It’s not just the weather that’s hotting up in India. It’s also the season of salacious video-watching and angry high-decibel television debates over the people’s right to satiate their eye-balls with such stuff.
Shahrukh Khan once told film critic Anupama Chopra, in a moment of rare seriousness: “The star-system is really the reason for Bollywood being so big. Without stars, the industry would have been flattened by Hollywood, like most other film industries across the globe.”
A case of delusion of grandeur? Over-the-top importance accorded to B-town? Supreme, egoistical arrogance, super-star talk? Another, flamboyant, attention-grabbing Sharukh-ism from King Khan? Take your pick, but if you really think about it, the guy has a point. If you ignore the art-house diwanas and a select few film-critics, the general Bollywood-crazed public is star-struck as hell, everywhere star-studded movies play.
It is an acknowledged fact (despite all the snide remarks and not-so-subtle put-downers from self-styled pundits that stars dominate, rule and call the shots in the heart and minds of their swooning fans.
An SRK, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan or Ranbir Kapoor (preferably with a Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone as accompanying eye-candy) is much more likely to zoom past the Rs 100 crore mark in record time than the combined talent of Naseerudin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor, Om Puri, Irfan Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Konkana Sen Sharma, Rahul Bose, Abhay Deol, Vinay Pathak and gang. Outstanding as they are, they don’t have that magical quality to seduce the popular imagination that stars do. Nor do they have the glamour and sex-appeal that forces you to drop everything, rush to that darkened theatre and reverentially witness enchanting fantasy being played out on screen.
In the early 1980w, I had the opportunity to conduct a lengthy interview with movie moghul Yash Chopra. It was fascinating to hear him rave about the finest actor in the land, Naseerudin Shah. The movie tycoon had just witnessed one of his plays and seemed totally besotted. At one point, I broke in to politely enquire whether this would induce him to cast him in any of his forthcoming mega-projects. He expressed total willingness “the moment I have a script that will demand or suit the talent of this genius.” At that precise point, Silsila was completed and Chandni, as well as other star-driven projects were on the anvil. Shah, a hugely admired artist, was put on the “the active” file which till date has remained “passive” as hell.
Yash Chopra can’t be blamed. The question that begs a response is: What makes stars such blinding objects of desire, worship and fantasy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Rajesh Khanna was at his height, it was not uncommon to see his car blitzed with lipstick imprints or insane female fans getting wedded to his photograph. What elusive quality do they possess that makes them so completely irresistible?
Hollywood, where the star-system was born and bred, has had an ambivalent relationship with stardom. 1970s Golden Boy Super Star Robert Redford laments that Hollywood “throws the word star at you loosely… and takes it away loosely too. You are meant to take responsibility for all those crappy movies!”
Robert Stack disagrees, “What’s wrong in going through the front door with roses than sneaking through the back door, carrying garbage?” Marlon Brando was acerbic in his criticism: “Once you are a star, people go wild. They ask you questions about politics, astronomy, archaeology, even birth control. In short, everything except your craft or challenges of your profession, in a semi-intelligent manner!” Dustin Hoffman was equally unenthused, “Once you are a star, you stop being afraid of death, because you are dead already!” Ethel Barrymore described the requirements memorably. “A star must have the face of Venus, brains of Minerva, grace of Terpsichore, memory of Macaulay, figure of Juno and hide of a Rhino!”
A grizzly veteran Hollywood agent defined the five stages of stardom. “First stage is – Who is Hugo O’Brien? Next, get me Hugo O’Brien! Then, can you get me a Hugo O’Brien type? Followed by Hey, I am looking for a young Hugo O’Brien and finally back to square one, who is Hugo O’Brien?”
Respected Art-house director Aparna Sen, 36, ofChoranghee Lane, Mr & Mrs Iyer, Japanese Wife fame, articulates the difference between stars and actors: “A star uses his/her personal attributes, like maybe a tilt of the head, smile, voice deflection or some endearing trait over and over again to charm the audience who love the persona of the actor. An actor, on the other hand, is engaged in re-inventing himself/herself in the light of the character being played and tries to slip under the skin of the character. In the case of the actor, the audience reacts to the character rather than the persona, which plays a secondary role.”
The iconic veteran film director Shyam Benegal likewise sees clear cut distinctions: “It’s very simple. Commercial and mainstream cinema is about the ability to make money and hence the pre-occupation with box office records and the magical Rs 100 crore target remains the driving force! A star’s (who is the centrepiece of this exercise) worth is equated to his mass-draw, appeal, pull. An actor is a different creature. His focus is on identifying and portraying the linear truth as honestly as possible through a journey to the center of the character’s soul. Since props and externals like looks, glamor, sex-appeal, armpit rhetoric or hi-pitched posturing — all popular audience-friendly baits — don’t feature in the actor’s scheme of things, mass-appeal is unlikely to ever come his way. Respect, admiration, honor and prestige… certainly…. But can a Naseer, Irfan, Shabana, Smita or Konkana ever hope to get the masses as charged and excited as an SRK, Salman, Aamir, Priyanka, Bebo, Katrina or Bipasha? It’s the nature of the animal and comes with the territory.”
Eminent Film Critic Saibal Chatterjee concurs. “Benegal is right. Mass appeal is the USP (unique selling proposition) of the star — the cutting-edge advantage he/she has over the actor. Balraj Sahani, Sanjeev Kumar and Irfan Khan are classic examples of outstanding actors, across generations, right? However, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan & SRK towered over them in the popularity & pay-check department, right?”
Saibal believes that Hollywood, however (unlike B-town) always had stars who were also excellent actors too, pointing to Marlon Brando, Dean & Clift & today’s Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, even Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Leonard Dicaprio, when challenged. “In Bollywood, except Dilip Kumar, I wouldn’t rate any star as also an actor, not even the much hyped Bachchan. It’s at best tokenism and play-acting. I think it has to do with the play-safe, risk-free mentality of both the filmmaker and the star as also the lack of real true-blue ability and talent to courageously explore and get inside the skin of the character to make it come alive.” Chatterjee argues that Bollywood is unlikely to produce a star-actor anytime soon. “India is a hassled nation where tensions, complications and problems chase the common man, all the time. Entertainment is the great simple, divine intervention — three hours in the darkened hall, without being challenged! No wonder the Dabangg’s & Agneepath’s have rocked.”
What about Kahaani & Pan Singh Tomar, two very unlikely films — no glamor, item songs, exotic locales, hi-tech gizmos or brute force fights – that have done well at the box office and garnered great media attention too? “There will always be sleeper hits and dark horses, as there will be enlightened, enthusiastic niche audience, waiting for engaging and entertaining fare. Smart story-telling and superb acting, were the main drivers of these two wonderfully courageous films. Also, since the budgets were modest and the ROI (return on investment) almost doubled, it augurs well. Interestingly 2012 has slew of interesting edgy, non-formulae films — Kahaani & Pan Singh being only two — waiting to explode. That is indeed a good sign, but let’s not get carried away. One big Salman-growler Ek Tha Tiger or SRK-Katrina starrer from the YRF camp… and stardom will be back with a bang!” says Chatterjee.
He is spot-on. Dibarkar’s Shanghai, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, Reema Katgi’s Talash and Anurag Basu’s Barfi do indicate feisty thrusts into new, exciting terrain, but we will need many more off-beat, engaging, films, showcasing our brilliant gifted actors to get things on track and give the genuine actors their due recognition in terms of talent and pay-checks.
At the end of the day, as Benegal says, stardom is, unfortunately, about mass appeal — grabbing eyeballs of more people at more places than ever before. Igniting popular imagination through that very special, unique, individualistic X-factor, impossible to define, but instantly recognizable. Naseerudin Shah may continue to dismiss stars as being boringly repetitive and “after a while being caricatures of themselves,” but despite his astonishing and acknowledged talents, can he ever hope to attract a fraction of the crazed mobs that the Khans can?
It’s not a value judgement, but a clearly demarcated divide between preferences of real and make-believe; posturing, going over-the-top with all the sexy, glam trappings against rooted, slice-of-life portrayals of everyday realities; navigating disturbing, cathartic journeys to the center of souls in distress, way beyond starry orgasmic flight to that magical never-never-land- of happy ever-after. Sure, there will be glorious exceptions, but as Chatterjee so perceptively pointed out, as did Shahrukh Khan, in India, stars will dazzle and rule, while actors will invite respect, admiration and awards — and the twain shall not meet.