Just like everyone else, I am deeply anguished by tragic death of the young and talented Indian star Sushant Singh Rajput. His death has reignited the debate around the prevalent nepotism in the Hindi film industry. In the aftermath of the unfortunate turn of events leading to Rajput’s suicide, Kangana Ranaut and a section of people came out strongly against nepotism and lobbying in Bollywood. Since then some of the biggest names in the industry have been at the receiving end of abuses and trolling. They are being called out for setting wrong precedents and promoting unhealthy practices in the industry. Section 375 and 1920 London actress Meera Chopra perhaps best summed it up in her mournful tweet condoling the death of Rajput, “We are working and living in an industry which is cruel, cold and ruthless. We all knew well that Sushant was going through depression since long, but what did we do? Where was his close circle, the directors and producers who worked with his close friends? Why nobody came out and helped, gave him the kind of love, the work that he wanted bcoz nobody cares. I am sorry to say but nobody gives a shit about what you are going through. If your 1 movie flops they will start treating you like an untouchable.” The nepotism debate was stoked further when filmmaker Hansal Mehta recently described the invitation of Alia Bhatt and Hrithik Roshan to the Oscars voting board by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as ‘nepotistic’. In the light of the recent happenings, I endeavor to critically examine the issue of nepotism in the context of Bollywood during the course of this article.
Now, while the nepotism debate has existed for a very long time, it was during an episode of ‘Koffee with Karan’ about 3 years ago that it suddenly got national attention when the three-time National Award-winning actress Kangana Ranaut unleashed a major attack against the deep-rooted nepotism in the Mumbai film industry. While addressing the show host and famed Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar, Kangana had famously said, “In my biopic, if ever it’s made, you will play that stereotypical Bollywood biggie, who is like you know… very snooty and completely intolerant towards outsiders, flag bearer of nepotism, the movie mafia.” Other than grabbing eyeballs it also ended up creating a major controversy, rekindling the age old debate about nepotism. What makes the makers, in particular those operating under big banners, act with prejudice against the industry outsiders? Why does talent invariably take a back seat when it comes to casting new talent? And, why do celebrity kids keep on getting presented with juicy opportunities despite repeated failures when other newcomers have to struggle for years to get the elusive acting break?
Ironically, a lot of industry outsiders who overcame this bias to establish themselves in the industry during their early days today tend to hesitate a lot while speaking openly about nepotism. Shah Rukh Khan’s superstardom is perhaps the best case study against nepotism. A Delhi boy with no contacts in the film industry comes to Mumbai and becomes the biggest superstar that the country has ever seen. But today the tables have been turned. He is no longer the 25-year-old boy with no contacts in the industry. He is now the father of two boys and a girl who are never short of media attention. The seven year old Abram, the youngest of the trio, has been a star from the day he was born. The eldest son Aryan, aged 22, seems to have embarked upon a promising career as a voice artist with the Hindi version of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King. The 20-year-old daughter Suhana appeared on Vogue India’s cover a couple of years back even though she hardly had any body of work to back it up. I personally took on fashion designer Rina Dhaka and Nandini Bhalla, Editor of Cosmopolitan India, in a television debate to expose the unhealthy trend of undeservedly featuring star kids on the cover of leading magazines.
Watch the television debate here
So, it’s no surprise that Shah Rukh Khan in all his recent interviews has downplayed the nepotism debate. He has even gone to the extent of saying that he doesn’t understand nepotism and the discussion surrounding it. “When I hear the word ‘nepotism’ I feel the other person is talking about Napoleon. Even though I know enough English, still I don’t understand it and the discussion. Whether I agree or disagree — I don’t even understand it so how can I have an opinion,” SRK had reportedly said. Is this a case of ignorance? Of course, not! For, he quite openly spoke about the perils of being an outsider during his early days in Bollywood. In fact, even in his film 2007 film Om Shanti Om there is a scene wherein his matinee idol character Om Kapoor acknowledges that without his ‘Kapoor’ surname he would have been nothing. Clearly, he was taking a dig at the Kapoor family.
But, Shah Rukh Khan is not the only Bollywood name to have downplayed nepotism in the recent times. In fact, many other names in the industry have openly endorsed or downplayed it. Suniel Shetty, for example, has gone on record to say that if a child of an IAS can become an IAS, why can’t star kids become actors. What he seems to have overlooked is the fact that the child of an IAS has to first crack the entrance test. As for the star kids, they too have to ultimately deal with the acid test called box-office but the opportunities are presented to them on the platter, well in advance. And often, even with repeated failures, they continue to get new opportunities. Just think of Saif Ali Khan’s abysmal track record as a solo hero during the first decade of his career. Yes, he has proven himself as a bankable actor since then. But one really wonders if an industry outsider would have got so many opportunities despite incessant failures? The very thought of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s long struggle would give anyone jitters. Interestingly, following a series of flops, Saif, who embarrassed himself by taking the debate on nepotism to an entirely different tangent by bringing in eugenics and genetics, was forced to play a second fiddle of sorts to Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde in the Netflix series ‘Sacred Games’. Interestingly, Saif has recently created a new controversy by claiming in a recent interview that he himself has been a victim of nepotism. And, yet again, he has ended up receiving a lot of flak on social media for his remarks.
Here, I would like to bring in the views of the Bengali actress Bidita Bag who gained recognition starring opposite Siddiqui in Kushan Nandy’s Babumoshai Bandookbaaz. She subsequently starred in the ZEE5 film Sholay Girl wherein she essayed the role of Indian cinema’s first stuntwoman Reshma Pathan. Now, Bidita feels that people often tend to exaggerate the issue of nepotism in the Hindi film industry. In an interview with me last year she had opined, “You see doctors want their children to be doctors and engineers want their children to become engineers and so it is natural for industry people to behave similarly… The initial struggle can be much longer for people like me as those coming from the industry are certainly luckier in terms of their first break. But after that it’s a fairly even competition. How many times can you launch someone? At the end of the day you have to show your talent.”
Clearly, the debate surrounding nepotism is far from over. On one hand there are people like Kangana Ranaut who see the practice of nepotism in the Hindi film industry as most dangerous while on the other hand there are those who have learnt to live with it. But the bottom line is that change is the only constant. And, so, I strongly feel that if Bollywood wants to continue to grow and stay relevant in the digital age then it must learn to value talent over anything else. Otherwise, Hindi cinema might never be able to produce stars of the caliber of Shah Rukh Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Irrfan Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui again.