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Bollywood's Nepotism Debate Is A Terrific Lesson In How Privilege Actually Works

It can cause legitimate harm to people and society.

03/04/2017 1:36 PM IST | Updated 03/04/2017 3:44 PM IST
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The entire Hindi film-watching world has been conned for decades into believing that Bollywood's star kids are talented. In this atmosphere, Kangana Ranaut's statement on Koffee with Karan was like a ray of sunshine peeping through very dark clouds. Many articles and opinion pieces that have come out on the issue subsequently have clearly and concisely summed up the issue of nepotism in Bollywood, calling star kids out on their privilege.

While nepotism in a film industry doesn't even make it to the top 100 on the list of problems this country is facing today, this debate is actually a microcosm of the problems revolving around privilege. It is actually a terrific way to teach people how exactly privilege works, and when it works in unfair ways that cause legitimate harm to people and society at large.

Even some of the best articles written on this issue... have felt the need to give the beneficiaries of nepotism—the star kids—some "due respect", even where none was due.

For example, even some of the best articles written on this issue have not come down too harshly on Bollywood's feudalistic nature. They have felt the need to give the beneficiaries of nepotism—the star kids—some "due respect", even where none was due. This is not very different from how any challenge to the position of the undeservingly privileged has historically come in polite, almost apologetic words so as to not offend those in power.

Another tendency we have is to assume that anyone privileged in terms of wealth has worked hard for it, is completely deserving of each and every penny s/he has, and is entitled to do whatever s/he wants with it. Thus, we have several people saying that Bollywood runs on private wealth, and the owners of that wealth have every right to spend it how they please.

The flaw in this assumption is simple to understand: historically, it can be safely said that those who control most of the wealth in this world don't necessarily deserve as much of it as they have, simply because we live in an unfair world where the rich and the powerful can use unfair means to cheat others out of large portions of wealth they helped create.

Consider this. Filmmaking is a collaborative process that involves lots of different kinds of artists and craftspersons. It begins with an idea, which is turned into a story, and then a screenplay by a writer. In order to shoot the film, you need a cinematographer. Several other crew members, such as production designers, makeup artists, costume designers, as well as their teams, are vital to the process. After a film has been shot, sound designers, musicians, singers and editors work on it to create a final, polished product.

Is it fair that the bulk of the wealth earned by that film is taken away by its stars and producers? ... Bollywood's unfair practice of systematically marginalising [other] artists cannot be justified.

Is it fair that the bulk of the wealth earned by that film is taken away by its stars and producers? Even if one were to make the capitalist argument that market forces don't necessarily reward everyone equally, or even in proportion to the work they put in, Bollywood's unfair practice of systematically marginalising these artists cannot be justified. In a country that loves Bollywood music, one would assume that singers and musicians could easily command huge chunks of films' revenues. But this is not the case, because Bollywood propaganda has made the (male) star the face of a film, brainwashing people into believing that he is the sole reason behind the film's success, and deserves the lion's share of the rewards it gets.

And if market forces are really being used as any kind of justification for this disproportionate distribution of wealth, is it not fair to demand that if a star is credited with a film's success, he should also be debited for its failure? This has rarely ever been the case as far as Bollywood's sons are concerned, as flops literally mean nothing to star kids. They are cast repeatedly in films despite critical and commercial failure, wasting obscene amounts of money that could actually have been used to do a million other things, including creating good cinema.

The biggest thing that this debate has revealed is the complete ignorance of star kids about their privilege. In fact, it can be said that most of them don't even know the meaning of the words "privilege" and "struggle". The analogies given by them to justify their positions in the industry (generally involving a comparison with a doctor's children wanting to be doctors) seem to reflect flaws in reasoning that should be unacceptable in primary schoolchildren in an ideal world. While many question their IQs, the problem seems to be something else.

When there is a guarantee of employment with high monetary rewards, "privilege" begins to mean being as successful as other people like oneself, i.e. other star kids.

Bollywood is a small, incestuous, and insular world. Everyone knows everyone right from when they're born to the time they're considered old enough to receive the baton of stardom from the previous generation. There doesn't seem to be much interaction with the outside world, as it is a self-sufficient economy with highly lucrative, guaranteed employment. Star kids grow up knowing full well that the option of being actors (as any other profession in the film industry isn't deemed worthy of them) is always open to them, and other skills are rarely developed.

In such an environment, the very definitions of words like "privilege" and "struggle" change. When there is a guarantee of employment with high monetary rewards, "privilege" begins to mean being as successful as other people like oneself, i.e. other star kids. "Struggle" begins to mean being scrutinised by traditional and social media or, in the case of Sonam Kapoor, Salman Khan being hesitant to star opposite her because of his friendship with her father. "Failure" begins to mean not being able to bring in box office numbers or rave reviews, even as personal remunerations are high enough to diversify (by investing in football and/or kabaddi teams) and live luxuriously.

Nepotism has a correlation with the terrible standard of Hindi cinema.

Moreover, the very definition of nepotism is lost on star kids. Perhaps due to their filmi upbringing in tinsel town, they seem to believe that nepotism only manifests itself in extremely obvious and blatant ways, such as their parents specifically producing films to launch them (which does happen; ask Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan), or picking up the phone and asking producers to launch them (according to Alia Bhatt on Koffee with Karan4, her mother saying "we have to meet Karan Johar tomorrow" was the idea that changed her life). What they do not realise is, that having grown up in a fraternity where everyone knows who they are, their parents need not even lift a finger and they would still get easily through the door that is closed for countless outsiders.

Caren Firouz / Reuters

Many argue that it isn't fair to penalise star kids simply for being born privileged. But no matter how subjective and multi-layered privilege is, a certain amount of objectivity is needed to distinguish fair from unfair. Take, for example, two people (of the same gender, for the sake of a simple argument). "A" is from an upper-middle-class family in a major city, with access to the best education at every level, facilities such as books, television, internet etc, and a fluent English speaker. "B" is the child of a housemaid who works for A's family, with none of the above. A is undoubtedly infinitely more privileged than B. But if A and B both apply for a writing job at an English publication, without any involvement from A's family, it is completely fair and understandable that A gets the job, because s/he is clearly more deserving of it based on skill and talent alone.

Johar's idea of what "talent" means is limited by the fact that he too, does not have much of it.

Privilege, when used to actually empower and educate someone in order to impart enough skills for them to make it on their own steam, is not a bad thing. The points of difference between A and, let's say, Varun Dhawan, are that A's appointment to the job is not depriving a significantly more talented person of an opportunity, not rewarding a talentless individual, and not compromising the integrity of the profession.

The last point is actually quite significant, as nepotism has a correlation with the terrible standard of Hindi cinema. In the absence of talent, one obviously tries to stick to a formula, which, in a creative field, leads to an erosion of quality. Moreover, if the talentless hold all the power, they have a vested interest in keeping talent out of the industry, as good cinema will bear stark contrast to the bilge Bollywood has peddled for decades, and expose their lack of talent.

A classic example of this can be seen in Karan Johar's response to this debate on his blog. One is forced to resist the urge to break something while reading his sickeningly feudal ideas, and get over the ridiculousness of the fact that he actually expects people to believe that, in a country of 1.2 billion, the most talented actors he has found are from film families. One also has to remember that Johar cannot seem to understand that his views on the issue are moot, since he has a vested interest in keeping the status quo.

Industry kids [are] given so many opportunities, and so many different, mutually exclusive criteria of success, that failing actually becomes more difficult than succeeding.

But a much more important point to be noted is that Johar's idea of what "talent" means is limited by the fact that he too, does not have much of it. Thus, in his opinion, Ranbir Kapoor is "staggeringly talented by every measure and metric that exists," proving that Bollywood makes its own yardsticks to suit its interests. What else could explain such hype around an actor who, even by the most liberal estimates, has given only four or five glimpses of acting talent worthy of his stardom in a decade long career? Is it fair that the likes of Johar expect us to be bowled over by these stars' "charisma" and/or dancing skills, and just assume that they're terrific actors who may not give evidence of this very often because they have rightly bowed down to commercial interests?

A recently surfaced video from 2014 that showed Johar admitting to engaging in nepotism has been used against his recent statements against Kangana Ranaut. In the video, Johar said that in this country, there are too many factors that govern who becomes a movie star. Since he was trying to be honest, it can be assumed that this false narrative is something that Bollywood has sold for so long that industry bigwigs actually believe it.

Besides an occasional Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar, who become stars despite not being acting heavyweights, most people who attain stardom are industry kids who are given so many opportunities, and so many different, mutually exclusive criteria of success, that failing actually becomes more difficult than succeeding. In the absence of critical acclaim, they are lauded for commercial success, and vice versa. In the absence of both, they are put in ensemble star casts, which provide them a massive platform without affecting their stardom, should the films fail. If they try something different, they are applauded, no matter how badly they do it. Bollywood's extensive PR machinery is used and every effort is made to ensure that they do not escape public consciousness, and somehow appear successful and endearing. Above all, they get the benefit of being presumed talented unless proven otherwise and, in some cases, even then.

The Karan Johar video also proves one very important thing. Privileged people like him also have the privilege of having the sole right to point out their privilege. If they admit it, they are being gracious, honest, and endearing, but if somebody else dares to point it out and make them feel guilty about it, they are to be accused of playing the victim card, even though the likes of Karan Johar hold the rest.

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