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How Bollywood Propaganda Tricked Us Into Making Ranbir Kapoor A Superstar

A case study in nepotism and Bollywood propaganda.

21/07/2017 8:28 AM IST | Updated 21/07/2017 8:28 AM IST
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Normally, I like to avoid watching mainstream Bollywood films in the theatre, primarily because they disappoint more often than not, and I end up regretting wasting my hard-earned money on an overpriced multiplex ticket. Nevertheless, I decided to go for Jagga Jasoos, thinking that the promos didn't look bad, and Anurag Basu can be counted on to present something above average.

And for the first half, Jagga Jasoos did seem above the Bollywood average (which is a very low bar, to be honest). It was reasonably entertaining, well shot, and was a rare Bollywood film that actually used music as part of the narrative instead of an excuse to show off actors' dancing skills and bodies. But the second half fell away, despite Basu doing a good job of making even deus ex machinas seem like part of the plan. The film lacked a convincing climax, however, and actually ended on a cliffhanger. It was also very hard to not notice how heavily "inspired" certain things were from Tintin comics.

Bollywood propaganda is very pervasive, and even the most enlightened people generally shy away from criticising Ranbir Kapoor. So, I decided to examine his career trajectory to see how exactly he became a star.

What interested me more than the film's narrative, though, was its lead. As I walked out of the theatre, I realised that there was literally nothing Ranbir Kapoor brought to the table, as far as the character of Jagga is concerned. The film was a musical, and Kapoor is not a singer. Jagga was a schoolboy, and Kapoor is 34. Jagga lived in the Northeast, and Kapoor's skin tone, features, build, and height are very typically North Indian. Being a musical, Jagga Jasoos offers Kapoor only around 10 minutes in its 160-minute runtime to actually speak in his own voice.

Clearly, Ranbir Kapoor is in this film only to sell it. The fact that he produced the film could also have something to do with it but, for all practical purposes, this film needed Ranbir Kapoor the star to pull crowds into theatres. And then I began to wonder, why exactly is Ranbir Kapoor a star?

Nepotism is the first reason that comes to mind, especially considering that he admitted to being a product of it. He is fairly unique in that, as most star kids have denied the very existence of nepotism, unless they're on a stage in New York declaring that it "rocks." I genuinely respected Kapoor for admitting this, until he appeared in All India Bakchod's podcast and actually tried to present his unimaginable privilege as a hindrance.

It must also be kept in mind that Kapoor has merely admitted to being a product of nepotism, and not really condemned the practice, as he also said that if his children wanted to be actors, he would like to give them a platform, meaning that he does not really intend to stop engaging in this practice.

While some star kids, like Abhishek Bachchan, Uday Chopra, and Tusshar Kapoor, are very soft and obvious targets for those calling out the industry's nepotism, Bollywood propaganda is very pervasive, and even the most enlightened people generally shy away from criticising Ranbir Kapoor. So, I decided to examine his career trajectory to see how exactly he became a star.

About a week ago, I'd decided to rewatch one of my "guilty pleasures," Bachna Ae Haseeno. This film came out in 2008, when Ranbir Kapoor was just one film old. His first film, Saawariya, had been a box office flop. He'd won the Filmfare award for Best Male Debut for it but, then again, Fardeen Khan also won the same award for Prem Aggan.

Kapoor was only 24 when Bachna came out. He had no real acting credentials, but had technically been in the industry for nine years at this point. His first "official" association with films was in 1999, when he was barely 17 years old. He was an assistant director in Aa Ab Laut Chalen, which was directed by — wait for it — Rishi Kapoor.

A star vehicle, in other industries, is generally a way to cash in on an established star's popularity by specifically showcasing their talents... In Bollywood, it was being given to a 24-year-old, one-film-old actor.

So, here was a 24-year-old with no acting credentials who had already been launched as a lead in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, now a lead in a Yash Raj Films production. Ranbir Kapoor had already gotten what 99.9% of aspiring actors in tinsel town never do.

The opening credits sequence began, and it was the perfect trailer for the two-and-a-half hours to follow. This was a Ranbir Kapoor fest. A star vehicle, in other industries, is generally either a way to cash in on an established star's popularity by specifically showcasing their talents, or a vanity project generally produced by the stars themselves (implying that they've earned the resources needed to do so). In Bollywood, it was being given to a 24-year-old, one-film-old actor.

His name appeared first in the credits, despite the film starring an actress six years his senior in the industry. He showcased his perfectly chiselled body along with his dancing skills, to an evergreen chartbuster that his superstar father once danced to. In this song, he wasn't Raj Sharma, the character he was supposed to play, but Ranbir Kapoor the star, changing 10 costumes in one shot while he danced. It may have been aided by CGI and had absolutely nothing to do with the film, but it showed that Ranbir Kapoor was the nation's new heartthrob, who could do anything.

Raj Sharma was a self-proclaimed "killer," or "player" in common parlance. In his most pathetic moments, he was just Raj Sharma. But in his best ones, the thin veil came off, and he became Ranbir Kapoor the star. He became the guy who conducted a bunch of street musicians in Switzerland as they played "Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam." He became the guy with the perfectly-sculpted abs who roamed around topless in his apartment, and charmed his next-door neighbour.

But nothing endeared him more to the audience than when he appeared in the songs, when Ranbir Kapoor completely took over from Raj Sharma. In the exotic locales of Italy, to a beautiful track composed by Vishal-Shekhar and sung by KK and Shilpa Rao, Ranbir Kapoor stood, arching his back, flaunting his abs, with his arms outstretched à la Shah Rukh Khan, as the camera dollied across him, capturing a low-angle shot.

His contribution to the shot — having six-pack abs, outstretching his arms, and arching his back — a feat that could be accomplished by virtually any good-looking man dedicated to the gym. But the effect: millions of Hindi-speaking cinegoers, brought up on Bollywood sensibilities with little understanding of the filmmaking process, saw Ranbir Kapoor as this gorgeous superstar with an incredibly powerful screen presence, subliminally associating the beauty of the locale and music with the man they saw on screen.

He was turned into a heartthrob using clever cinematic techniques conceived and implemented by others, with his contribution being limited to conventionally good looks, a good physique, and his ability to dance.

It didn't end there. In the second half of the film, the veil came off completely, and Ranbir Kapoor the star became the guy who could fix anything in the world. He could travel thousands of miles and fix a marriage by singing a soul-touching song while simultaneously playing the dhol and dancing animatedly in his sherwani and salwar. He could be the world's coolest PA to a film star by busting out some perfect Bollywood dance moves in the middle of a street in Capri, and even make a crowd of firangs join him. He was the quintessential Bollywood hero: a man for all seasons and people.

Of course, it isn't fair to blame Ranbir Kapoor for such propaganda. He isn't even the first one to benefit from it, even though he might be the youngest. But the point is, Bachna Ae Haseeno became a "semi-hit" at the box office, and consolidated Kapoor's stardom, so much so that his third film appearance was actually a cameo in Luck By Chance, where he played himself, furthering the notion that Ranbir Kapoor was a big star who could now do guest appearances, never mind the fact that he had been in only two films, neither of them box office scorchers.

In Wake Up Sid, Ranbir Kapoor played a character that, in his own words, was very similar to how he is in real life, and yet, ended up receiving heaps of praise for his performance. In Raajneeti, even the wooden-faced Arjun Rampal out-acted Kapoor, but it was the latter whose acting ability got a massive endorsement.

With every film, Ranbir Kapoor's star rose higher and higher. The film could be completely mindless, like Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or a shoddy mess, like Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Rockstar, but Ranbir Kapoor couldn't be brought down. Not even by massive box office failures like Besharam and Bombay Velvet or critical failures like Anjaana Anjaani and Roy. How could he, when the media constantly gushed over him, when even the most enlightened and educated liberals were in awe of him, when Karan Johar endorsed him on his talk show's rapid fire round by putting him in the same league as the Khans, and when industry insiders sang his praises, often at their own expense (Shahid Kapoor once said on record that Ranbir could've done a better job than him in Kaminey)?

[S]imply appearing in slightly offbeat films that allow more room for acting than the average Bollywood flick earns them a lot of brownie points, regardless of their performances. A case in point is 'Rocket Singh'...

The problem isn't just that star kids like Ranbir Kapoor are artificially turned into stars overnight on the backs of artists and craftspersons significantly more talented than them, using cinematic propaganda techniques that Bollywood has perfected over decades. It's also that simply appearing in slightly offbeat films that allow more room for acting than the average Bollywood flick earns them a lot of brownie points, regardless of their performances.

A case in point is Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Another YRF production, Rocket Singh was written by Jaideep Sahni (Khosla ka Ghosla) and directed by Shimit Amin (Chak de India). One would think that this film would allow Ranbir Kapoor to showcase the acting talent that the industry and his fans zealously claim he has, but one would be wrong. Finding an expression on his face other than his trademark sadface/angryface/any-negative-emotion-face frown and trademark happyface grin, or even a slight modulation in his voice in the 150-minute runtime of the film was like trying to find a needle in the proverbial haystack.

In fact, just like with Jagga, Kapoor brought almost nothing to his character, Harpreet Singh Bedi, who remained on screen as he would have in the pages Sahni wrote. But the fact that the character was Sikh meant that Kapoor was seen in a turban and with a beard, giving the appearance of a well-thought out character, and despite adding no depth, or even any discernible characteristics to Harpreet Singh, he ended up getting a standing ovation for the hard work of Sahni, Amin, and several others, such as the film's costume designers and makeup artists.

Flops never weighed him down, and merely by constantly calling him a superstar in the same league as stars 15-20 years his senior, he was turned into one.

So, a young man, who happened to be the son of a star (who is also the son of a star), despite not having proven his ability to act on even the smallest platform, was launched as a lead in a big-budget production. Despite its box office failure, he got a star vehicle handed to him by one of the biggest studios in the country. He was turned into a heartthrob using clever cinematic techniques conceived and implemented by others, with his contribution being limited to conventionally good looks, a good physique, and his ability to dance.

Simply based on the fact that he was appearing in offbeat films, he was hailed as a supremely talented actor, despite providing no evidence of this, except the fact that he wasn't as bad as his abysmal competitors. Flops never weighed him down, and merely by constantly calling him a superstar in the same league as stars 15-20 years his senior, he was turned into one. Only after being in the industry for half a decade did he begin to give the odd glimpse of some acting ability. Be it layperson or experienced critic, no one seems to be able to see through the glossy veneer of his stardom and realise that based on talent alone, he would be lucky to get speaking roles in more meritocratic film industries. Within a decade of being in the industry, he's earned enough to produce his own films, and even offer to compensate distributors out of his own pocket should his latest release fail.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of Bollywood propaganda.

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