ON-SCREEN FARCE

How Bollywood and its marketers lulled Indians into obsessing over talentless star-kids

Quartz india
Quartz india

Like a good section of Indians, I know all that is to be known about the Kapoor babies. Incessant media reports have, after all, kept us all abreast of the lives of several generations of Bollywood’s family no. 1.

As the lineage advanced from the grand patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, we watched his successful sons Raj, Shammi, Shashi, grandchildren Randhir, Rishi, and Rajiv, and great-grandchildren Karishma, Kareena, and Ranbir blossom and flourish.

Now, we are already being informed of the fifth generation: The midnight mass that Karishma’s daughter Samaira attends every Christmas; the naming storm over Kareena’s newborn Taimur.

So why are Indians so incurably addicted to the legions of star-kids from major Bollywood families? Besides, are we really interested in them or are we merely entrenched in the continuum because the substance is free and available? Like that song you hate but hum incessantly only because you can’t get it out of your head.

Pedigree is a word I began hearing in Bollywood for star children more frequently in the late 1980s. Since then, many non-Kapoor star-kids have emerged.

What changed in the 1990s?

The television boom

The television industry grew very big in India during the 1990s and early 2000s. Marketers were no longer placing faith in ideas because it was risky, unless a star, a thoroughbred one at that, was attached to it. Making a business proposal became more important than narrating a story; sales became the new driver, not storytelling.

Television, which reached every household, became a bottomless pit into which hours of content disappeared every single day. Today, more than 800 television channels, 50% of them entertainment-based, reach 183 million households in India.

Movie theatres are nowhere close to the coverage that television enjoys. With just one screen per 96,300 residents, India is the world’s most under-screened major territory. The US, by contrast, has one screen per 7,800 residents. China, till recently even less saturated than India, has been on a cinema-building spree and now has one screen per 45,000 residents. “With such a deep shortage of movie theaters and screens, many of India’s fanatical movie fans were simply unable to watch movies in the theater,” Forbes reported in 2015.  Being a star became more important than being an artiste, purely because it is convenient for marketers. 

Millions of Indians who had never watched movies due to lack of access began watching them on television in the 1990s and 2000s.

Stars, hence, became bigger, though not because of their movies. Being a star became more important than being an artiste, purely because it is convenient for marketers. They don’t need to invest in building a brand when they can get a fully-packaged heraldry on a platter.

The stars on their part come wrapped in glory and the audiences who obsessively followed their lives from the day they were born couldn’t wait to see them grow up to romance. We may, at this point, doff our hats at The Truman Show.

The deluge

Hence, beginning with a trickle in the 1980s—Sanjay Dutt, Kumar Gaurav, and Sunny Deol—the arrival of non-Kapoor starlets in Bollywood turned into a deluge by the 1990s, beginning with Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and going on to Karishma Kapoor, Kajol, Bobby Deol, Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, and till Alia Bhatt and Harshvardhan Kapoor.

Very often, they were paired opposite girls and boys from outside the industry and those were mostly the films that worked at the box office for them: Kajol with Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik with Amisha Patel etc.

Some of the debuts such as Bobby-Twinkle’s Barsaat, Abhishek-Kareena’s Refugee, and Ranbir-Sonam’s Saawariya miserably failed. But that didn’t stop the star-kids from becoming stars themselves. And, curiously, advertisers made a beeline for them. Television audiences who couldn’t care less about the movies they were making, wouldn’t stop watching the real lives of stars unfold before their eyes.

Now the next generation of non-Kapoors is also on the march.

The Roshan boys—great-grandsons of legendary composing maestro Roshan, grandsons of actors-directors-producers Rakesh Roshan and Sanjay Khan and sons of Hrithik Roshan—holidaying separately and together with their estranged parents, are an annual fair in the media.

The lives of teenager Navya Naveli Nanda and toddler Aradhya, grandkids of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan—Aradhya parents Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai, too, are stars—run parallel to real-time news on the newly-appointed Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Akhilesh Yadav, the ousted one.

Then there are the Devgan kids and others like the Pancholis and the Shettys. If I’ve left any names out, I apologise.

However, it may not be easy for the kids henceforth.

The next wave

The entertainment industry was a holy mess by 2010 because digital media had crept up and carefully crafted and controlled reviews and news by public relations agencies were countered by millions of people who had nothing to lose by speaking their mind. Perception was no longer reality. Mediocrity was now getting called out as this beast called the millennial, growing up in a digital age, had powerful opinions that often went viral, leaving the PR manager dumbfounded and helpless.

The incestuous and overhyped industry failed to see all this coming.

Meanwhile, the bulk of Bollywood’s outsiders, isolated from the mainstream by an insensitive and careless star system and a disproportional market, discovered the vacuum left by the flood of senseless blockbusters. An astute new generation didn’t mind checking out films like Page 3, Chandni Bar, and others, if word of mouth and trustworthy digital media recommended it.

Vicky Donor, Queen, and other small budget movies, including Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, Anand Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu 1 & 2, and the more recent Nil Batte Sannatta, besides the upcoming Anaarkali of Araah, have begun to rewrite the narrative without asking daddy. The star-kids are now aware that they can no longer lean on their estate and heirlooms. 

Multiplexes and over-the-top applications and services like Netflix, TVF Play, and YRF provide content relevant to the lives of young Indians, unlike the schlocky stories that television networks have to offer in the form of cheesy and outlandish soap opera.

The present generation of star-kids, thus, knows it doesn’t have the luxury or the time to take things for granted anymore. Most of them are aware that they can no longer lean on their estate and heirlooms. Young Alia Bhatt’s work in Highway, Udta Punjab, and Dear Zindagi is testimony to that.

They are prepping, learning the craft, and building from the resources they have at hand, because they know that otherwise they’ll have a hard time catching up with the strangers in their midst who are hungry, ferocious, and who draw from the depths of their struggles and the well of life’s experiences that are unfortunately alien to the insiders.

In an intriguing reversal of the cycle, the stars are working hard at becoming actors.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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