How Do You Make Cinema A More Equitable Playing Field? Kabir Khan, Richa Chaddha, and Shraddha Shrinath Weigh In

Khan speaks about the larger structural issues, Chadha about the complicity of the audience, and Shrinath about the obsession with fair heroines in the South
How Do You Make Cinema A More Equitable Playing Field? Kabir Khan, Richa Chaddha, and Shraddha Shrinath Weigh In

Director Kabir Khan and actors Richa Chadha and Shraddha Shrinath joined Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan to discuss the prescient question of how to make cinema a more equitable playing field, the nuance in nepotism, and how the audience is perhaps also complicit in all of this. 

Anupama Chopra: Richa, I really liked the blog that you wrote. It was very expansive, very heartfelt and one of the lines that stayed with me was, "Privilege coupled with ignorance, apathy and incompetence is not a good look." I wanted to ask you how did we get to this place? Is one of the bigger issues that actors just have some kind of an outsized power in this ecosystem?

Richa Chadha: I really don't know. I just feel like such a fringe element in this industry that I never feel that I could speak on behalf of someone. But the maximum that I could do is speak on behalf of people like myself. I definitely think that in an industry like this, it has to be the director; the film is the director's baby. We have to start valuing our writers and directors more and I say that as an actor. It should be an equal set. When you speak to the cast and crew, they also appreciate directors that make it inclusive, discuss things and I think that's very crucial.

"[Bollywood is] always going to reflect the fault lines that run in our society. We are a feudal country. Nepotism is one of the evils in our blood." – Kabir Khan

Baradwaj Rangan: Shraddha, with your experience in the Southern industries, what has been your take on nepotism? The talk of nepotism has been concentrated on Bollywood, but a fair amount of what's been discussed filters down South as well but there's not much being written about it or not many people are speaking about it. What is your take on it?

Shraddha Shrinath: I always believe that I get outsider credit. I feel like the Southern industry is so small [in relation to Bollywood] and so closed. Sometimes I feel like there's one foot outside, one foot inside. But it's not just in Bollywood. It's rampant in the South as well. Of course there's film families, there's political families. From what I've understood, it's just that the audiences wants to see successor after successor on screen. It's nostalgia or it's just some sort of special connection. That's how it is encouraged in the first place and it's like a never-ending circle.

Baradwaj Rangan: Do I detect a bit of frustration in there? 

Shraddha Shrinath: Sometimes there are wonderful projects that are being cast for and I have no idea of how the casting takes place, where it's happening. I mean it's very different from Bombay. There are very small groups in the industry and by the time you find out that someone's casting, it's over. Either you're with a manager who's part of those inside groups. My manager … she represents me so well. She's again, not part of the industry as such, so you don't know what's happening and of course there's frustration. I just wish it were more open, more transparent.

"There can't be any level-playing field because when a star kid's child hits puberty they already have  20 million followers on Instagram."- Richa Chadha

Anupama Chopra: Kabir, your career has run the gamut, from making documentaries to making these 300 crore blockbusters. So, what is your perspective on where the fault lines are. What can be fixed, now that the pandemic has thrown everything up into the air?

Kabir Khan: I like to see it in a slightly larger vision. The fault lines are the same fault lines that run through our society and when anybody asks me "Is this what Bollywood does?" I always tell them, listen we (Bollywood) are part of the society. We are always going to reflect the fault lines that run in our society. We are a feudal country. Nepotism is one of the evils in our blood. We will always have nepotism in our blood and that is something we all have to fight against at a much larger level.

Again, when the #MeToo movement happened and we were looking at it in the context of Bollywood, I said of course Bollywood will have it, because our society has it. If we live in a society which has misogyny, which is patriarchal, so will Bollywood be that, because there are people from our society that are there. The other thing I have a problem with are debates where you keep talking about Bollywood like Bollywood is a club in Juhu, where you open the door and you can say 'Hey, Bollywood!' and people say 'Hi, yes, that's me!' 

Bollywood is made up of so many different people! I'm not on the same ideological page as half of Bollywood. I cannot speak for them, they cannot speak for me. So ultimately, Bollywood is made up of so many different ideologies and perspectives. We have to look at this problem at a larger level. And yes, coming specifically to Bollywood, of course there's nepotism. Of course it's a huge fault line but I think everything has to be looked at in a certain sense of proportion. If you're practicing nepotism and casting people from within the family, you cannot be a murderer! So we have to have some perspective in this discussion and definitely the fault lines are there but at the same time, we should not negate the fact that outsiders are welcomed in the industry. There are lots of outsiders who do come in, are welcomed, and make a good career out of it. Richa is a classic example. I am a complete outsider. I'm a documentary filmmaker from Delhi who came in. My father was a professor with no links to the industry. I've come in, I've enjoyed my 15 years in this industry. I've had an enriched experience in terms of my films, in terms of the love and recognition I've got. Financially, I've been paid well in this industry so I think we have to look at it as a balanced argument. Right now, I think the discussion is too shrill.

Baradwaj Rangan: Today there is all this talk about how the big production houses keep going after the same people from the lineage and don't look outside. But in a way, even when you look at 80's parallel cinema, there were Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, and they were this monolithic quartet. Fantastically talented, no doubt about that, but almost everybody was after these four, and… 

Richa Chadha: If I may, if you read Naseer sahab's memoir, he'll talk about the fact that these were actors that were hired when the filmmakers really had to tell a story on zero budgets. So see, this is such a complicated problem! People like me, who are on the fringe, who work in both kinds of films, I feel that way. When you have to give us one lakh, then you'll call us and then you'll be like "Glory, prestige, ek mutthi anaaj" and when you have the budget, you'll go for the person who's going to take away a chunk of your production fee as their own personal fee. It's just ridiculous to expect any simple solution to an industry as creative, as diverse. Now, Chaitanya Tamhane and Vivek Gomber's film, it's not what we call 'Bollywood'. Is it less prestigious? No! Should we be making more noise about that achievement? Yes! I'm in it for that. I'm going to support people who push the envelope and talk about things and a lot of people do that in their own way.

Anupama Chopra: In a film industry that's a private enterprise, how can you force anyone to cast anyone? You can't say 'don't look at lineage', 'don't look at this film family.' How do you ask for a level-playing ground when everyone's using their own money and are perfectly free to cast whoever they think is right for the project? 

Richa Chadha: No, but there can't be any level-playing field because when a star kid's child hits puberty they already have  20 million followers on Instagram. These are not followers that have come from the film industry; they've come from janta, who are curious to see what so-and-so's zygote has eventually turned out like. They're interested in their lives and there's nothing you can do about that. I want to get over this and discuss some other issues that need to be discussed.

Kabir Khan: She's absolutely right and in that sense we're all really complicit. The fact is that Taimur Ali Khan is being photographed from the age of like, zero. Now, if there's a producer who later thinks "Oh! Taimur is already a star. Let me put my money on him and make a film with him", how do you blame that producer? The media is writing about it, the journalists are tripping over themselves to write about Taimur Ali Khan, the photographers are tripping over themselves to get photographs of Taimur Ali Khan, why would producers not be tripping over themselves? And it's something that we've all created. That's why I say it is a larger reflection of how our society and we need to address this at a larger level. Only then will it get sorted out in our industry. People with a certain lineage or coming from certain families… it's not they're all bad actors. Some of our finest actors are from film families. It's not that they'll always be bad, but yes I do feel there should be some democracy in the industry, where it feels that the struggle really is at the entry level. After that, it does, in a certain sense become a level-playing field. I'm speaking from a director's point of view. Once your first script has come in and you've got that film as a director, I think it becomes a level-playing field. I don't think a director with a lineage will get better options than me if I'm able to deliver the goods in my first role. In actors, I think, from whatever we've seen, we do see that they get many more chances than a newcomer. A newcomer is written off much faster than somebody who comes from a family.

Richa Chadha: Okay, nepotism also means to benefit from one's connections. So if your first boyfriend has got you your movie, it doesn't matter that you don't have a famous last name. That is still you getting work based on nepotism. The second thing is that, we've seen over time that talent works as an equalizer in some sense. That you will have people who are from illustrious families who will not have their careers take off in the way that a young, new hot-shot boy from a smaller Indore or Bilaspur will. It entirely depends on the projects you're choosing, what kind of projects are working at that time, how you use your success. I think the struggle is in the fact that we don't have a support system in terms of advisors in this whole machinery. I think I agree with Kabir that once you're at that entry level, once you have your first break, you start to learn those lessons. It takes you a bit longer. I was talking to another friend of mine who said, "Dus saal toh samajhne mein lag jaate hai ki kya ho raha hai". 

Baradwaj Rangan: Shraddha, you spoke about the audience earlier. Very little of this conversation so far has been centered on how much the audience has been complicit. When it comes to heroines especially down south, at least in a big commercial movies, the producers seem to think that the audiences prefer a certain ultra-white skinned North-Indian type of a heroine; it's become some kind of a trend. So in how much of this do you think the audience is to be … considered? 

Shraddha Shrinath: I don't get it. There are some male actors who look like an average person on  the road and there is that sense of connection, the audience applaud, they cheer. Whereas the South is infamous for importing the heroines from outside. In fact, someone once wrote about me saying, "She's from Karnataka, why is she doing Tamil films? Could you not find Tamil heroine?" I mean there's so much of regionalism also. I said, "Hey I work hard, I learn the language and I think I can pass off as a Tamilian."

I feel like this is just patriarchy at its finest. They want a man to look the way he does because it gives them the pleasure of thinking, 'You know what? If that guy can make it, I can make it too' but the heroines just have to look a certain way and it just refuses to go away. I feel like, for the longest time, when I was an aspiring actor, I would always think that I would never make it in the film industry because I didn't look a certain way and of course, then, me and a bunch of other actresses shattered all the myths, but I guess it's  a new wave of actors and actresses who are dispelling all these sorts of notions.

Baradwaj Rangan: But do you think that this is imposed? Is it the audience who says 'we want the North Indian actresses' or is it the producer or is it the actor? 

Shraddha Shrinath: I think it's all three. You know that casting a certain heroine from somewhere who looks a certain way gets you those hits. She's willing to dance, she looks lovely as hell, you can't take your eyes off her. So the producers know that they'll get their bang for the buck. The audiences fantasize seeing such women on screen because they possibly can't get such women and the heroes too of course, they have a role in suggesting or pushing for a certain actor or actress. I guess everyone in equal parts has a role to play. 

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