The trigger for this article however was a typical weekend party at a farmhouse starring a fair sprinkling of air-kissing socialites, glitterati and a smattering of the arty types. After the usual round of inane chatter relating to politics, cricket, movies and hot spicy gossip were done, the conversation turned the author Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, Half a Girlfriend, the rights of which, like all his previous books, was promptly bought by a big production house to be made into a movie. While the diamond-dripping females raved about his astonishing popularity, pan-India, especially with Youngistan for whom he is an acknowledged youth icon, and his total conquest of Bollywood (something unprecedented in the annals of India’s English language Pulp Fiction history) the arty types remained both silent and unimpressed. They quietly sniggered and dismissed Bhagat’s stuff as simplistic, feel-good drivel; fast food for the lazy, culturally backward, brain-dead morons, totally ignorant about and alien to any form of real quality writing, literature or books.
In his TV appearances, Bhagat came across as someone totally comfortable and accessible to his young audiences and rocked, especially during the QandA sessions. He candidly confessed that despite being ambushed by fame, he had his feet firmly on terra firma and despite his books record-breaking sales, never ever thought of himself as a “serious author in the same bracket as Salman Rushdie, Amitava Ghosh, Vikram Seth or Jhumpa Lahiri.”
He insisted that he chanced into writing, got lucky after his first novel was rejected by tons of publishers and that his approach to his material was exactly the same as it was earlier … portray honestly, simply and interestingly, facets of human nature that derives from the theatre of life in a way that is compelling, dramatic and reader-friendly. No life-altering, bombastic, esoteric, philosophical food for thought, just simple human narrative ignited with relatable wit and warmth.
Bhagat noted that while serious critics and readers labeled his material as chewing gum for the mind, in Bollywood he was considered an “intellectual.” Needless to say, he was equally bewildered, amused and embarrassed, not necessarily in that order.
While Bhagat seemed transparent about his material, focus and standing in the public domain, he never once betrayed the slightest hint of envy, jealousy, anger, frustration or righteous indignation due to the lack of respect or patronage from critics and readers of serious stuff from literary heavyweights. He appeared totally cool, confident and content in his space with no delusions of grandeur or malice about not being given the same shabashis reserved for the more celebrated names, despite the monster sale and popularity of his books.
This prompted me to enlarge this issue to ego-driven and self-absorbed stars and actors. They too reside in the public domain, consumed, praised and damned by their fans every day. In their case, do the super-stars, for all their glitzy life-style, big bucks and mass popularity, secretly envy the respect, awe and admiration that art-house actors receive from serious critics, commentators and audiences?
Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor’s performance in Finding Fanny or Tabu and Kay Kay Menon’s portrayal in Haider — can their silly, over-the-top dramabaazi ever hope to remotely emulate these gems? Do art-house actors despite their National School of Drama, Film and Television Institute of India, theatre background and acknowledged reputation as true artistes (secretly) feel resigned, frustrated or plain angry seeing stars, hopelessly incompetent as actors, continue to rake in the loot and live the good life in style, wowing fans wherever they go?
In this very context, I was reminded of a story I wrote a decade ago, relating to the significance of NSD in promoting holistic artistes and theatre as a commercially viable art form. I needed to interview a few NSD ex-grads now settled in Mumbai and pursuing their careers with different degrees of success in the Bollywood maze. Two interesting — and radically different — responses stood out.
The first came from a brilliant, National Award winner who headlined the Parallel Cinema movement of the seventies and eighties with his powerhouse performances. He appeared visibly upset, because: “Bollywood is interested more in the Mama Papa game than respecting, recognizing and embracing real talent. Family business bana diya, yaar. Disgusting!”
He was justified because despite his stupendous work in art films — Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen included — and his fabulous work in the West, all he got was small roles playing buffoons and comic characters in Bollywood.
The other NSD graduate, sang a different tune. Despite a spectacular debut three decades ago as an old man in an iconic, non-formulaic non-star film made by an intense and passionate film-maker, he refused to rest on his laurels. He closely cased the joint, understood the rules of the game and played along, never attempting any great introspection, baggage-carrying or negativity.
“Bollywood is not NSD, so there is no point yelling (Anton) Chekov, (Henrik John) Ibsen or (George Bernard) Shaw to impress. Their template is totally different focusing solely on mass entertainment. This demands a different psyche and mind-set where acceptance and adaptation is critical. I personally, never had a problem, because I understood that it was in my interest to change to their demands regarding performance. They could happily do without me, but I longed to be a part of popular cinema. I guess my attitude helped. I got lucky with roles, directors and films all the way!”
On the other side, there were at least two major stars who confessed that they would give “their anything” to work with filmmakers who celebrated real cinema, explored exciting voyages of discovery and gave them an opportunity to experience and participate in projects that entertained, enriched and empowered both artistes and audiences. Both admitted fatigue and boredom in repeatedly doing “more of the same” and while fame and wealth were fine, they were mostly in “mechanical mode” while doing their stuff.” Naseer, Pankaj (Kapur), Irfaan (Khan), Nawaz (Siddiqui), Konkona (Sen Sharma) and Tabu act. We perform!”
Both were also concerned about the humiliating dismissal of their stuff from all serious forums and platforms and conceded that “after a point mass popularity is meaningless because fans cheer for the nautanki and bhaand in us, not the artiste. We will always remain entertainers — interchangeable entities, here today, gone tomorrow — unlike actors, imprinted in memory, unique and irreplaceable.”
Stars longing to act and actors dying to perform is a refrain that is not new. The grass is always greener on the side. Opposite poles attract. Creative challenges are seductive. Curiosity can be a lethal driving force. Cliches have an expiry date. Stars have fans, but actors have audiences. Alternative, cross-over, parallel and India films continue to address this issue, but sangam hua … hoga? Nahi, kabhi nahi and the reason is simple.
The star defines and celebrates escapist cinema comprising gigantic doses of glamor, sex-appeal, action, romance, music, melodrama and tension superbly packaged with a happy ending that guarantees feel-good, paisa vasool entertainment for the masses. Besides, the star has to look and play the part in a credible and believable manner that captivates his fans. Can a Naseer, Irfaan or Nawaz ever dream of doing that, like the Khans, Ajay Devgan, Hrithik Roshan or Akshay Kumar?
Not a hope in hell!
They can rant, sulk, insult or beg, but mass appeal can never come their way. Similarly, the Khans too can never ever hope to infuse the passion, realism intensity and soul-strip into an art-house role, totally devoid of their signature, glamor, kick and hi-jinks. Hence, while what you can’t get continues to be more seductive, fact is, in the Bollywood map, the lines are clearly drawn. Sure, there will always be exceptions but by and large, east is east, west is best and the twain can never meet. Any attempt to force stars or actors into each other’s territory will only invite disaster. Checkout the score card of each attempting to adventure into alien territory and you will understand why stars and actors should stick to their turf — unless they are determined to be self-destructive and commit hara-kiri.