Nepotism does not rock, and Kangana Ranaut is right. But what about the outsider with a proclivity for sad endings and silent backdrops?
There’s nepotism in every aristocracy, every enterprise in India. Politics, films, public limited companies—the power usually stays ensconced in the family. Those outside of these aristocracies and enterprises, the majority of Indians, whine about it and joke about it. In fatalistic, and sometimes funny ways, the belief that privilege is a matter of birth permeates us all. In middle-class gupshups over chai, these questions arise: who will take over the reins from Ratan Tata and Narendra Modi? Will Salman Khan ever launch his own child with a Rs100 crore movie?
Nepotism is under the spotlight again—spotlight these days is social media frenzy over a person or an event for more than a day—and this “debate" has stretched beyond a week. Truculent open letters have been going to and fro among Bollywood aristocracy and the media about eugenics, race horses, pencil boxes, farmers and favouritism. The Twitter apologies are amusing.
Somewhere lost in this brouhaha over Bollywood nepotism is the definition of the real outsider. Is identity in this mammoth film industry only about lineage or competing with those with the lineage? What about the outsider on the peripheries of the blimp, with uncompromised, radical ideas, with a proclivity for sad endings and silent backdrops?
Everybody loves the insiders, and that includes the media: Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, Karan Johar, Ranbir Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Kajol, and so many others, on the verge of stardom or at its twilight. Then there is the quasi-insider, friend of the closed circle, like director Shakun Batra, and the outsider which the closed circle launches and endows with the baba log swagger, like Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma.
Abhishek Bachchan had the luxury of more than 10 flops before he got taken seriously as an actor. Saif Ali Khan was relaunched after many years of oblivion in Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Now the media is reporting on Instagram posts of his soon-to-be-launched daughter Sara.
Kangana Ranaut, an ambitious, competent and beautiful actress, knows the insiders well because she found her way in after trying for too long. Earlier this year, she said in the talk show Koffee with Karan that if she were to ever direct a film, she would cast the show’s host, director-producer Karan Johar, as the nepotistic insider he was in real life. She stated the obvious—that Johar was nepotistic.
The statement had the kind of scripted wit Ranaut has meticulously built her persona of an articulate, untrammelled outsider around. Usually, this talk show has sugar-coated conversations replete with insider jokes and excessive fawning, and to Johar’s ears, Ranaut’s ordinary statement may have sounded like an unapologetic invective from a cocky Bollywood outsider.
One of Bollywood’s favourite star-makers, Johar reacted in public, discussing at length why he had enough of the “outsider card". At this year’s IIFA Awards, a song-and-dance stage spectacle that has little to do with rewarding real talent, Johar and two of his buddies—Saif Ali Khan, the son of actress Sharmila Tagore, and Varun Dhawan, son of director David Dhawan—said, as part of a joke, “Nepotism rocks." An ugly boys club jibe at Ranaut, a star who can’t trace her lineage back to Juhu or Bandra.
Kangana is a household name in India. You expect a Kangana film to have a strong woman lead, or be “female-centric", a word frequently used to describe a Bollywood film that does not have a man as its protagonist.
In the mid-2000s, when she arrived in the scene, she had a stilted accent, a lisp and seriously curly hair. In her first few movies, she was moll to gangsters and second fiddle to supermodels. The first few important roles of her career—in Gangster (2006), Woh Lamhe (2006) and Fashion (2008), she was a sort of anti-heroine. The film industry needed an antidote to the glamour dolls who reigned supreme at the time, who could be different without being arty or skilled. They found it in Ranaut.
She consolidated her career by 2010, with a role in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) and Tanu Weds Manu (2011). After Queen (2014), Ranaut was an actress who could decide to take up interesting, unconventional scripts. Through the last of the 2000s, Ranaut put herself through various phases of a self-help project—her way to be in. She could be spotted in fashion shows in Milan and Paris; she had become a haute couture maven. The speech doctor she went to did a good job, her diction and accent are now lucid, in a faux-Italian way.
In other words, Ranaut is firmly in, not one of the industry’s malcontents. Recently, she was in the news for having dismantled the original script of the forthcoming film Simran by writer Apurva Asrani, in which she plays the lead role, because she wanted her lead role to be a certain way and the story to be a certain kind of feel-good.
There are, of course, two versions of this story, but whichever you believe, it is clear that Ranaut can set the rules of how she wants to collaborate with a filmmaker. Just the way, perhaps, a male star does.
She is part of a system in which a script does not make commercial sense unless you can answer this question to the studio or producer: which big actor can you get? She is going with the rules entrenched in the old aristocracy where star power is supreme. So far, she is uninterested in the outsiders who are not trying to be in, uncompromised in the way they want to tell their stories.
She is part of a filmmaking culture that does not foster star writers, rarely star directors. Unlike in the south, where a Rajamouli film, a Shankar film or a Mani Ratnam film can attract audiences no matter who the actors are, in the Hindi film world, barring a couple of names like Rajkumar Hirani and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it is almost always a Shah Rukh film or a Salman film. To belong to the industry, Ranaut wants the Kangana film.
Some outsiders love being outsiders, no matter how hard the struggle is. Writer-director Devashish Makhija, 38, has been working as director, writer and researcher for the past two decades. He came to Mumbai from Kolkata, to make films.
He assisted in the making of Black Friday (2007), the most streamlined and perspicuous film by Anurag Kashyap, the original poster boy of indie filmmaking in Mumbai. It was a time when the first wave of the Hindi independent film seemed to have garnered force.
The film’s release stalled for three years; the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) did not clear it because of its controversial subject—what conspired to carry out the Bombay bomb blasts of 1993, adapted from the book Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts by journalist Hussain Zaidi.
In 2007, the Supreme Court allowed its release after a verdict on the blasts by a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) court. The film was not a box office success, but its clear narrative vision, powerful performances and no-song, no-frills language got critics interested.
Makhija’s own scripts were ready in a few years. Around the mid-2000s, he signed on with a big studio to write and direct an animation film. The studio had commissioned two scripts after a strategic tie-up to produce animation films. Makhija’s script was green-lighted along with another, by a former actor whose father was the CEO of the studio.
Three years into production, the studio pulled out of producing his script, while the family boy’s script became a mediocre musical rom-com in animation.
Between 2009 and 2014, Makhija made a few short films. His latest is Taandav, a film about Mumbai’s overworked police force told through one constable’s turbulent evening on duty. Having Manoj Bajpayee in the lead role of Tambe got the film traction on YouTube.
For his first feature film script, which he has been shopping for a few years now, Makhija has Bajpayee, an actor whose acting intelligence has grown more and more robust over the last 30 years, in the lead role. He got a producer to fund it, and was about to begin shooting, when the producers pulled out, saying Bajpayee is not a big enough name to sell a film.
Makhija says, “Producers want this one thing. Liking a story is never an issue in this industry. Many people have liked my scripts. They want a famous actor, preferably somebody’s son or daughter who can be easily marketed. It is the same rigmarole over and over again. I have stopped approaching the big studios. Without stars, it is impossible to convince a studio executive that your story will find an audience."
He says after 2008, when Prateek Babbar, Smita Patil’s son, made his debut in Abbas Tyrewala’s Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, producers would want Babbar’s name with scripts that they thought were indie. Indie film, so get Smita Patil’s son. After a few years, without a scintilla of acting flair, Babbar disappeared from the scene.
For filmmakers like Makhija to flourish, and for actors without family anchors in Mumbai’s film industry world to flourish, there’s never been any sustained infrastructural support. There is no parallel distribution system for independent films.
A small film competes with a star-driven film in the same multiplex theatre chains. Usually, these films don’t get marketing budgets and have to depend on the hit-or-miss thing called buzz, which could be anything from a controversy to a guest appearance.
Kangana Ranaut’s “outsider card" is irrefutable and refreshing. But its appeal will linger only if she is willing to subvert the star-driven system in certain ways—the way she works with her collaborators, the roles she chooses. Claiming a place on the turf reserved for sons and daughters of the film industry isn’t an accomplishment for posterity.
Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic, and a former editor of Mint Lounge.