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NEW DELHI : Bollywood is, by now, notorious for its nepotism, favouring star kids with plum opportunities over outsiders. However, the Indian box office seems to prove that even the audiences have consistently lined up for films with familiar names, often scions of film families especially if they star in mainstream commercial offerings, preferring to give niche or experimental subjects a miss.

The industry’s disrepute for favouritism needs to be taken with a pinch of salt when considering the fact that 87 of the top 100 movies in the past decade (when looking at the top 10 hits each year from 2009 to 2019) feature in their main cast at least one actor with film family connections and saleable tropes of song, dance and drama.

In 2019, for instance, 9 out of the year’s 10 highest grossers featured star kids with the list led by action thriller War starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff. The year before that, the second highest grosser of the year, action comedy Simmba, featured Sara Ali Khan alongside Ranveer Singh while the third highest grosser was Shroff’s Baaghi 2. In 2014, all 10 films featured star kids, led by Aamir Khan’s PK and Salman Khan’s Kick, both have senior film professionals as fathers.

It could be argued that films featuring children of film stars are better promoted with bigger marketing budgets. But the box office is equally kind when ‘outsiders’ like Akshay Kumar star in comedies like Housefull 4 or patriotic sagas like Mission Mangal and Kesari.

Notwithstanding the argument that star kids do get a foot in the door much more easily, the conversation that warrants attention is one around tastes of audiences in India. There is no doubt a newcomer with a famous parent may get the chance to face the camera but he becomes a saleable name himself only when audiences flock to see his films, often easy, entertaining offerings, over those of others. While star kids like Alia Bhatt, Ranbir Kapoor and Varun Dhawan have made it with consistent successes, careers of several others like Uday Chopra, Abhishek Bachchan and Harshvardhan Kapoor never took off.

Commenting on the raw deal that ‘outsiders’ like actor Sushant Singh Rajput have got, a conversation generating heated debate over the past month-and-a-half, distributor exhibitor Akshaye Rathi tweeted last week that “if the audience had turned up at the cinemas in big numbers for their films, every film maker would have chased them with work, irrespective of whether they were ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’." Among others, Rathi named Sonchiriya, a dacoit drama starring Rajput that had fared miserably at the box office despite glowing reviews last year.

“Theatrical viewing (in India) is not about experimentation," independent film exhibitor Vishek Chauhan pointed out. “The amount of investment in terms of time, effort and the emotion that goes into planning an outing is huge. The dissonance from a bad theatrical experience is five times more as compared to a Netflix film that you didn’t enjoy."

Face value (or a sense of familiarity with those who feature in a film, either thanks to their own record or family lineage) impacts its universal appeal, trade experts say. Chauhan adds that audiences love to see predictable things on screen, good entertainment translates into value for money and new -age content is still deemed best for streaming platforms.

India’s limited screen count despite the influx of multiplexes remains a perennial issue for small-budget films and unfamiliar faces. For years, directors of off-beat films have complained of feeling shortchanged by theatres, with odd shows and timings that favour big star vehicles. Theatre owners like Chauhan, on the other hand, point out that the exhibition sector is arm-twisted by producers who want the best shows, not wanting to acknowledge that there are only that many films a theatre can run per day.

“Theatrical distribution of films has always been a challenge in India. The Hindi market for instance, has a maximum of 4,500-5,000 screens that is insufficient compared to the number of films we make. The negotiation or fight (to get proper showcasing for your film) has nothing to do with being an insider or outsider," said Reliance Entertainment Group CEO Shibasish Sarkar. He added that while large studios bringing out multiple films a year may have greater bargaining power, things even out when there are multiple films clashing on the same day.

Sarkar admitted stars, whether insiders or outsiders, come with a brand value but if a specific film doesn’t work, it is thrown away as quickly as the Friday of release. That said, nobody ever has a say in what or whom people will like. It may be possible to push a star kid but there is no way you can get them acceptance.

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