Home / Opinion / Columns /  No, the age of the Bollywood superstar is not over

When people first stopped pretending that they read, they said they did not read anymore because they did not have the time. After that, every time people did not perform a respectable activity, they said it was because they did not have the time. This went on until social media took over the world and showed that people actually have a lot of time, which they squander. Now, people have stopped lying that they don’t have the time. But if we listen to the lament of various industries, it would seem that people don’t do anything in their spare time.

People don’t read books. They don’t read magazines, newspapers, or pay for their online subscriptions. They don’t visit restaurants as frequently as before. They don’t watch plays, comedy, art exhibitions, or Test cricket, or even a one-day match, or for that matter an entire T20 clash. Now, it appears, Indians don’t even go to watch Hindi films in the theatre. What exactly are people doing then with their lives? That is for another day.

Over the past several weeks, many Hindi films have bombed. They simply don’t lure their old base, which is most of India, to the halls, a feat that Marvel films manage. Many observers and theatre-owners blame the top rungs of “Bollywood" for this—that most superstars today have no talent; and that they nurture mediocre sidekicks who make duds.

The stars cannot blame their disgrace on the poor quality of their films. If they need great films to deliver hits, what is the point in being stars? The whole reason why they are paid tens of crores is that they claim to have the power to override the discernment of people. A power they do not seem to have anymore. Word-of-mouth can destroy their films. Taking all this into account, many observers say that the age of Bollywood superstars is over. But that is not true.

Film stars will endure, and even thrive. There can be no commercial cinema without stars. The force of capitalism may sack the present stars, but they will be replaced by similar people, maybe their ungifted but beautiful children.

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Stature is a strange thing—people grant it to a few, who then have power over all. Stature is like India. It’s an electoral democracy where most people make some people very powerful. But it is hard to invent an alternative to stature. Here are three reasons why a superstar exists in a capitalist system.

One, a star is compensation for the fact that no one knows how to sell anything. The best thing marketers have marketed is that they know what they are doing. The fact is that a small fraction of what people try to sell gets bought. It is very hard to sell because we really do not need most things. And a story without a hero is among the most difficult things to sell. The question, ‘what’s the story about’ has only one answer—the whole story. A synopsis of a story is among the dumbest things in the world. This is why a software feature that almost never works well on otherwise sophisticated platforms like Netflix is its prediction of what you may “like" based on what you have liked. People have a complex relationship with stories. It is easier to sell them a star.

Two, a commercial story should not be too good. It should not be many things that excite a good writer—it should not be unique, ground-breaking, complex, different or “push a new envelope". Instead, it should be familiar, simple and derived from old stories. As a result, a good commercial story looks almost exactly like a bad commercial story. You can only tell the difference after the film’s release. Here, again, a bankable star is compensation for the impossibility of a bankable story.

Three, people need to form wrong opinions about some persons. In this way, people project their opinions on another person and fall in love with that person, not knowing they are only in love with their wrong opinions. Thus, a star exists. (Also why you should never meet a star you love.)

People who announce the demise of “Bollywood" stars point to the south and say that south India makes better films because they have better stars and as a result southern films are doing fine. But they overrate the south. South India does make a lot of terrible films, and, as in any movie business, most of them fail too. It may be true though that people in the south continue to flock to theatres. But this could be because, in terms of economy and economic behaviour, north Indian urban middle-class is a few years more advanced than southern. The point I am making is not only the fact that a typical multiplex ticket is more expensive in Delhi or Mumbai than, say, in Chennai. It is that the north Indian middle-class is less dependent on movie-watching for fun than South Indian. The failure of Bollywood, in fact, is an omen. Within ten years, southern stars too will begin to fail as though terrible films are a sudden development.

The failure of “Bollywood" stars is not in the reduced lure of Hindi cinema, but in their inability to drag people out of their homes. The experience of going to watch a film in India is more torture than entertainment. We have to survive the traffic, and the air, and the ugly chaos of parking.

Hindi cinema is no match for the new India where “development" has arrived. Then, of course, multiplexes take care of the rest of the torture. That bad food and ten minutes of advertisements and ten minutes of film trailers. The new stars, when they arrive, may not be able to draw Indians out the way that Amitabh Bachchan could, but they will still make millions watch movies.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Nitin Pai argues why India needs a Nitipath for its civil services. Rajrishi Singhal writes double-speak can undermine India's crusade at WTO. Long Story tells you which sectors in India are most amenable to reshoring.

 

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