New Delhi: It was allegedly something that Shah Rukh Khan had stated to film critic Anupama Chopra – in a moment of rare seriousness – that set me thinking. “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 objectively speaking if you really think about it, the guy has a point. Check it out yourself. If you ignore the art-house diwanas and a few selected film-critics (always a niche) the general public, remain Bollywood-crazed and star-struck as hell, everywhere star-studded movies play. It is an acknowledged fact (despite all the snides 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 Devgn or Ranbir Kapoor (preferably with Katrina, Kareena, Priyanka and Deepika as accompanying eye-candy) is much more likely to zoom past the Rs 100 crore mark in record time than the combined talent of Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor, Om Puri, Irrfan, Manoj Bajpayee, Konkana Sen Sharma, Rahul Bose, Abhay Deol, Vinay Pathak and gang.
Outstanding as they indeed are, they don’t have that magical quality to seduce popular imagination as stars; nor the glamour and sex-appeal that forces you to drop everything, rush to that darkened theatre and silently reverentially witness enchanting fantasy being played out on screen. In the very early eighties, I once had the opportunity of conducting a longish interview with movie moghul Yash Chopra. It was fascinating to hear him rave about the finest actor in the land, Naseeruddin Shah. The Tycoon had just witnessed one of his plays and seemed to be, totally besotted and zapped. At one point, I broke in to politely enquire whether this would induce the great man 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 done and ‘Chandni and 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, worshipped and fantasized – in the late sixties and early seventies, when the Rajesh Khanna wave was at its height, it was not uncommon to see his car blitzed with lipstick imprints or insane female fans getting wedded to his photograph – in such total passionate, non-negotiable ways? What is that elusive quality they possess that makes them so completely irresistible?
Hollywood – where the star-system was born and bred – has engaging takes on this subject. Seventies Golden Boy Super Star Robert Redford is first off the mark. He 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 and believes it’s cool. “What’s wrong in going through the front door with roses than sneaking through the back door, carrying garbage?” Brando, (as individualistic as always) was acerbic.”
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 too remains 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,” Maurine Davis has it spot-on when she gushes. “A star is someone who forces you to dump the dishes and hot foot it to the nearest screen,” agrees sex-symbol Hedy Lamarr. “After stardom, everything else is poverty,” Argues Vincent Price. “It’s very funny. They try to make everyone look normal, ordinary and identifiable now-a-days. Some of the actresses look and sound like my niece in Oklahoma. Now, I sure love my niece a lot, but would I buy a ticket to see her act?”
The final words must come from a grizzly veteran Hollywood Agent defining the 5 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?
We have our industry folks offer their respective views too. Respected art-house director Aparna Sen (36, Choranghee Lane, Mr and Mrs Iyer, Japanese Wife) is first off the block. “A star uses his/her personal attributes, like may be 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.”
Another hugely respected, iconic leader Veteran Film director Shyam Benegal brings his spin to the table. “It’s very simple. Commercial/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 centre piece 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 centre of the character’s soul.
Since props and externals like looks, glamour, 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, honour 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 joins the party. “Benegal is right. Mass appeal is the USP 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 and SRK towered over them in the popularity and pay-cheque department right?”
Saibal agrees with the late great legendary Hollywood director Billy Wilders definition of stardom as something “impossible to define but easy to recognize.” He believes that Hollywood, however has (unlike B-town) always had stars who were also excellent actors too and points towards yesterdays Brando, Dean and Clift and today’s De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, Page, Nicholson, Streep, Hanks, even Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Leo 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 film-maker and the star as also the lack of real true-blue ability/talent to courageously explore and get inside the skin of the character to make it come alive.”
Chatterjee also forwards another very interesting reason why Bollywood is unlikely to produce the star actor in a hurry. “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 and Agneepath’s have rocked.” What about ‘Kahaani’ and ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, two very unlikely films – no glamour, item songs, exotic locales, hi-tech gizmos or brute force fights – that have done well at the box office and garnered great media notices 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 almost doubled, it augurs well. Interestingly 2012 has slew of interesting edgy, non-formulae films – ‘Kahaani’ and ‘Pan Singh Tomar’ 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!”
Chatterjee is spot-on. Dibarkar’s ‘Shanghai’, Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, Reema Katgi’s ‘Talaash’ and Anurag Basu’s ‘Barfi’ do indicate feisty thrusts into new, exciting terrain, but we will need many more off-beat, engaging, films, show-casing our brilliant gifted actors to get things on track; give the genuine actors their due recognition in terms of talent and pay-cheques.
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. The ultimate actor, Naseeruddin 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 about 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 centre 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, (thank god) but as Chatterjee so perceptively pointed out – as did SRK right in the beginning of the piece – in India, stars will dazzle and rule, while actors will continue to invite respect, admiration and awards and the twain shall never meet.
Sad but true.