A few weeks after Irrfan Khan’s passing, his son Babil wrote a heartfelt post on Instagram in which he articulated what his father was up against while getting a foot into the Hindi film industry. “…for almost all of his journey, he was defeated in the box office by hunks with six pack abs delivering theatrical one-liners and defying the laws of physics and reality…,” he wrote. What Babil is describing is the curse of the star system in Bollywood. The words to ponder on here are ‘theatrical’ and ‘box office’ – the two biggest weapons of a star.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic both theatres and the box office are in serious trouble. For the first time ever the Indian box office is at zero. And theatres have been shut since March. When the world is in a better place, they will eventually resume business. But will it be the same as before? How will the pandemic shake up the star system?
For stars to survive, you need theatres to survive
Ajit Andhare, Chief Operating Officer at Viacom 18 Studios, certainly thinks so. “Stardom is when people come to the theatre to see you no matter what, irrespective of what the character is. But the bigger question is, what happens to theatres. Will they be extinct? I don’t think that’s the case. But it will be a little muted because there will be a shift towards digital consumption. Stardom will continue to thrive largely in the presence of the theatre experience and if that business is going to be impacted, so will stardom,” he explains.
It’s too soon to know the real implications of the pandemic, but there are a few directions in which this could go. Actor Naseeruddin Shah says the time is ripe for Bollywood to rethink certain power structures. “It’s gonna be very interesting to see what kind of reaction a Salman Khan film gets on an OTT platform. Will people watching it alone in their homes still throw coins on their screens? No they won’t,” says Shah. Filmmaker Kabir Khan is less hopeful of change. Once things are restored, he predicts it will be business as usual. “There will be lesser money after the pandemic so I have a feeling people will chase what they think are safer bets, which means bigger stars, bigger directors,” he says.
Will streaming level the playing field?
But for the time being, the playing field has been considerably levelled. Streaming platforms have enjoyed a complete free reign during this time and have whetted our appetite for varied storytelling and made us more accepting of new faces. It’s created a space for an actor of Jaideep Ahlawat’s (Paatal Lok) calibre to frontline a major show on Amazon Prime. Movies would not give him that. Among the films that have gone straight to OTT are Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb as well as Lootcase starring Gajraj Rao, Kunal Khemu and Ranvir Shorey, which was struggling to find a release since 2019. Both these films will have an equal shot at being watched and not be weighed down by their box office collections.
Avinash Tiwary, who gave a breakout performance in 2018’s Laila Majnu, and was last seen in the Netflix film Bulbbul, is tentatively hopeful about the industry turning a new leaf so soon. But he hopes the ‘new normal’ will be a more fair and equitable one. “Today we are at the stage where there are more content creators than people watching the content. Eventually this will all settle. There will always be power centres but maybe a new kind of power centre will emerge. Look at how Tik Tok allowed so many people we didn’t know to have a million followers. So the idea of exclusivity, where power belongs only to a few, has definitely shifted,” says Tiwary.
‘Some actors are delusional’
The star system in its pristine form has already been on the decline. There are fewer actors now who can guarantee a massive box office opening, no matter what the film is. Producers have often griped about actors demanding irrational paycheques, taking a lion’s share of the profit, and slapping them with exorbitant entourage bills. In 2018, Film Companion hosted a roundtable with leading producers who unanimously complained about actors who demanded “double digit paycheques even when their films don’t open to that much”. Karan Johar had said, “Some actors are delusional. It’s embarrassing and exhausting sitting in monetary discussions with them.”
Thanks to the pandemic, those uncomfortable conversations with stars about pay cuts and cutting down on excesses are already happening. “A lot of financial irrationality had crept into the business. Entourage bills are a curse. They are senseless, illogical and wasteful excesses,” says Tanuj Garg of Ellipsis Entertainment that has produced films like Neerja and Tumhari Sulu. A few months ago, Kartik Aaryan told Film Companion, he would willingly suffer a pay cut if it would make his producer’s life easier. According to Garg, the star of tomorrow will be determined by how quickly he or she adapts to the changing landscape. “Whoever aligns with the new normal and is producer-friendly will succeed. Those who are budget friendly and commercial minded will prosper,” he says.
The fear of being forgotten
A new-age star also needs a third weapon – social media. Endless photos of their gym looks, airport looks, clips of them at events, and walking out of restaurants, keeps us interested in them. Tiwary says he’s constantly advised to put more of his life on display because there’s a real fear of being wiped out of memory till work resumes. It’s clearly a piece of advice many actors were given as they went into a performance overdrive on social media as soon as lockdown was announced. From washing dishes to singing and reciting poetry, no stone was left unturned. A senior publicist, who didn’t want to be named, says she can sense her clients feeling the pressure too. “I can see a lot of throwbacks being posted. Actors reminding you about the great films they have been in and stars they’ve worked in. It’s just to make sure the fans don’t forget. But more importantly the industry doesn’t forget you,” she says.
Which brings us back to Babil’s post. He describes a sight we’re all familiar with and have enjoyed. Scores of fans losing all sense of propriety in a darkened room when their favourite stars appear on the large screen. Shah calls it a “fever which infects everybody”. He adds, “When there’s a thousand people there, willy nilly you find yourself screaming, you find yourself laughing.” He wonders if these massive movies that are meant to serve the actor’s stardom will last even as more of us start watching films from our dining tables.