A little over a month ago, Yash Raj Films unveiled the two leads for their latest film, Qaidi Band. One of them was Aadar Jain, who was blatantly marketed as Raj Kapoor's grandson. The other was Anya Singh, who was promoted using pictures of her in bikinis. It reflected how little even the biggest studios in Bollywood know about the public for whom they claim to make films, since they did this when the nepotism debate was at its peak, and when sexist portrayal of women in films was coming under serious fire. Twitterati were quick to react and call them out for both things. What they didn't realise is that Yash Raj Films has a long history of sexist and feudal practices.
If you notice the opening or closing credits of any film, you'd see that there is an order in which the names of the film's cast and crew appear. This is referred to as "billing." Around the world, and especially in Hollywood (which Bollywood borrows heavily from), billing of the cast, i.e. the actors in the film, is determined by various factors. Sometimes, like with Woody Allen films, the billing is purely alphabetical. In a few cases, billing depends on the centrality of the roles played by actors. But most often, it is based on the level of stardom and/or seniority.
In a way, billing is the most reflective of the ingrained sexism in the industry—because production houses can offer literally no argument about market forces to justify sexist billing.
In the 2010 film Band Baaja Baaraat, produced by YRF, debutant Ranveer Singh, a completely unknown entity, was billed over co-star Anushka Sharma, who had already appeared in two films, one of them a blockbuster. Gunday, yet another YRF production, features Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor, and Priyanka Chopra. When the film released, Singh was only four films old, with only two of them being hits. Kapoor was only two films old, and one of these was a flop. And yet, both these actors were billed over Chopra, who had been in the industry for a decade at that point, and had starred in almost 40 films—more than six times as many as the two men put together.
Priyanka Chopra got second billing in another Yash Raj Film, Pyaar Impossible, this time to Uday Chopra, whose abject failure in the film industry need not even be argued. In Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Abhishek Bachchan and Bobby Deol, two star kids who could never get much traction at the box office in their entire careers, were billed before Preity Zinta, one of the biggest female stars of the mid 2000s. In Dhoom 2, international star Aishwarya Rai was billed after Abhishek Bachchan, and a very popular Bipasha Basu was billed after Uday Chopra.
The list does not end. Mujhse Dosti Karoge, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Dil Bole Hadippa, Lafangey Parindey, Ishaqzaade, Shuddh Desi Romance, Dhoom 3, Daawat-e-Ishq, Bewakoofiyaan are all films in which male stars were billed over women senior to them, either in terms of stardom or filmographies, or both. They all happen to be produced by Yash Raj Films.
There can be two arguments against the point made here. One, why mention films like Bachna Ae Haseeno, where the male actor is credited first because he's the lead? Two, why blow a small issue like billing out of proportion?
Premier studios like Yash Raj Films repeatedly disrespect female stars by billing them after men who are significantly junior to them.
The flaw in the first argument comes to light simply by looking at the very list of films mentioned. In Shuddh Desi Romance and Bewakoofiyaan, Rishi Kapoor, a male star of yesteryears, is billed first despite playing a supporting role. Even in films that are not YRF productions, one sees male veterans like Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor being billed first even when they're in supporting roles. Clearly, Bollywood and YRF do not care about billing the "lead" first in these cases. Then why the double standard in Bachna Ae Haseeno? Why not bill Bipasha Basu, a veteran of around 30 films at that point, over Ranbir Kapoor, an actor who had appeared in just one film till then, and that too a flop?
The second argument is flawed for a different reason. The conversation about the massive wage gap between male and female actors has reached Bollywood. The sexist portrayals of women, lack of films with female leads, songs that glorify harassment, have all at least become a conversation in India, which is the beginning of bringing about change. But when it comes to most of these things, production houses are always armed with arguments about market forces. They claim that actors' remunerations depend on the size of the crowds they can pull in. They say that they cannot make too many films with female leads because the market for that isn't big enough, and they have to think about what sells. These arguments are not entirely without merit.
This is why we need to start a conversation about billing. In a way, billing is the most reflective of the ingrained sexism in the industry—because production houses can offer literally no argument about market forces to justify sexist billing. It hurts no one's pockets if a female star is billed first, especially if she's much senior to the men in the film. And yet, premier studios like Yash Raj Films repeatedly disrespect female stars by billing them after men who are significantly junior to them.
The 'N' word again
Now, we come to YRF's second long-standing sin: nepotism. After Kangana Ranaut accused Karan Johar of nepotism on his talk show, Johar made a public statement in which he mocked Ranaut for not understanding what the word means. He claimed that he has never engaged in nepotism because he hasn't worked with his relatives.
For years, YRF has either launched members of Bollywood's elite families, or repeatedly cast them in films despite their poor box office records.
This is a defence several Bollywood blue bloods have used over the years, and even more so in recent months. Sonam Kapoor once claimed that none of the people she has worked with are her father's friends. Mahesh Bhatt claimed that his daughter, Alia, was launched by Karan Johar, who isn't really a friend of his. Even Aadar Jain, who's being launched despite zero acting credentials, claims that he is not a product of nepotism, because Aditya Chopra, the head of YRF, isn't related to him.
On the surface, this sounds logical, doesn't it? Each of them seems to have a point. But then, why is it that people like Aadar Jain are launched as leads, without proving their acting ability on any platform, such as professional theatre or television, or even in supporting roles in films?
When the likes of Tusshar Kapoor and Harman Baweja are launched directly by their family members, it is relatively easier to spot the nepotism in action and call them out for it. But what Yash Raj Films and its cousin Dharma Productions do is a little more subtle. Just like how their films are much more polished and refined than the average Bollywood flick, these production houses have added finesse to a morally corrupt practice and made it virtually invisible.
For years, YRF has either launched members of Bollywood's elite families, or repeatedly cast them in films despite their poor box office records. Bachna Ae Haseeno: a star vehicle handed to Ranbir Kapoor after his first film flopped. Band Baaja Baaraat: a launch vehicle for Ranveer Singh, nephew of Anil Kapoor by marriage. Ishaqzaade: a launch vehicle for Arjun Kapoor and a way to brand Parineeti Chopra, relative of Priyanka Chopra, a "heroine" rather than a supporting actress.
The entire Dhoom series and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: attempts to resuscitate Abhishek Bachchan's career despite overwhelming proof that the audience was not into him. Normally, lead actresses are replaced in Bollywood film sequels at the drop of a hat. Esha Deol was dropped from Dhoom 2, and Rimi Sen only made a cameo, but Bachchan and Uday Chopra, despite box office failure throughout their careers, were retained even in the third film.
Rani Mukerji, another Bollywood blue blood, has been cast in 11 YRF productions. Many of them, like Mujhse Dosti Karoge, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, Dil Bole Hadippa, and Mardaani, came at times when casting her defied commercial logic. Even Sonam Kapoor was cast in Bewakoofiyaan at a time when her career was at an all-time low.
On the surface, this exonerates both YRF and these actors from having engaged in or benefited from nepotism. But a closer look reveals that what they do is far worse. Giving opportunities to one's own relatives is prevalent in business and politics as well. But how often does one see a businessman giving an opportunity to the son of another businessman who isn't related to him and is a competitor in the market? How many times does one see a politician's son or daughter being given opportunities by a rival political party?
The practices of YRF and Dharma aren't just nepotistic, but feudal, because... a select group of elites help each other out despite no familial ties and the fact that they're essentially competitors.
The practices of YRF and Dharma aren't just nepotistic, but feudal, because they result in a situation where a select group of elites help each other out despite no familial ties and the fact that they're essentially competitors in a business.
Yash Raj Films' latest release, Qaidi Band, is a product of its sexist and feudal nature. Two people, one a Bollywood blue blood and the other a conventionally attractive model, both with no acting credentials, are being launched as leads by one of the biggest production houses in the country. To make matters worse, both of them were launched at an event by Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, two stars who fit the exact same descriptions at the time of their launch and owe their stardom to Yash Raj Films.
Yash Raj Films has been one of the biggest studios in India for a long time. More importantly, YRF and its founder Yash Chopra have made many of Bollywood's most iconic films. In fact, one can even say that they're responsible for creating a distinct image of mainstream Bollywood cinema in the public consciousness. The difference between them and the average Bollywood production house is the difference between a PM and an MP. What the former does has a much bigger impact than what the latter does. Given their influence, it is high time we begin to question their sexist and feudal practices.