What a month it has been for the dynasts and outsiders of Bollywood. Ranbir Kapor’s latest movie Jagga Jasoos underperformed badly (Rs 50-odd crores against a rumoured Rs 130-crore budget). Second-generation filmmaker Karan Johar and actors Saif Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan had to backtrack from snarky comments made against Kangana Ranaut on the subject of nepotism at the recent Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York. Khan later held forth on the prevalence of nepotism beyond Bollywood, the importance of genetics and breeding thoroughbreds, and the validity of eugenics.
Neither eugenics nor genetics helped Jagga Jasoos, begging the difficult question – do audiences want to watch the fourth-generation Kapoor scion on the screen as much as the film industry that is in thrall to his family name?
Two other films featuring a mix of dynasts and outsiders were released on July 21 with different results. Munna Michael features Tiger Shroff, actor Jackie Shroff’s rubber-limbed son. Lipstick Under My Burkha has a few less obvious dynasts: director Alankrita Shrivastava is the daughter of producer Prakash Jha’s friend, while actors Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sen Sharma descend from celebrity mothers (Dina Pathak and Aparna Sen, respectively). Sen Sharma is actually a third-generation film personality – her grandfather Chidananda Das Gupta was a renowned scholar and filmmaker. If we must complete the family tree, Das Gupta’s wife Supriya was the niece of eminent Bengali poet Jibananda Das.
Lipstick Under My Burkha won the week, totting up healthy returns and proving that a movie made with confidence and conviction and featuring an unusual theme and strong performances will work, whoever is involved.
The so-called outsiders didn’t do too well for themselves either. One of the outstanding members of this tribe who conquered the Hindi film industry without any connections had a rough weekend. Shah Rukh Khan’s ruffled romantic in the unfortunately named Jab Harry Met Sejal has its share of fans, but the road trip-themed movie is easily director Imtiaz Ali’s laziest effort. The film has another outsider, Anushka Sharma, who has been soaring ever since she made her debut with Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi in 2008, but the underwhelming box office and trenchant reviews have added Jab Harry Met Sejal to the pile of the year’s also-rans.
Khan is now in the unthinkable and unenviable position of having to defend his stardom. Unlike the insiders, the descent of the media-savvy actor will be lonelier, with nobody to blame but himself.
Among the benefits of a nepotistic culture is that it gives failure a wider cushion to fall back on, and allows for the lessons of one generation to pass on to the other. The next-generation talents undoubtedly get a far longer rope to hang themselves than their no-name peers. In a country obsessed with social status and inherited achievement, past favours and IOUs always come handy.
One among numerous examples is Imran Khan, the nephew of Aamir Khan, himself the son of producer Tahir Husain and nephew of the 1970s hit machine Nasir Husain. Imran Khan was launched in a family production – Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na in 2008 – but his career ground to a halt after a few early successes. He perhaps got more chances than his peers, but the fame attached to his surname suffered the same fate as his 2009 dud Luck – it ran out.
Aamir Khan, on the other hand, recovered from a slump in the 2000s to emerge as a one-man studio, venerated for his box office smarts and acting abilities. Aamir Khan had some family history to draw on, perhaps, and had a long view of a notoriously fickle trade that the non-dynasts never will.
Old is gold
The comfort of dynasty extends beyond actors. The Hindi film industry is swarming with sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and the grandchildren of directors, producers, cinematographers, musicians, editors, distributors, singers and even publicists and journalists – proof of a feudal culture as well as evidence that a risk-laden business is not the warmest of places for rank outsiders.
Some of Hindi cinema’s family-friendly ways has to do with the way in which it emerged in the 1930s and ’40s. The early studio system in those decades notwithstanding, Hindi cinema was largely produced until the 1990s by enterprising individuals who steered small, closely-held companies through bad and good weather. Like the cinemas of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala, Hindi cinema too has depended on and benefitted from these small units, which were operated by family members and faithful retainers, and which worked on the principle that since their financial risks were greater, the cinema would be more audience-friendly too.
Some of these companies are now among some of the most powerful names in the movie trade, and are the first ports of call for corporate studios. Nepotism is a relative term for the owners of these companies, who know that a favour to a son or a nephew will last only as long as the support of the box office.
Saif Ali Khan’s own professional ups and downs disprove his theories on eugenics and genetics. If Khan still has a career ahead, it is because he has been willing to reorient his career choices over the years rather than fall back on his putative throughbred status.
The Hindi film industry’s preference for its own has become more acute at a time when stars are marketed as relentlessly as commodities. Producers and publicists have borrowed tricks from advertising, such as innovative marketing and brand recall, to be noticed in a cluttered entertainment space. It’s easy – and lazy – to recruit actors with famous surnames rather than do the hard work of moulding a star out of nothing. It’s possible that some of these dynasts might actually have something going for them, but the reliance on allegedly good DNA can never ensure success if the movie isn’t worth the trouble.
On the flip side, outsiders don’t fade out in the dying light either. The Bollywood hustle ensures that non-dynasts quickly learn the tricks of the trade and inveigle themselves with stars to become insiders in their own right. Jab Harry Met Sejal’s mediocrity has nothing to do with family and everything to do with untrammeled smugness about the patience of audiences for poorly concocted material. Would the movie have worked if Ali had cast a second-generation star? It would have still reeked of staleness.
Perhaps it is just as bad being a nepotist as being an insider-outsider. Both involve an overweening sense of entitlement, which the movies are better off without.