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The outcry against nepotism in films and the hegemony of star kids might have a solution, if only these recommendations are considered.
A recent chat with actors Richa Chadha and Shraddha Shrinath and filmmaker Kabir Khan, hosted by Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan, threw up some interesting perspectives on nepotism and equality in Bollywood. One of the most important takeaways – that we the audience have a responsibility too, and it goes beyond ‘boycotting’ the movies of star kids.
The current discourse on nepotism, which was sparked by actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s unfortunate death by suicide, has devolved into name-calling and hostility. It is disgusting to see how some celebrities, aided by media, are indulging in sheer opportunism to present themselves as the ‘torchbearers’ of the anti-nepotism movement, but who seem to have no actual solutions. Worse, they are whipping up a similar sense of hate and resentment in the public as well.
For example, Anupama Chopra got trolled recently, simply for liking the trailer of the upcoming movie, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, and a boycott is being called against the movie, because it stars a ‘star kid’ – Jhanvi Kapoor.
If the trolls stopped for a moment to think, they would realize that it is a futile, and counterproductive exercise, because among other reasons, the movie has already made the money it had to, and not watching the movie is a disrespect to a number of other artists and technicians, who are not star kids!
The noise around the issue has become so unbearably toxic and banal, that I’d completely stopped listening. Until, of course, this discussion on Making Cinema A More Equitable Playing Field, came along. The question itself was framed in a positive, ‘look forward’ sort of way, and that gave me the encouragement to click on the link to the chat, hosted by Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan, with Shraddha Srinath, Richa Chadha and Kabir Khan sharing their views.
On the whole, I found that the discussion focused on how the problem is systemic and not personal, and how solutions then must also be focused on changing the core systems and not attacking individual stars/production houses. A refreshing change!
Here are some of the ideas that were shared.
Kabir Khan pointed out, quite correctly, that nepotism (like sexual harassment, and therefore #MeToo) is not a problem that is unique to Bollywood. It is part of the social fabric. “We are a feudal country. Nepotism is in our blood,” he stated. Bollywood is not a special “club”, it is made up of people who are part of our larger society, and so the biases that are prevalent in society will be reflected in Bollywood as well.
So unless there is a mass cultural shift, expecting that nepotism will disappear from Bollywood is not a reasonable expectation.
Speaking specifically about the southern film industries, Baradwaj Rangan questioned Shraddha about the demand in the south for ‘fair skinned, and thin’ heroines.
“This is just patriarchy at its finest,” Shraddha responded, “They want the man to look the way he does because it gives them the feeling that if that guy can make it, I can make it too, but the heroines just have to look a certain way and it just refuses to go away. I would always think when I was an aspiring actor that I couldn’t make it in the film industry because I don’t look a certain way.” She believes that the directors, actors, and the audience all play an equal role in perpetuating such casting choices.
While this was not discussed in the video, Shraddha’s response made me think of all the other biases (external and unconscious internal biases) that keep good actors out of the industry, because they are different from the decision makers.
How does casteism affect how roles are cast? (Characters in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, who were from the DBA community, were cast by Savarna actors, except for one character who was a manual scavenger.)
Ageism? (Why were Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar cast in Saand Ki Aankh, when there are talented older actresses looking for work?)
Homophobia/Transphobia (Why the hesitance in searching for and casting queer actors in movies like Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, and Laxxmi Bomb?)
One of the most frustrating things, according to Shraddha Srinath, is the lack of transparency around casting and other aspects of film making, which prevents everyone from getting an equal chance at opportunities. “Sometimes there are wonderful projects that are being cast for, and I have no idea. How the casting takes place? Where it is happening? There are small groups within the industry and by the time you find out that someone is casting, it is over,” she said, calling for more openness and transparency.
Richa Chadha pointed out that nepotism is about more than just belonging to a ‘family.’ It is about using any social connections. So even without a famous last name one can make it in Bollywood as long as one has some connection in the industry, because those connections can help them to learn how to navigate the industry. Even after one gets one’s first break, it takes longer for an ‘outsider’ to understand how things work without advisors.
In response to a question about whether she thought that in the current eco system, stars/actors held too much power, Richa Chadha pointed out that we need to start valuing our writers and directors more. She believes that it should be “an equal set,” and that the directors have a big role in making it so.
“When you speak to crew and cast also, they appreciate directors that make it inclusive, discuss things, and that is very very crucial,” she said.
Richa Chadha, referring to Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, spoke about how he has written that ‘good actors’ like himself, or Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil or Om Puri, were only cast when the film maker had to “tell a good story on a small budget, and not when they had the money to afford bigger stars.” This she says is a problem that persists to this day.
“When you can only give us one lakh, then you will call us and you will be like glory, prestige, ek mutthi anaj, for the rest of the time, when you have the budgets, you will go for the person who is going to take away a chunk of your production fees, as their own personal fees.”
One thing we can, and should do, as per Richa Chadha, is to make more noise about good movies that are not necessarily mainstream Bollywood. An example she gave is of Chaitanya Tamhane’s movie, The Disciple, which is competing for the Golden Lion and is the first Indian movie to be selected in main competition at the Venice International Film Festival, in nearly twenty years. “I am going to support people who push the envelope and talk about things,” she affirmed.
Have you heard about this movie? I certainly hadn’t, before Richa mentioned it! That then, is a part of the problem.
Critiquing the current discourse around the topic, which she feels is not intended to take the discussion forward, Richa questioned if further bullying and hate mongering were the answer. Using this tragedy to settle personal scores will only lead to a “fresh cycle” which may lead to another tragedy. She recommends focusing on being kinder, and on solutions that lift people up.
“We have to take matters into our own hands when it comes to solidarity, supporting one another, being there for one another and standing up for one another.” Small actions like producers clearing dues for small technicians, life and body insurance for stunt people, a newsletter that is circulated within the industry, which offers a “solidarity network” for those who need help to ask for it, can go a long way in making the industry a more equitable and safe space.
Shraddha Srinath, in response to a question from Baradwaj Rangan, acknowledged that nepotism is “rampant” in the south India based film industries as well. Part of the problem is that the audiences want to see “lineage –successor after successor on screen,” perhaps driven by their own sense of “nostalgia.”
Responding to Anupama Chopra’s question about how we can demand a level playing field in a private industry where the producer is free to cast anyone they want, Richa Chadha pointed out that the level playing field disappears much before that point, because star kids already have a fan following, even before they have done any actual work. “When a star kid hits puberty, they already have 20 million followers on Instagram. These are not followers that have come from the industry. They are from the janta who are curious to see what so and so’s zygote has turned out like” she said.
Kabir Khan chimed in to agree, saying that “we are all complicit.” Taking the example of Taimur Ali Khan, he points out that media –journalists, photographers etc. are already making money turning him into a ‘star’ from the age of zero, and they are able to do that because the audience demands it. So to expect that a producer will not want to cash in on that in the future is unfair.
Ulimately, like Richa said at the end of the chat, “2020 has been a disruptor,” and she is betting on the fact this this will create some real change and make things better. It is an optimistic outlook, and one that I, as someone who loves watching movies, but is desperate for change in the industry, would like to hold on to.
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