This period was supposed to be a breather from the movies. A scary virus struck and locked the world down, and we were meant to be missing the movies. But are we, really? We seem to be talking about the film industry more than ever. We may not be talking about cinema, but every day, we wake up to a new episode of He Said, She Said, And Then This Is What Twitter Said. Kangana Ranaut went on air with Arnab Goswami, and said things that resulted in next-day headlines sown with words like "explosive" and "shocking". Meanwhile, down South, Vanitha Vijayakumar's marriage to Peter Paul has resulted in a series of… next-day headlines sown with words like "explosive" and "shocking". The last instalment in this saga is a 'catfight' the actor had with Kasthuri Shankar and Lakshmy Ramakrishnan.
Why do we care so much about how many broken marriages Vanitha Vijayakumar has had, or whether she put out a photograph kissing Peter Paul at their wedding? The tweets about this actor's personal life have been shockingly invasive. How are her actions relevant to anyone but her own friends and family? I saw a bit of the spat with Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, and the comments that ensued showed more about us — the "audience" — than they did about either Vanitha Vijayakumar or Lakshmy Ramakrishnan. We seem to be "commenting" about this ongoing real-life drama the way we'd "review" a movie on our social-media platforms.
The developments around Sushant Singh Rajput's demise have been a much bigger draw for us — the "audience". (Translated to movie terms, we've made this affair a "blockbuster".) For the record, I am with Anurag Kashyap, who recently said something to this effect: "The film industry is more visible and written about in the newspapers, but it is no different from any other industry." He added that a lot of people, outsiders and insiders, had done a lot of things to him as well, in the 27 years he's been in the industry, "but I have never needed their validation or acknowledgement. When the world appreciates you and your work, what difference does it make if two or three people do not? Why give so much power to someone, that their yes or no or a pat on the back from them defines our existence? One man's praise is enough to keep you working."
In other words, this is what he's asking: What is this naive idealism that expects a "pure" and "uncorrupt" industry, where everyone is treated equally and unicorns fly around leaving rainbows in their wake? What is this naive idealism that equates a woman's "virtue" with a count of her marriages?
Sushant Singh Rajput's death is a terrible, terrible tragedy, but whatever happened, it's for a legal court to thrash over, not the people's court of Twitter. All this hand-wringing over his contract with Yash Raj Films makes me wonder if no one's heard of "exclusivity contracts" in the media industry, for instance, which prevent a writer from writing for a rival publication or publisher. This is how the old Hollywood studios functioned, too. They signed stars and then dictated the career of these stars. Is this "correct"? In my eyes: NO! It's a kind of slavery. But it's also a choice. And it's a question for the actor to ponder over: Is it worth signing this contract and losing my freedom, or should I try my luck on my own?
Simply put, what happens in a private enterprise (and that's what Bollywood is; a private enterprise) is none of our business. It's like any other private enterprise. For instance, I have no right to ask Mukesh Ambani to step down as Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries Ltd. His father founded the company. Who am I to insist that the shareholders should all vote and that the Chairman and Managing Director should be elected in the most egalitarian manner? The most I can do — if I am not happy with this way of functioning — is boycott Reliance products. Similarly, those of us who are appalled about how Sushant Singh Rajput's life appears to have unfolded — according to some quarters (again, we have no way of knowing the "truth") — can choose to boycott the works by certain people in Bollywood.
But let's not boycott a Sushant Singh Rajput while he is still alive. You know what's really tragic? If at least half the number of people expressing outrage on Twitter about Bollywood had bought tickets to Sushant's more offbeat films like Sonchiriya or Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, a less-"mainstream" project like Paani would have probably been seen as viable now. Because like every private industry, Bollywood follows trends, and these trends are dictated by us, the audiences. For all the outrage about star kids, do you know much Dhadak — with Sridevi's daughter and Shahid Kapoor's brother — collected on its opening day? A reported Rs. 8.71 crore, which was the highest-ever number for a film with fresh faces. Sonchiriya, in comparison, made a reported Rs. 1.2 crore.
This is not a precise comparison, true. One's a genre the audiences love: it's a romance. And the producers promoted the hell out of it. That promotion money alone might have covered a few actors' salaries in Sonchiriya. But this film had the star of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, a mega-blockbuster. Even if you attribute at least half the success of that film to the super-popular cricketer, it made more people see what Sushant was capable of, what a brilliant actor he could be. And yet… Rs. 1.2 crore!
So at least one lesson we must take away from the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy is to put our money where our mouth is. If we want outsiders to become stars, we have to do more than just hammer away on our keyboards and bitch endlessly about Bollywood on Twitter. We have to "vote" for these outsiders with our wallets, by buying tickets for their films. Let's remember this the next time a good young performer comes along. Here's an idea: Even if you don't want to lug it to the theatre for a Sonchiriya and would rather watch it on an OTT platform, just buy a couple of tickets. It's just a few clicks. It will take you less time than it will to compose a tweet.
Because this way, at least, we have a say in deciding who stays and who goes. Otherwise, we are letting the industry decide, and there's no practical sense in expecting Bollywood to make stars of every deserving outsider. For one, and this cannot be repeated enough, it's a private business. (Curiously, the nepotism debate rarely comes up when discussing the Tamil or the mostly dynastic Telugu film industry. Do people down South not care about this?) What someone does with his/her money is no business of ours — and like in every other private industry, there is going to be corruption and favouritism and so on and so forth. Like all private enterprise, it's a dog-eat-dog world with its own unfairly ingrained hierarchies, ranging from prized poodles to strays. And it's not just with actors but technicians, too. Do you think there's no "favouritism" when it comes to picking, say, a cinematographer for a project, over a struggling newcomer whose show-reel shows infinite promise?
But more importantly, they can try all they want, but there's no guarantee. Aditya Chopra has been trying, and trying, to make Vaani Kapoor a star. But something's not clicking. The audience isn't buying this outsider. She may make it soon, sure. But as of now, she doesn't have that X-factor, that buzz. And that's something we, the audience, have decided. If Aditya Chopra had had his way, she'd have been the new Anushka Sharma or Bhumi Pednekar, other outsiders who struck it big.
It's only in public enterprise that nepotism becomes a real problem. Let's take politics. If someone is promoting an "inferior" candidate just because they are related to this person or this person is a friend's son/daughter, then that affects me, personally. Because unlike Bollywood, it's a matter that affects the nation of which I am a citizen. So why don't we rant about politics the way we rant about Bollywood? Why don't we mourn crushed political careers the way we mourn over crushed cinematic ambitions? I see many people who've become really righteous about their "crusade against Bollywood," but wouldn't you serve your country better by expending this righteous energy over the many "explosive" and "shocking" headlines about matters of caste or economic inequality?
It's not that I don't understand the reaction to Sushant Singh Rajput's demise. It rattled us to the bone. But he worked in an unfair work environment the way many of us do, and if he was "passed over for a promotion he deserved", it's something that happens in almost every other industry. If we do want to fight Systemic inequality, why waste that fight on something as insignificant as the film industry, which has so little bearing on our daily lives?
Wouldn't it be better — for instance — to track how our sporting industry functions,and how the "favouritism" there is actually affecting us, by harming our image as a nation? If an actor's career doesn't take off, it's an individual tragedy. If an athlete is privileged over others because of his/her connections, it reflects in the way India performs: it's a national tragedy. I think it's time we started using words like "explosive" and "shocking" for matters that really deserve these qualifiers, like the huge numbers of people whose livelihoods have been laid waste by this pandemic. Just this morning, I read about how acid-attack survivors had to resort to a crowdfunding platform to raise money for women who'd been rendered jobless. But then, this news doesn't "sell", does it? Maybe if they got an interview with Arnab…