Over the past few weeks, the unfortunate demise of a young actor has reignited the debate around nepotism and the pressures on “outsiders” in the Hindi film industry. The conversation is an important one but has unfortunately been painfully myopic. What hasn’t helped is that it has been led by prime-time TV performers in the garb of journalists sermonising to the film industry about ethics and morality. This conversation requires a profound reckoning of the different ways in which privilege manifests itself in society. Much has been said about insiders and outsiders in Bollywood, but the reality is that our society is full of deep insider vs outsider challenges.
According to a 2019 Oxfam report, India’s richest 10 per cent own 77.4 per cent of the national wealth, while the bottom 60 per cent own less than 5 per cent. Cronyism is a defining principle of economic activity, and while entrenched business houses control the nation’s resources, newer entrepreneurs face significant barriers to entry. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business report, India ranks 129 out of 190 countries on the “setting up a new business” parameter. High-profile cases of suicides among Indian entrepreneurs such as Sajan Parayil, Vineet Whig and Lucky Gupta, have all pointed to the bureaucratic, regulatory, and financial duress they’ve had to contend with.
This trend is more obvious in politics. Even before a young professional working in public policy can articulate an interest in politics, a new generation of Thackerays, Scindias, and Gehlots is waiting in the wings. Not only do each of these individuals come with a name recognition, but also a network that allows them to grow faster than any outsider can hope to. The Indian civil services and judicial system have similarly been characterised by nepotism and favouritism, with appointments being opaque and subjective, and conversations in courtrooms involving inside jokes and banter.
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No conversation on privilege is complete without considering discrimination on the basis of caste, perhaps the most perverse manifestation of nepotism and privilege. A recent article in The Economist reports that such discrimination remains ubiquitous: “…in the government as in the private sector, the highest positions remain a near-monopoly for the three top tiers or varnas of the broader caste pyramid.”
We are a feudal society and unfortunately, nepotism and privilege permeate all echelons. The film industry also exemplifies all of the flaws and constraints of the society it inhabits. But it is often an easy punching bag, even though the aforementioned sectors are ostensibly more pertinent, and require more tangible skills versus the subjective charisma or “star-power” the film business operates with.
The film industry also contends with a unique set of challenges. Bollywood has had “industry” status for a little over two decades, resulting in the entry of foreign studios and corporates. Yet, a range of finance and distribution challenges hinder the industry’s ability to tell more diverse stories. Corporates tend to tie up most of their funds in multiple film slates with the bigger production houses and seldom bankroll independent producers. Smaller producers are also unable to access bank loans, forcing them to rely on private financiers, builders and high-net-worth individuals. From a distribution perspective, the industry is severely constrained — India has only 9,600 cinema screens compared to more than 60,000 in China. This results in independent films and those without established stars getting smaller releases vis à vis more mainstream films. They are not really given a fair chance at the box office and most get pulled off the screens if they don’t get off to a flying start. This perpetuates a cycle in which these films get branded as non-profitable by the trade and face difficulties in raising funds.
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There is high pressure to demonstrate success in this constrained environment. Inevitably, formulaic films with known names are both easier to finance and distribute. Producers start viewing “star kids” as financially more viable compared to rank newcomers. Even before they are launched in their first films, they have millions of followers on their social media handles and photographers are tripping over themselves to take their pictures. The audience – whose patronage has created an industry out of little Taimur Ali Khan’s pictures – laps these up.
Despite these challenges, the industry has witnessed some positive changes. The past decade has seen a sharp increase in female-driven films, spearheaded by actors such as Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Taapsee Pannu, and with those like Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone (none of whom belong to film families) turning producers. There is also a palpable increase in demand within the industry for the hitherto under-represented stories and storytellers from the interiors of India. Nearly all of the current crop of directors — Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Rajkumar Hirani, Anubhav Sinha, Imtiaz Ali, Neeraj Pandey — are outsiders. Stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, and, more recently, Ayushmann Khurrana and Ranveer Singh are textbook examples of how “outsiders” have risen to prominence.
The media tends to talk about the film industry as a monolith. This only reinforces the myth of “Bollywood” as some elite club located in Juhu. The nuances of the industry get lost in this abysmal reporting that has failed to consider the multitudes – writers, directors, producers, actors, technicians – who constitute the industry.
It is critical to both understand the industry’s specific challenges and recognise that this is scarcely a Bollywood-only issue. There is no doubt that the film industry must collectively introspect and institute mechanisms to level the playing field, remaining cognisant of the day-to-day challenges that artistes and technicians encounter. But what a pity it would be if we as a society didn’t also use this moment to reckon with and dismantle the entrenched social, economic, and cultural factors that perpetuate privilege and entitlement.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 12 under the title “Bollywood, the punching bag”. Khan is a filmmaker and screenwriter. Sandhu is a public policy analyst
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