There is a chafing contradiction which forms the crux of actor Janhvi Kapoor’s stardom. Daughter of the late Sridevi, a lionised actress, and producer (and occasional actor) Boney Kapoor, Kapoor made her debut with Dharma Productions’ Dhadak (2018), alongside Ishaan Khatter. It was not the most promising of debuts, but with six feature films and a Zoya Akhtar Netflix short under her belt, Kapoor has managed to chisel her way into an “ordinary-woman”-shaped niche in Bollywood that emphasise her acting ability rather than the glamour of belonging to one of Hindi cinema’s leading film families. Whether it is Jerry from Good Luck Jerry (2022), Mili from Mili (2022), Gunjan Saxena from Gunjan Saxena (2020), or Roohi from, well, Roohi (2021), these are all women who ponder upon what it means to be a girl, and the sexist truisms that accompany it — explicitly.
Kapoor hasn’t had a blockbuster yet and with the industry in flux after the disruptive pandemic years, the prevailing belief is that the audiences for urban storytelling have withered. The need of the hour is to create the behemoth — like Jawan and Gadar 2, two of this year’s blockbuster films — that rakes in pan-Indian audiences, acclaim and numbers. In this landscape of sculpted muscles and bravado, Kapoor’s seen both success and failure. Good Luck Jerry, which was released directly on Disney+ Hotstar, garnered a decent viewership. Netflix’s Gunjan Saxena met with critical acclaim and added credibility to her being able to singularly carry a story. Other projects faltered.
The women Kapoor has chosen for herself are far removed from her own life experiences. These are not your Alishas (Gehraiyaan), Kairas (Dear Zindagi), Alizehs (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) and Veronicas (Cocktail) — all of whom are privileged, upper class (and upper caste) women from tier 1 cities who possess economic privilege and wield entitlement through their effortless Hinglish lexicon. Instead, Kapoor’s characters are from tier-2 and tier-3 cities whose ambitions stay buoyant in disproportionately male-tilted spaces. Their wardrobe choices are informed by what qualifies as acceptable and feminine within the constraints of conservatism and finances, like, for example, a simple salwar kameez, sweatshirt and jeans, kurtas.
Contrast this with Kapoor’s glammed-up images on Instagram. Whether it is the one where she wears a pink saree with a silver zari border and poses like she is in a Raja Ravi Varma painting; or a shimmery, floor-length cocktail dress with a high slit and a cut right below the breast. It suggests another pledge — that she wants to project a glamorous femininity; that she contains multitudes. In our culture of manic, god-like, celebrity worship, an aspirational quality is knit into how we want to relate to our Hindi film actors. Not actors; stars. Not people; concepts.
People have quickly drawn-up images from the past. She used to have a nose that was broader, and wider at the base. Her upper-lip was thinner. The lower part of the face was chubbier, with a more pronounced chin. Skin’s colour was comparatively less fair. There is brutal conjecture regarding cosmetic procedures undertaken to look as she does now. Why don’t actors de-glamourise themselves for interviews, film critic Baradwaj Rangan asked her a few months ago in an interview. Through discomfort, she murmured, about the fear of undoing the facade of celebrities being aspirational. “There are times I feel that the chatter gets too much - that you are not “looking” like an actor”, she told him.
Having to straddle the dichotomy of being aspirational as well as grounded is not an issue that is unique to Kapoor. A same-generation actor, Sara Ali Khan was seen not too long ago earnestly cribbing about a Rs. 400 phone recharge, and later disclosing to Vogue India that her thesis on crafting a public persona is to endear yourself through seeming comprehending, to be identifiable.
This insistence upon seeming just the same as everyone else, is a bizarre obsession, because who would buy even for a second that that Nawab Saif Ali Khan’s and Amrita Singh’s daughter cannot afford to buy a recharge of that amount?
Kapoor, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to bother with such performances, choosing instead to highlight how her bubble of privilege allows her to travel between different kinds of femininities with an incredible ease, from hyper-sexual glittery event gowns, to simple chikankari that almost seems everyday. Her characters bear the burden of adorning permissive femininity, one which is often contingent upon the socio-economic conditions created by the men around them.
Meanwhile, Kapoor’s own anecdotes are unlikely to be characterised as relatable content, even when she is conforming to Khan’s script of stinginess on the Koffee with Karan couch. Yet, what is relatable is her tying up her hair and toeing off her heels to sit more comfortably while on camera, for the talk show. In other interviews, she’s seen nervously asking interviewers what they think about her career graph, opening up a space in which her privilege feels diminished.
These trepidatious interactions with the press, and feeling excessively comfortable on her mentor’s couch, can be construed as authentic.
But if these are authentic moments, it inadvertently leads to the question of what kind of authenticity is digestible, and what isn’t. If Kapoor does come out the next day to claim that the changes her body went through were results of surgeries, would we sympathise because the demands of beauty are oppressive? Or would we detest, and resent her privilege that gives her easy access to them?
But then, such are our times, where we are caught in a hellish countercycle of demanding two dissonant ideas of authenticity and relatability from our celebrities. Between the two, authenticity is a subtext that’s glimpsed briefly and occasionally, pushed out of sight both by our unreasonable demands and celebrities' own agency. Kapoor has neatly compartmentalised from where you can seek glossiness (even if it is sculpted) and where you can seek what feels grounded.
There is a sense of loss in this celebrity-audience dynamic, where one tries to pull the string and the other puts up a wall. This aggressive prescriptiveness shows how stardom is a constant process of making amongst these series of negotiations. A making that entails asks of entitlement as well as several surrenders of expectations. And all of this within the realm of an incontestable truth: A star is, not born, but made.