As The Nepotism Debate Rages, An Honest Look At Some Star Kid Debuts

From Abhishek Bachchan To Alia Bhatt, who did well and who made our eyes roll, hard?
Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The last few weeks have witnessed relentless debates on the circles of privilege that exist in Bollywood and how they cast out talented, young actors who don’t belong from film families. While a sizeable section of the ‘industry kids’ — as they are referred to — have often showed a shocking lack of humility and empathy while talking about their privileges, some of them have evolved to show a nuanced take on the issue.

While the debate on how privilege insulates star kids in the industry rages, here’s a look at some famous debuts of children of actors and producers in Bollywood.

FIRST, THE MISSES

TIGER SHROFF

Tiger Shroff in Heropanti.
Tiger Shroff in Heropanti.

I suspect the script for Heropanti (2014) was written for a fashionable rubber band. And Shroff played the character to a fault, springing off things and onto humans like a rubber band left unsupervised in a fifth standard classroom. Called Bablu in the film, Shroff was ‘vocal for local’ at a time male names were steadily moving away from shuddh desi Bablus and Pintus to Vivaans and Avocadyamans. However, his Hindi lines unfortunately sounded like they had been unwillingly tossed out of a peak-hour Bombay local at Bandra station. Every sentence was painfully punctuated and kind of dazed.

That Kriti Sanon could emote looking at Shroff’s face, which had all the emotions of the aforementioned rubber band, is a feat worth lauding. Or maybe, considering he is a privileged Indian man — a species whose favourite dance move is banging an imaginary hammer mid-air when the bass drops — Shroff’s fantastic dancing skills were truly romance-inducing. While Shroff’s styling has evolved, he now delivers his lines like a laborious student who has his lessons by heart, and his face looks angry while he punches and kicks, seven films and six years since his debut, Shroff still has to learn nuance.

SONAM KAPOOR

Sonam Kapoor in Saawariya.
Sonam Kapoor in Saawariya.

Why Saawariya (2007) came into being will remain a mystery as befuddling to me as why Delhi eats momos with mayonnaise. However, since it was the ‘launch vehicle’ for Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor, the film’s release was preceded by breathless media coverage like Bhansali had invented painless waxing or something. While I remember little else from Saawariya other than my struggle to stay awake while watching the film, I do remember wondering occasionally if Sonam Kapoor too had dozed off on screen.

I mean, can you blame the girl? You put her in clothes that looked heavier than my Delhi winter blanket, dim the lights to that blue, play the lullaby music…unless her lunch reminded her how this opportunity was served to her on a platter, like her salad, and kept her up, there was no way she could have not dozed off on that set. And the few times she looked awake, Kapoor’s stock expression was ‘stunned’, like she had been told that Arnab Goswami actually knew the difference between Shein and Siachen.

While Kapoor’s expression of anguish on screen, 13 years since her debut, still looks like someone has snatched her plate of quinoa biryani from her, she had helmed some important projects like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, which made a lot of difference to how queerness is represented in mainstream Bollywood.

ANANYA PANDEY

Ananya Pandey in SOTY2.
Ananya Pandey in SOTY2.

Dharma Productions’ Student Of The Year franchise — or what I call Jo Jeeta Wohi Soho House Life Member — is basically the Diwali party of the industry where Karan Johar goes all ‘beta, uncle aunty ko naach ke dikhaao zara’ to star kids. Only, ‘uncle aunty’ have to get their own samosas at the price of a new set of human teeth at a multiplex and watch said party. You’d say Ananya Pandey had an easy-ish job. SOTY has the emotional range of an HR ‘Happy Birthday’ email. There’s going to be balloons and confetti, and all you have to do is smile and dance through it. If you aspire to be an actor, it’s the making Maggi version of acting that SOTY demands of you.

While Pandey looked incredibly pretty and poised, especially in the dance sequences of Student of the Year 2, emoting did not quite seem to be her forte. Pandey’s character was the only one with some flesh on the ‘hot girl’ sketch that SOTY reserves for women, but Pandey looked frozen and stricken throughout the film, like someone had asked her to explain the math of how demonetisation had destroyed black money in India. Pandey had already bagged another project even before SOTY had hit the screens and in Pati, Patni Aur Woh, she struggled with the same lack of candour, as she did in SOTY.

ABHISHEK BACHCHAN

Abhishek Bachchan in Refugee.
Abhishek Bachchan in Refugee.

Abishek Bachchan, with a wardrobe probably inspired by the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro, made his debut with JP Dutt’s Refugee so memorably that every time my mother cooked, the moving ladle in the kadhai reminded me of Bachchan trying to dance.

Refugee was mounted lavishly to launch Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor, and unfortunately left way too much space in the script that required him to act. Bachchan, at that point, could convincingly just grunt. Dutt’s script was crafted to give Bachchan the chance to explore everything a traditional ‘hero’ does — look gruff, save the girl, lip sync to romantic songs, dance and fight a baddie — and Bachchan at that point looked only ready to hug a pillow and go off to sleep on screen.

While he could still pass off as an actor in the scenes where he required to look sullen, Bachchan was wildly uncomfortable in both romantic sequences and emotional scenes. In fact, while watching the romantic sequences, my father had commented that Bachchan looked like he needed a Gelusil, not a girl. Bachchan’s discomfort on screen persisted across many, many films which predictably tanked. However, age seems to have done him good and Bachchan seems to have found his niche, almost two decades after he debuted as an actor.

BOBBY DEOL

Bobby Deol in Gupt.
Bobby Deol in Gupt.

Honestly, I watched Deol’s debut film Barsaat (1995) years after it was released, and the first film I ever watched of his was Gupt (1997). Now, my seventh standard classmates were carving ‘Bobby’ out on their wooden desks with their compasses after the film released, and it seems appropriate in hindsight because Deol’s acting inspiration, I believe, was a desk.

Dialogues spilled out of Deol’s face with all the emotional richness of tissues being pulled out of a dispenser. Gupt was particularly disconcerting because Deol was cast opposite Manisha Koirala, a fabulous actor and Kajol, who was also good in the film.

Deol’s mop of curls, I have been told, however, was a winner of hearts and hormones — I suspect there was Maggi and ketchup in place of those in my body at that point of time. Though Deol’s dancing apparently also charmed people, his moves only reminded me of being tossed around the seat of an empty mini bus speeding to overtake another on Kolkata’s roads.

While Deol has made quite a few ‘comebacks’ in the past few years, his acting, unfortunately hasn’t evolved much and remains restricted to some textbook emotions.

VARUN DHAWAN

Varun Dhawan in SOTY.
Varun Dhawan in SOTY.

I often wonder if Varun Dhawan in Student of the Year, was an ode to the Delhi men with multi-storeyed hair you often spot at Hauz Khas on a weekend. I mean, he fought over parking, drove a shiny car which played loud Punjabi music, and picked up fights — if that is not a beautiful ode to HKV after the bars have shut, I am not sure what is. While Dhawan was confident in the dance sequences, and some of the scenes with a wobbly Siddharth Malhotra, again, he was wildly amateurish in emotional scenes. In fact, there’s more angst in a human ordering his last drinks at a Delhi bar before it shuts, than Dhawan could conjure in an entire two-hour long film.

The biggest problem with Dhawan in SOTY and several of his consequent films, was the childish, bratty tone underlying his dialogues — very ‘bhayyya mera chia kheer kidhar hai?’. That marred most of his romantic dialogues and definitely massacred the angst-ridden ones.

Dhawan, seems to have worked on his craft and showed the promise of versatility in films like Badlapur and October.

ARJUN KAPOOR

Arjun Kapoor in Ishaqzaade.
Arjun Kapoor in Ishaqzaade.

In his debut film Ishaqzaade, Arjun Kapoor was cast opposite a luminous, livewire Parineeti Chopra, who I often felt bore the entire weight of the film. Kapoor on his part, had to look ‘wild’, much of which was probably achieved by his stylist.

Again, Ishaqzaade presented Kapoor with the opportunity to explore a fairly wide range of emotions ― wiliness, anger, love, betrayal, fear. Yet, the only thing Kapoor seemed to have perfected is the swagger of a south Delhi human entering a gym like they are about to burpee to Mars to look for Kale smoothies in case the Narendra Modi government passes half a dozen ‘environment’ laws that would leave India with no greenery.

Kapoor’s dialogue delivery sounded more like disgruntled mumbling, like he had woken up on a Tuesday morning thinking it’s a Friday.

NOW, THE HITS

ALIA BHATT

Alia Bhatt.
Alia Bhatt.

There was little that Alia Bhatt had to do in SOTY besides pouting ― both the happy and sad kind — and looking pretty. Yet, she managed to make a character written as sketchily as hers, kind of cute and endearing — basically worth the money you spent on the popcorn to watch the film. Bhatt was shaky in some of the emotional scenes, but was way better than either Dhawan or Malhotra who were cast opposite her. In two years’ time, Bhatt had three releases — Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya, 2 States and Highway. Each film had Bhatt play a character entirely different from the other and she did so convincingly, and in case of Highway, fairly memorably.

Bhatt could be vulnerable and cocky, broken without being melodramatic, and in textbook Bollywood musical sequences fun and vivacious. While Bhatt’s initial responses to questions of nepotism were petulant and almost churlish, it was true that her efforts to evolve as an actor shone in every film she had done since her debut eight years ago.

RANBIR KAPOOR

Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya.
Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya.

Ranbir Kapoor was anointed the man-child he has played almost all his career, by Sanjay leela Bhansali in Saawariya. Kapoor’s screen presence, even in Saawariya was engaging, though, again he had nothing much to do than look lost and dazed in most parts. In the trite script that Saawariya unfolded around, Kapoor brought a sense of lightheartedness and ease, which would go on to become sort of his trademark across the films.

That said, Kapoor, unlike his peers — like Bhatt or Padukone — who took on characters which were starkly different from each other, he stuck to the same personality with different physical specifications, beginning with say Barfi to Sanju. It’s the same story of a man who refuses to grow up.

HRITHIK ROSHAN

Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai.
Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai.

Considering I am still often spotted at pubs, walking up to a DJ who was born in a different century, asking him to play ‘Kaho Na Pyaar Hai’ while he looks at me like I have requested a bhajan at 2 in the morning, my opinion on Hrithik Roshan’s debut should be taken with a pinch of salt. Looking back, Roshan’s debut vehicle does feel like a sexist, formula film made to show off the time he spent at the gym, and dance classes and with acting teachers with literally nothing left for Amisha Patel to do. That said, Roshan was a treat to watch in the film.

Now the second part of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, when Roshan plays the #gymfreak type Raj, may have involved some over acting, but over all, Roshan was worth every penny you (in my case, my mum) spent on the ticket.

VIVEIK OBEROI

Viveik Oberoi in Company.
Viveik Oberoi in Company.

Long before Viveik Oberoi morphed into Narendra Modi’s permanent hologram, Oberoi debuted in Ram Gopal Verma’s Company, playing an enthusiastic lackey to a don (played by Ajay Devgn). Considering it was his first film, Oberoi showed a stunning mix of vulnerability and arrogance, that captured the conflicts his character grappled with.

Oberoi’s body language as Chandu was confident and rogue-ish and as the storyline progressed and his character evolved, he exuded fear and empathy with convincing ease.

AND, THE IN-BETWEENS

JANHVI KAPOOR

Janhvi Kapoor in Dhadak.
Janhvi Kapoor in Dhadak.

Honestly, when I watched the Dhadak song promo and Janhvi Kapoor saying, “pupphyee, mahtlab kutte kha bachchaah?” I was absolutely sure she would not be able to pull off the role of a young Rajasthani girl in love with a man her family doesn’t approve of, with any authenticity. While Dhadak, a sort of spurious, watered down version of a visceral Sairat, itself was hugely problematic, casting Kapoor as the lead seemed almost obnoxious.

Now, obviously, Kapoor had none of the earthiness of Rinku Rajguru who played her role in the original and mostly wafted around in designer lehengas in the first half, looking pretty. However, in the second half of the film, when the tussle with her family began, Kapoor was engaging. From her outbursts, to her being vulnerable and then brave, Kapoor was convincing, though not entirely effortless in parts.

KAREENA KAPOOR

Kareena Kapoor in Refugee.
Kareena Kapoor in Refugee.

Kareena Kapoor’s job in Refugee was fairly easy. All she had to do was not look like she was going to doze off any moment, like Bachchan did in the film. Looking back, Kapoor’s acting now looks like it could have done with a little more subtlety. However, Kapoor was restrained in certain scenes of Refugee which could have easily become melodramatic, she was confident in scenes that required her look vulnerable, and the romantic scenes in the film were only bearable because Kapoor was in them.