I must start with a disclaimer. I’m an unapologetic fan of Karan Johar’s interviews. Not as much when he is an interviewer, but when he is on the other side, spilling the beans. Johar is wry, comes across as authentic and if one listens without judgment, shows how astute he is as a filmmaker and businessman.
Recently, in an interview, Johar proclaimed the end of stardom in Hindi cinema. He said, the actors of today are popular but don’t have what it takes to be a star. Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha were stars, he exclaims, and he explains the “effect” they had on him when he was growing up. His eyes twinkle as he describes a star’s magnetism, mystery, and aura.
Johar attributes today’s lack of stardom to accessibility. In short, the film actor’s life constantly threatens and ruptures their screen persona. There is no mystery to their lives, he argues, as everyone knows everything about everyone. True, almost all film actors are meticulously curating PR-friendly versions of their lives for their fans. The nature of the medium mandates constant engagement. Indeed, the old starry distance is no longer there. But this constant change in “film stardom” is as old as cinema itself.
Film actors have always been part of a dynamic ecosystem. Stardom has never been a stagnant idea. With every change in cinema technology, it has evolved. Talkies transformed the life of silent cinema stars forever. Television changed film stardom, digital media has changed it further. The OTT platforms are softening the difference between the big and small screens even more. Thus, perhaps, Johar is pointing out to us a symptom and the reason for the malady lies elsewhere.
Towards the end of the same interview, Johar talks about why more compelling films are being made in South India, compared to Hindi cinema. He says, “It is because what they have is conviction and what we lack is exactly that.” He adds, “We are victims of the herd mentality.” He does not even spare himself, “…actors included, they are meandering, doing whatever, wherever the wind is blowing — Oh, action is working, so now we all want to do action films, including me, who wants to direct one.”
The conviction Johar alludes to, gave us a cinema that turned Amitabh Bachchan the actor into a superstar. Vijay, the Angry Young Man, resonated deeply with the larger emotional beat of ’70s India. Johar himself played a role in the rise of Shah Rukh Khan, who was reborn as the biggest romantic icon after a series of films in the ’90s and the cusp of this century. Raj, this new lover, perched on the boundary between tradition and global modernity in a liberalising India, hypnotised billions of young Indians, who were searching for something that validated their own romantic fantasies and anxieties. There is complex machinery at work which aids the construction of that mystery, that aura of the star: The myth, which makes the person on the street feel good, gives them hope and makes them believe in something bigger than themselves.
In short, a star is not born. Stars are made. Yes, the winds blow. Yes, they have to catch a moment in the history of a nation and its people. But the beginning is always when a filmmaker believes in a story and follows through. Johar says it himself, “We (the Hindi film industry) need to up our storytelling, we need to empower writers, we need to go back to the basics, basic love for cinema — conviction in Indian cinema. We need to stop trying to be someone else.”
In a time of box-office formulas, tent-pole films, sequels and franchises, perhaps the only stars we are investing in and sustaining are our “brands”. These brands may twinkle but they do not smile or open their arms wide. No one’s heart skips a beat when the first frame of a logo appears on the big screen. It has no aura.
It seems we have gotten ourselves into a black hole.
The writer is a writer-academic-filmmaker, who teaches at Kamala Nehru College, DU
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