A couple of months ago, I went to watch War for the Planet of the Apes which, as the name might suggest, is about a war of survival between intelligent apes and humans. In an all-human audience in the theatre, there was no doubt that we were rooting for the apes to survive at the expense of our own species.
The power of visual narrative is undoubtedly immense because it is emotionally manipulative. We root for the Na'vi against our own species in Avatar. Native Americans, who were almost entirely wiped out from North America by European colonisers, rooted for the cowboys in Cowboys and Indians. This power has been harnessed by many vested interests over the years. From Nazi films that glorified Hitler to Hollywood's repeated stereotyping and othering of the peoples of the "Middle East," cinema has been used as a socio-political propaganda tool almost since its inception.
Bollywood [has star kids] repeatedly play unrealistically powerful and positive characters, so that the audience subliminally associates these traits with them.
Bollywood tends to use propaganda for a different purpose: to build personality cults around its stars, most of whom are from film families, and endear them to the audience. This is primarily done by having them repeatedly play unrealistically powerful and positive characters, so that the audience subliminally associates these traits with them. The end goal is to brainwash audiences into turning a blind eye to the industry's feudal nature by convincing them that star kids are completely deserving of their love and adulation.
To understand how this works, let's first look at how the audience can associate certain characters with actors who play them, using the example of an outsider who became a star, Shah Rukh Khan.
When Shah Rukh Khan came into the industry, he showed his acting ability with good performances in Chamatkar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Darr and Baazigar. With this wide range of unconventional roles, Shah Rukh Khan showed that he had talent. Even later in his career, he gave some good performances in Josh, Swades, Veer Zaara, and Chak de India.
But when we think of Shah Rukh Khan, what is the first image that pops into our heads? Is it him giving his "sattar minute" speech? Is it him as a NASA scientist? For a few, it may be him saying "K-k-k-k-k-Kiran." But for most, it is probably this:
Why is it that despite several much better performances, the character we associate with Shah Rukh Khan is Raj Malhotra from DDLJ?
Because Raj Malhotra is a character designed to be endearing, to win hearts, and to be remembered. He is charming and charismatic, witty and clever. He lives life to the fullest. He can play rugby as well as the piano and the Hawaiian guitar. He's "cool" enough to get his friends that six-pack of beer they want. He can rescue a woman from being arrested in a foreign land. He can travel across the world and win over every family member of the woman he loves. He can sing, he can dance, he can fight. In Bollywood terms, he is a "hero." So obviously, when he outstretches his arms and smiles, assuring the woman he loves that all will be fine, it pulls at our heartstrings.
Bollywood blue-bloods have considerably more resources at their disposal than an outsider like Shah Rukh Khan did at the beginning of his career. They get an image created specifically for them...
In a country with very low cinema literacy, most people can't separate the character from the actor and, for them, the two are inextricably connected. Shah Rukh Khan is Raj Malhotra and Raj Malhotra is Shah Rukh Khan, even though it is highly unlikely that Shah Rukh Khan, or anyone for that matter, can possess all these traits. Because of Raj, Shah Rukh Khan became the "king of romance," a tag that persists to this day, and makes us forget that the number of genuinely romantic characters he's played in a 25-year career can be counted on one hand.
It doesn't matter how many times Shah Rukh Khan says that he is not romantic at all in real life. It doesn't matter that he's been making terrible films like Raees, Dilwale, and Jab Harry Met Sejal. His fans are crazy about him, and they will maintain that he is a superlative actor forever. One film, albeit an iconic one, has earned him enough adulation to last a lifetime.
Bollywood blue-bloods have considerably more resources at their disposal than an outsider like Shah Rukh Khan did at the beginning of his career. They get an image created specifically for them so that they achieve stardom before they reach legal drinking age in some states.
This image is carefully crafted by repeatedly showing them in an overwhelmingly positive light, playing lovable, aspirational, and powerful characters. Let's take the example of three Bollywood blue-bloods from three different generations who achieved superstardom—Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and Ranbir Kapoor. These stars are widely considered to be "above" the run-of-the-mill masala film, actors par excellence, who "dare" to do something "different." But in a total of 80 starring roles between them, there is just one negative role, played by Aamir Khan in an offbeat film called 1947: Earth.
Why is it that their quest to always do something "different" has almost never led these stars to play negative roles?
Why is it that their quest to always do something "different" has almost never led these stars to play negative roles? Because playing characters that aren't likeablepeople poses the very real risk that the audience associates the characters with them and, as a result, does not see them as great human beings. This is important because fans, who obviously aren't privy to the lives of Bollywood stars, often counter any criticism of their idols' acting ability by declaring that they're great human beings, as if the two are somehow related.
With the exception of Earth, every single character Aamir Khan has played in his career is a person we would like. Before 2000, his public image didn't go much beyond him being a "perfectionist." In the new millennium, his real-life image became that of a socially responsible celebrity, primarily because seven of his most iconic roles in this period have been strong, conscientious men who almost single-handedly bring about huge social change. Even the historical figure, Mangal Pandey, was inaccurately portrayed to suit this image.
Even the thief Hrithik Roshan played in Dhoom 2 was an "imaandaar chor." Ranbir Kapoor, who has a personality cult that dwarfs that of the other two stars, hasn't even attempted to play a negative character, and he has been referred to as "staggeringly talented by every measure and metric that exists."
This remark was made by Karan Johar, and brings us to Bollywood's off-screen propaganda. Among the English-speaking elite of our metropolises, one often hears people say, "Everyone knows everyone in Delhi." What they're trying to say is that if you're at a gathering of people of this class in Delhi, you're bound to meet someone with whom you share acquaintances. But what is said ignores the fact that this class is a microscopic minority, and does not include "everyone."
For decades we've been conditioned to... compare star kids only with other star kids, making the ones who can act even a little seem brilliant.
Karan Johar's talk show, Koffee with Karan, is eerily reminiscent of this. The show rarely ever features someone who is outside a very "elite" circle of the industry, and doesn't even acknowledge their existence. It is effectively a propaganda tool used to endorse the stars closest to Johar as extremely talented actors who never benefited from nepotism, even though most of them come from film families.
The show's "rapid fire round" has a question asked of almost every single guest in some form—"Who's the best lead actor in the industry?" Outside India, the term "lead actor" doesn't refer to a specific class of actors who are only to be compared with each other. It generally refers to whichever actor is playing the lead role. In Bollywood, it is a politically correct term for "stars for whom lead roles are reserved by virtue of their birth." The options given in this question are Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and Ranbir Kapoor—four stars from film families and an outsider who the host has publicly declared to be his best friend.
For decades we've been conditioned to admire these star kids because they only play lovable "winners" on screen. We've been conditioned to compare star kids only with other star kids, making the ones who can act even a little seem brilliant. We've also been conditioned to ignore how lead roles are always reserved for these star kids right from the beginning of their careers, and their "daring" to "experiment" never interests them in negative roles.
Of course there will be variations in talent within star kids, but that doesn't mean that only the weakest of them benefited from nepotism, and the relatively better ones didn't.
Let's think in terms of probability. In a country of 1.3 billion people, with around half a billion native Hindi-speakers, how likely is it that the "best" actors in the Hindi film industry just happen to come from film families, and have probably had an English-medium upbringing? Even if we assume that it's "in the genes," it doesn't explain why children of producers, directors, and writers, like Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, and Varun Dhawan become actors. If films are "in their blood," then why do none of them choose to be writers, cinematographers or editors?
Just as every star kid isn't talented, every star kid isn't talentless either. Of course there will be variations in talent within star kids, but that doesn't mean that only the weakest of them benefited from nepotism, and the relatively better ones didn't. Nepotism does not help Abhishek Bachchan, Tusshar Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor and then magically cease to exist for Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan, and Ranbir Kapoor just because the latter three have received critical and commercial success and have huge fan followings. If Bollywood propaganda can ensure that we don't question a non-actor like Fardeen Khan being in the industry for a decade, it stands to reason that it can turn someone with even a drop of talent into a star.
The only way to counter Bollywood's propaganda is to get rid of double standards and think with our heads, not our hearts.