Welcome to Fabulous Bollywood sign. Photo: iStock
Welcome to Fabulous Bollywood sign. Photo: iStock
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I was working as a journalist in Dubai’s biggest Bollywood magazine. We had assigned a photographer in Mumbai to do a shoot with a child actor that would go on the cover. When the photographs were delivered to us we were okay with the image quality but we weren’t too happy with the quality of the makeup the actress – who had just made her debut and wasn’t yet a big star – was wearing. But we were sure that our best pal Photoshop would be able to fix it well enough.

Days passed, the pictures were slotted for the cover and the interview was done. But on the day the magazine was supposed to go to press, there was a phone call from the father of the fledgling star, who is a big name in Bollywood himself. The conversation with my editor went something like this.

Father: I saw the photoshoot pictures today. She is looking atrocious in it. You will not carry it.

Editor: We have Photoshopped it; you can take a look at it. I will email you. We cannot pull out the pictures; our magazine is going to the press in half an hour.

Father: I don’t care about Photoshop. I don’t care if you have to delay your magazine, but those photos are not going. She is young, doesn’t yet know what works on a cover. I feel these photos don’t work and you are not carrying these. That’s final.

Editor: But…

Father: You know I am a very nice person, but if I tell people in Bollywood not to give interviews to your magazine they would listen. You know that very well.

Editor: Okay, we will pull it out.

It was 6 pm. Our whole team was in the office after midnight that day changing the cover story, the cover photo and the inside photos.

I do laugh now when industry people go after Kangana Ranaut for bringing up the nepotism issue. That it has been brought up all over again on the IIFA stage by Saif Ali Khan, Karan Johar and Varun Dhawan once again shows that Kangana might just have kicked a hornet’s nest. It is probably the most blatant truth that is played out in Bollywood every day, and as you can see, it goes much beyond just getting the access or the roles – the tentacles of nepotism reach everywhere.

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Saif Ali Khan even wrote an open letter on this matter saying there are plenty of people outside the star gene pool doing well in Bollywood. But no matter how much he vents, or even blames the media for putting star kids out there from the moment they are born, there is no denying the fact that nepotism exists in Bollywood.

Would the father of an Anushka Sharma or a Ranveer Singh (both of whom are not from Bollywood families) have the clout and the gumption to call up an editor of one of the biggest Bollywood magazines in a foreign country and issue a veiled threat to ensure photos of his ward’s dark circles, which didn’t get properly covered by makeup, do not get published?

When a Bollywood producer or director casts a star kid, they know for certain that they will have to deal with constant interference from their parents

The involvement of star parents

When a Bollywood producer or director casts a star kid, they know for certain that they will have to deal with constant interference from their parents. This might sound utterly unprofessional, and while in every interview a star parent might say, “I don’t even know what movie he/she is doing,” the truth is quite the opposite.

The interference starts with the script, which often has to be changed according to their wishes. Then the star’s parent(s) will often sit on the set and advise the cameraman on the right angles to focus on or tell the makeup artist how to do their job. The costumes are subject to strict parental scrutiny as well.  This usually happens during the star’s debut or a couple of films after that, because at this time it is important to make a good impression, and then they tend to interfere less and less as the child’s career soars. But putting in a word here and taking a look at a new script there is something that continues. Not to mention a phone call to a certain editor for a cover shoot, or a call to a newspaper editor to ask him/her to write about the new kid on the block. And, of course, the director is sure to receive a call from a star’s parent if shooting runs too late, rebuking him for his bad time management.

A cameraman once told me that the son of a famous actress, who was an established star himself by then, was playing her screen son in a film. After every take, the mother would look at the monitor and ask for retakes or suggest changes to her son’s scenes. This the mother was doing after he had a decade of successful film work behind him.

Stories about stars’ parents going to great lengths to ensure that their progeny get a better deal are rampant in Bollywood. They have even sabotaged other actors’ careers to ensure that their own kids make it big, and they pressure big directors and producers to give them roles. Nowadays, while PR firms play a major role in getting actors endorsements and events, it’s the stars’ parents who sit with them and decide on the next course of action.

At the end of the day, talent rules

One could say that if nepotism was the be all and end all in Bollywood, then no child star would ever fail. It’s true in the long-run that it is talent and hard work that makes a star, and those youngsters who don’t have what it takes often fail to carve out a niche for themselves.

But the difference is in the number of opportunities they get. The death knell would be sounded on a newcomer if his or her debut flopped, but in the case of star kids, the roles keep coming even after three or four flops. Some have managed to hit the jackpot after those flops and some haven’t. But in a competitive environment like Bollywood, it is true that star kids get many more opportunities to prove themselves because their parents have clout.

There are a few who are doing very well at the box office today who have never had any desire to make it in the industry. Names like Sonakshi Sinha and Arjun Kapoor figure in this list. Both of them were overweight and had little desire to stand before the camera. In the case of Sonakshi Sinha, it was Salman Khan who suggested that she hit the gym, and then she was launched opposite him in Dabangg. But her twin brothers also tried their luck in films and never made it. So it’s not all about nepotism – it is about talent and luck as well.

It’s about access, too

The fact remains that if Sonakshi Sinha had not been the daughter of the actor Shatrughan Sinha, she would not have had access to a Salman Khan, who sent her to a gym and gave her time to tone up before giving her a role in a film. Talented, toned, good-looking women make the rounds of studios every day but no one gives them a second look. Imagine if someone as overweight as Sonakshi used to be walked into a director’s office and said she wanted to be a film actress. In all probability, she would be laughed at for her audacity.

In his autobiography An Unsuitable Boy, Karan Johar tells how from the very beginning, every big star and every big director in the industry was acquainted with his father, the late Yash Johar, and how he called everyone uncle or aunt. Chances are he wouldn’t have met Aditya Chopra, who played a major role in drawing him into film work, if he had not been connected to the industry. There is no denying the fact that he is talented and has survival skills, but if any random filmmaker had made Kuch Kuch Hota Hain and invited the entire industry to the premiere, would they have turned up? Of course not, but in Karan’s case, they did.

Growing up as a star’s child has its advantages. You have access to a network of influential people in the industry.

They don’t have to struggle

I was reading an article the other day about how struggling actors in Mumbai often end up in the porn industry. They are lured by the fast buck and then told that if you do this now you will get a proper role in a film later. Some actors who have made it big have said in interviews that while struggling to gain a foothold in Bollywood, they had to go for days without food and were unable to pay the rent for a single room. When he came to Mumbai, Anupam Kher lived in a single dilapidated room in an old house, pictures of which were part of an exhibition a few years back.

Star kids do have to deal with rejection at the box office and sometimes public expectations are unreasonably high. For example, after Hrithik Roshan’s phenomenal success with Kaho Na Pyar Hain, his flops were criticized and dissected to no end. Abhishek Bachchan, despite doing well in films like Refugee , Guru and Phir Milenge, has been constantly compared to his father Amitabh Bachchan, and Esha Deol could never live up to the lofty standards set by her mother Hema Malini, despite her best efforts. But none of them had to worry about going hungry, or stand in long audition queues, or run the risk of being sexually exploited.

Nepotism has numerous ramifications in Bollywood. There are powerful industry figures calling some actors “their kids” because they launched them and they continue to work only with their production houses. I guess it is this unprofessionalism and favoritism that Kangana Ranaut wanted to point out.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist and author. She has worked in esteemed publications in India and Dubai and she blogs on women's issues at www.amritaspeaks.com.