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Nepotism in Bollywood: the legacy of privilege

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Bollywood needs to be more transparent with how it conducts its work.

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At the recently held International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards 2017, Karan Johar, Saif Ali Khan, and Varun Dhawan grabbed headlines when they made light of the fact that they are only in the Hindi film industry as a result of their respective father, mother and father. They also took digs at actress Kangana Ranaut, who brought this whole debate to the fore, accusing Karan Johar as being the beacon of the nepotism practice. Suffice to say, audiences did not appreciate the humor with respect to this, prompting Varun Dhawan, Saif Ali Khan and Karan Johar to apologize for their participation in this bit.

These days, nepotism is the one word that has the media and public abuzz with torrential debate. Nepotism has become an unholy word – a word that, when defined, means receiving something as a result of your parents or family, most often used in the context of some sort of professional privilege.

In recent times, the significance of this word is being tied more and more with Bollywood, an industry known to benefit sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins etc. by providing them with opportunities in film with hardly any struggle and in many cases, hardly any merit. Keep in mind, however, this is an overarching view on this matter, but in fact this is more complicated, and I seek to present in my personal view, what I believe, characterizes this raging controversy.

Related: Hey Karan Johar, Saif Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan: Shame on you for bringing Bollywood Baggage to Big Apple
If we look at the context of film industries, there is a big dichotomy between how Hollywood functions and Bollywood functions. In Hollywood, we have agents, an audition process and then selection of actors based on the merit of those auditions. Yes, films still get made with stars before newcomers, but generally I see new actors in Hollywood every year who land plum roles who have no (at least not clear cut) relations to anyone. These actors are not relegated to supporting roles. They are often given lead roles in films big and small, and this indicates a certain degree of fairness and propriety by which actors get roles in the American film industry.

In Bollywood, however, the audition process, in my view, appears to be less trustworthy. Many production companies claim that they give new people a chance all the time, which is true to an extent, but often times is more beneficial for directors/writers than actors. Directors and writers get to work on their own projects and come to the forefront, but large production companies still by and large end up giving lead roles to individuals with connections. Most other new actors (the ones without connections or name recognition) only end up playing supporting roles in the films for the film company they auditioned for. How is it possible that in an open audition where hundreds of people come out, at the end, only star kids end up getting the lead role? What are the chances of that?

To give some credit where credit is due, Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions have given the industry a few leading actors in the past decade whom have proven that you don’t have to be from the industry to be good enough for leading role material. YRF has given us Ranveer Singh, Sushant Singh Rajput and Anushka Sharma. Dharma has given us Sidharth Malhotra. However, these numbers are still few and far between, ratio wise, with the actors who debut every year who have filmi connections. Barring these aforementioned actors, mostly everyone else that is a mainstream star is related to someone. I applaud directors like Anurag Kashyap, Subhash Ghai and Mahesh Bhatt for always introducing new actors who are not connected to the industry in leading roles. Kashyap in particular always picks actors based on their suitability for roles, and rarely works with big stars. This is a model and class act to follow.

I will also point out that some of our biggest stars (Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif) are from outside the industry. Just some food for thought.

Another aspect of nepotism that concerns me is the argument by star sons/daughters that although they may covet their debut through connections, they still have expectations to manage and still have to work hard to maintain their position in the industry with their subsequent films. Although this is true, it misses a major point – coveting that first debut is the biggest challenge. For hundreds of new actors who come to Mumbai every day, finding that stepping stone is next to impossible. At the very least, they can prove themselves to an extent in their first film and then let their career evolve any which way after that, but these unconnected actors are not even getting that chance at the expense of star sons/daughters who get easy access to filmmakers and projects. The value of the “first film” is grossly underplayed by star sons/daughters who try to justify their presence by proclaiming that after their first film they have to work hard.

Related: Buyer’s remorse: disappointed IIFA attendees are demanding money back

There is also a flip side of the nepotism argument, which is, if someone’s son/daughter really is talented, why shouldn’t they be in the industry? I agree with this. I think it is unfair to criticize someone simply because they are related to someone. If someone gets a film debut, due to connections, and is a terrible actor, that is a problem. However, if there are famous children who are working hard to be good at their job, nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are related or not. What matters is how good you are at your job and that you are contributing what is best for the final product and consumer. I feel the nepotism debate is a little harder to argue with the current crop of young actors because they are all such good performers.

I remember watching an interview recently (cannot recall with who) where the example of Michael Douglas was given. Michael Douglas, whose father Mr. Kirk Douglas was also an immensely popular actor, entered films on his own merit. He worked immensely hard on his own to achieve his identity as an actor, and never used his father’s name or shadow to beget work. Not only was Michael a brilliant actor, but carved a legendary name of his own in filmdom, a point that hardly anyone can argue. Because the person who became an actor actually had a passion for it, continued to strive for excellence and worked hard, and did not take anything for granted, that to me suffices as being perfectly ok for filmdom. In India, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt are quite talented in my opinion and it is hard to justify not to take them. They always deliver, and they deliver big.

Another aspect is that we are criticizing nepotism in Bollywood, however this is something that cuts across all professions. Interesetingly, if I am not mistaken, this was a point made by Karan Johar himself, and I think he is quite correct. From politics to business to entertainment, we have examples in our daily lives with people that we know that pass the torch to their children automatically. In business, business leaders have often built businesses and then passed them on to their children, but people hardly question that. Maybe there is a better person out there who can do more good for that business, but that thought does not even cross anyone’s mind. Forget that, what about basic parental instinct? Wouldn’t we help our children in any way possible with any connections if they needed professional help? I think these last questions are pretty self-explanatory at the point I am making. Bollywood folks are doing the same things we would in our lives, it is just that they are doing it in the public eye and we do it more clandestinely.

Ultimately, also, filmmaking is also a high stakes business. Launching someone’s son/daughter is much easier to market than “Joe Schmoe”, and filmmakers tend to try and avoid any risks by putting forth faces that people would somewhat care about simply by virtue of their name. I am not saying this is right, but from a business stand point, there is some logic here.

The bottom line is – Bollywood needs to be more transparent with how it conducts its work. Directors should pick actors based on their suitability for roles and not because they are connected to someone. However, we as a society need to think about how we look at nepotism more broadly. If we believe it should stop in films, it should stop in every professional area. Only then can there be reform in this area of concern.


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