Is Small the New Big in Bollywood?

The idiot screen overwhelms the idiot box, once the spot for cute, sweet, homely, intimate fare.


Once upon a time there was a clean and clear divide between the Idiot Box and the Idiot Screen.

The Box was for cute, sweet, homely, intimate fare relating to everyday life with its attendant trials and tribulations, conflicts, family and value clashes, jealousies, intrigues etc., which made for riveting viewing. From the earliest Humlog to the sensational Saas Bahu numbers like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, the box spelt absorbing entertainment (especially for homemaking women) and although one section of the sophisticated and snooty upper class found it déclassé, the monster popularity of these serials demonstrated one simple fact — that eyeballs and television rating points mattered more than their silly hoity-toity views.

Along with the massive following of these soaps, the stars too shone bright. Smriti Irani, Ronit Roy, Amarr Upadhyaya (remember the sensation and deathly mourning his screen death in Saas Bhi caused in the early 1990s?) Shweta Tiwari, Sangeeta Ghosh, Saakshi Tanwar, Ram Kapoor (and earlier) Alok Nath, Rakesh Bedi, Shafi Inamdar, Swarup Sampat, Neena Gupta and Jayant Kripalani, to name just a few, were all loved and adored by the nightly audiences and held a special place in the heart of their TV fans.

The Idiot Screen was entirely different. Here everything was larger than life; exaggerated, loud, melodramatic stories narrated with hi-decibel emotion, passion and feeling, in dazzling 70 mm color on large screens in hushed, dark movie theaters, played out by gorgeous, glamorous and sexy heroines and macho, dashing brave and romantic heroes.

There was nothing homely or domestic about this brand of entertainment. It was blinding star-value in high gear. Dharam and Amitabh, Jeetu and Vinod, Zeenat and Hema, Rekha and Baabi, Mithun, Rishi and Neetu, Shashi and Sharmila, Rajesh and Mumtaz … this was Jannat!

If that was the loved, secure and comforting family zone, this was the seductive, alluring and exciting “exit route,” that eternally fantasized, never-never land of happy ever after. The great escape from all gharelu stuff!

This divide was both uncomplicated and clear. There was no confusion. TV stars were TV stars and movie stars were movie stars. There was no desire, initiative, plan or move to ever switch places. Their respective core competencies were recognized and appreciated by their respective constituencies for their worth and the value they brought to the table. There was mutual self-respect among movie and TV stars who by now had attracted a massive fan-base. TV production houses and big movie banners too wore happy, benevolent smiles indicating pure and unadulterated bliss. The general public enjoyed this fabulous double-whammy and lived a superbly, rich, schizophrenic life, having a blast in both spaces.

Just as TV as an industry, spawning its own stars and audiences, was beginning to take shape in the late nineties, arrived the Big B-anchored Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000, which marked the beginning of the end. The TV stars confronted the onslaught of their glamorous big screen compatriots with style and confidence, holding their own, but now with the towering inferno exploding on the small screen in a whole new, novel persona all set to connect with the aam junta in a game show promising mega-bucks … this proved a bit too hot to handle.

Unfortunately for the small screen — and fortunately for Star, Sid Basu and Big B — KBC took off big time, opening the floodgates of a whole new world for both wannabe stars and has-been-stars, which Amitabh Bachchan was threatening to become with his disastrous flop films, ABCL company debacle and political failures. Suddenly, overnight (thanks to KBC), small became the new big and the man solely responsible and central to this ground-breaking phenomenon was ironically the Big B himself.

Anupam Kher, Govinda, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, Preity Zinta, Sanjay Dutt, Dharmendra, Kiron Kher, Sonali Bendre, they’ve all done time on the box, with different degrees of separation — or bonding — with the masses. However, along the way, one thing became clear: Bollywood’s star-power is matchless, all-pervasive and dangerously destructive for competitors. Anything it touches turns to gold.

Remember the rise of pop in the 1980s and 1990s, with the likes of Daler Mehndi, Alisha Chenoy, Baba Sehgal and gang hotting up the scene? What about the ghazal boom with Talat Aziz, Pankaj Udhas, Penaz Masani, Chandan Das and others mesmerizing their fans? However, it took a resurgent Bollywood music-walas to do their seductive number and demolish the entire movement with remarkable speed. Today, with the exception of the late ghazal king Jagjit Singh, not one of the music sensations has survived. And as for the 1980s superstar Bhajan King Anup Jalota, no one knows where he has vanished … and no one really cares!

Dedicated TV watchers tracking this movement believe that as TV went big, the channel heads realized that big bucks or juicy sponsorship deals could only happen if B-town biggies were seduced into this space. Danish Khan, vice president & marketing head of Sony Entertainment television, agrees: “Film stars come with brand value. The Big B, for example, has matchless brand-pull (as demonstrated once again in his recent TV rating-topping KBC-5) and therefore any channel that signs him on can expect big ticket deals, in advance.”

Adds the creator and producer of KBC and head of Big Synergy, Sid Basu: “Launching a TV show today is an expensive affair and celebrities ensure viewership and eyeballs.” Basu should know. His company has the largest number of reality shows, featuring stars on Indian television.

So, today there is a blitz of star driven TV programs — chat shows, reality shows, interviews, the works: Upclose & Personal (Preity Zinta), Big Boss (Sanjay Dutt & Salman Khan), KBC (Big B), Just Dance (Hrithik Roshan), India’s Got Talent (Dharmendra, Sonali Bendre, Kiron Kher). Coming up, the shy and low profile Sunny Deol debuting with Jaanbaaz, an Indian adaptation of Survivor. Joining the list are Raveena Tandon, Ajay Devgan, Arjun Rampal… also, the biggest — Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan with program content matching there brand profiles.

Critics argue that TV stars (despite their mass appeal) have an insurmountable problem. “They are dynamite only as long as their shows play on TV and the world loves them. Once it is over, two things happen. They are forgotten and replaced by the next, new flavor of the day. Two, they are often trapped in an image from which they may find a problem breaking free and cutting loose.”

Also, unlike the west, where TV stars like Jennifer Anniston, Courtney Cox, Eva Longoria or Rowan Atkinson demand and receive paychecks at par with Hollywood stars, here TV remains a platform for recognition before B-town beckons. And then later return to TV to write your own check, huh?

The sad fact is that Bollywood is a Frankestein that destroys every other cultural or artistic activity through sheer hi-voltage star-power. Dangerously seductive, fatal attraction, opium for the masses, call it what you will, Bollywood remains such an invincible and powerful entity that even today’s most popular TV programs — Uttaran, Bade Achche Lagte Hain, Pavitra Rishta or Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hain, Balika Vadhu, Kuch To Log Kahenge — don’t stand a chance when, a SRK comes calling as a guest on the KBC show. It’s a blowout! Everything stops. Any wonder that most TV stars secretly want to migrate to the big screen.

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