled in acting and dancing lessons in one of the many acting schools eager to mint money from the dreams of the naive. Mumbai was also a place that ruthlessly crushed many genuine filmi ambitions in favour of ‘so and so’s’ daughter or son.
Nepotism is king in the film industry; it is that one pass that opens doors easily, persuading filmmakers to even spot talent where there is none. The new star kid on the block, of course, covers it up with stories of having been discovered in a coffee shop or while assisting on a film.
To be continued
Nobody cares about the common man’s desire of seeing his/her face splashed on hoardings across the country, but countless chances are given to Abhishek Bachchan to prove his mettle and learn while on the job. For every Nawazuddin Siddiqui who makes it there would be hundreds who won’t. They would be forced to make their journey back home to small towns and cities, as the cost of even attempting their cinematic dream is staggeringly high. There is gym fees to pay, stylish attires to buy, and photo sessions with updated looks to click, besides paying the rent and hobnobbing at pubs in hopes of making some sort of a connection.
Koyal had been through many false promises of a launch; her relatives had been mocking her ‘failure’ to her parents back home. “Superstar banane nikli thee” (she left to become a superstar) was their high-pitched slogan. The mental pressure exerted on a struggler with celluloid ambitions is often undeserving.
Later that evening, Koyal and I met up with another friend at a restaurant in Oshiwara, an area frequented by many TV stars and aspirants. Our mutual friend was an aspirant of a superior kind, though. Pooja, the 20-year-old daughter of a film producer and future actress, had just come from a fat-reduction therapy. She was contemplating getting fillers done on her face, as she got down to ordering some dish on the menu in her broken Hindi. “Maybe that’s what you need Koyal, unlearn all your Hindi!” I later advised my friend in jest. Many of their cine stars are incapable of fluently speaking the language they make their movies in. Saif Ali Khan had once pompously confessed that he never watched Hindi films and preferred English ones for his entertainment.
Celebrity rug rats have never been a match to their star parents; unfortunately for them talent is still not a genetic gift. Stars like Jeetendra, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini or even Govinda were all regular folks who had seen tough days, and brought a certain sensibility to their creative work, drawing strength from their varied experiences. Star bachas (children) all grow up in a similar environment, get exposed to only one kind of world, and that gets reflected in the stories they choose to tell on screen. The content in most popular films now is centred around the inner conflicts of the urban mind, and rural narratives are conveniently overlooked.
Bollywood’s quota system works overnight to keep ‘inferiors’ outside the parameters of the city of films. The players of today’s Hindi cinema enjoy this incongruous relationship with the public; they are keen to take our hard-earned money but hesitant to put their weight behind our talent. Star kids are forced down our throats, and handpicked choices often end up persuading the audience to warm up to them after a few films. It is time to stop being so welcoming, and start being self-respecting as paying audience members. Our response towards a Kapoor or a Khan, or a Gaikar or a Cheema should be uniform.
Even our own Pakistani entertainment industry is suffering from a Bollywood hangover. Lately, drama serials and even the Coke Studio have been providing ample space to artists bearing well-connected last names.
I meet Koyal after a month; she is Kiana now, and I asked her why. “Kiana is an exotic name na, I’ve even informed my coordinator to start spreading the word, along with my pictures, that I’m half-Persian,” she concluded, wishing that her new self-created identity would help generate some work at last. I smiled, and hoped that someday soon Salman Khan may get infatuated with her, as that was another way of making it big in Bollywood!