This week, let us address the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant’s son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew and niece!
Is the Hindi film industry largely a family business – or rather, a business dominated by families – making it far easier for relatives of those already ‘in’ to showcase themselves? And if so, to what extent does this trait prevent those not similarly blessed with these familial connections (i.e. the ‘outsiders’) to display their talents and make their careers?
The answer to the first question is a no-brainer – of course it is! Just scan the cast and crew listings of most major films released in any given year and you’ll agree that any discussion on that subject would be a very short one indeed.
What would perhaps make for a more substantial debate is the degree to which this ‘keeping-it-all-in-the-family’ nature of our business ultimately obstructs fresh, unconnected talent from breaking through. And just as the aforementioned examination of the personnel details of Hindi films on IMDB confirms the extent to which inter-related clans dominate the business, it also tells us that despite this seeming hegemony, there are many who come in from the cold, so to speak, and manage to not only establish themselves but also make it to the very top of the pile.
To further queer the pitch, let us not forget that virtually every patriarch or matriarch of a present day second- or third-generation film family was once himself, or herself, someone who managed to overcome the barriers restricting entry into a notoriously cloistered industry. So while the easier launch pad for Generation Next of a filmy family may point to the insularity of the industry, the preceding success that made it possible would actually make the opposite case.
The hereditary tradition of progenies following/inheriting their parents’ profession is an ancient and deeply ingrained practice that pervades across not only India but also the larger Indian subcontinent. Hence, the adage: ‘Lohar ka beta lohar, kumhar ka beta kumhar’ – an ironsmith’s son is an ironsmith, a potter’s son a potter. Indian cinema is by no means the only domain in which we witness bloodlines extending into the professional space. Indeed, the dominance of various dynasties is even more rampant in Indian politics and commerce.
However, a crucial difference separates the importance of family ties in Indian cinema vis-à-vis their role in the world of politics or in corporate boardrooms. Yes, your parent’s clout or the brand recognition of your surname may get you your first film, but ultimately, your fate will be decided in the most public and dispassionate of arenas – the box office. Your talent (or lack thereof) will be judged by a paying audience that wants its money’s worth and sure as hell will express its displeasure if it doesn’t get it. That is, if they do decide to make the trip to the cinema hall at all. If they don’t, that vote of no-confidence will be similarly resounding and as mortifyingly public.
In politics, on the other hand, it is far easier to rule by the sheer might of dynastic diktat, take credit for things that go right and be shielded from blame over missteps by finding scapegoats. And that, as we all know, is by no means a hypothetical construct! Similarly, the inheritor of a business family can seem much more capable than he or she really is by being surrounded by smart managerial talent that does all the heavy lifting while Mr Chairman or Ms Managing Director poses beatifically for pictures for the annual report.
Undoubtedly, our industry too offers scope for family members to be accommodated in non-essential roles and bestowed with fancy designations or onscreen credits. But when it comes to quite literally the business end of the matter– the names whose presence on posters green-lights projects or ensures a box office opening – cold economics prevails over sentimental genealogy.
We may also note that in many cases, unrelated producers clamour to launch scions of marquee names with a view to cashing in on brand recognition and audience curiosity. So to some extent, at least, the proliferation of film industry families can be attributed to supply meeting consumer demand. And though we had resolved to not use names in this note in order to retain focus on the principles of the debate rather than personalities, let’s make an exception by pointing out that two of our most exciting and successful young stars– Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt – haven’t done a single film for their home banners yet.
None of the foregoing should be perceived as a denial of the fact that nepotism exists in our industry, or as a discounting of the substantially tougher path to success for non-pedigreed aspirants. Our sole submission is that in the final analysis, true success – both in terms of magnitude as also longevity – for both groups of contenders boils down to the public acceptance of each individual’s own talents and merits.
Perhaps an analogy can be drawn with sporting tournaments wherein some teams get automatic entry by virtue of being hosts or through a wild card or on the basis of their previous accomplishments, while others have to qualify to get that chance. However, once the real battle starts, actual performance (and admittedly a dash of luck) is what dictates who emerges victorious.
So while it’s understandable that this debate periodically crops up on public forums, let’s not bother too much and just leave the task of separating the grain from the chaff to the ultimate judge, jury and executioner – the box office.
That, and that alone, will decide who makes it – be it the lanky corporate executive from Calcutta or the Delhi boy playing supporting roles on television or the martial arts-practicing chef from Bangkok; or someone who happens to be the son of a mildly successful producer or a semi-retired writer or an action director.