By Shekhar Gupta
The coronavirus pandemic has also unleashed a rash of viral memes. My favourite is one which has a patient asking a doctor when he thinks the scourge will end. “I don’t know,” says the doctor. “I am not a journalist.”
It is with that sobering thought that I dare to wade into the story of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, and what it tells us about Bollywood. Now, I know you could turn around and confront me with that same meme: You think you can hold forth on cinema just because you are a journalist?
I speak from experience. One reason I love my job is the diversity of experiences it provides, and the fascinating people I interact with.
I have hardly ever written about a film, except for the sociology of the odd remarkable one like Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Lagaan (2001). But, having to shepherd India’s premier film awards (Screen Awards, owned by The Indian Express Group when I also functioned as the company’s CEO between 2000-2013, besides editor-in-chief) exposes you to this incredible universe.
Incredible, because for something so public, open, and dependent on the wishes of crores of ticket-buying people, or ‘bums-on-the-seats’ in the insiders’ language, it is also the most opaque business you can find. Any outsider would find it impregnable and suffer many heartbreaks, as even one as successful as Sushant probably did.
It has everything: Glamour, fame, money, power, hormones, cliques, dynasties. It is also, generally, a meritocracy. After all, four children of Dharmendra’s, including two with Hema Malini, only collected middling Sunny Deol-sized success between them, besides three Parliament seats from the BJP. Abhishek Bachchan, despite his super-famous and powerful parents, spouse, talent and demeanour of maturity not widespread in the film world, has struggled.
So, if Bollywood has all this, what is it that it lacks? What is it that breaks an outsider as talented and successful as Sushant Singh Rajput? The short answer is one word: Respect.
Although grandly called ‘industry’, this world has no centre of gravity. It can’t have any if no one there respects any individual, institution, organisation, government, media, nothing. Everyone within is a rival or an ally. Everyone outside can be bought or arm-twisted (especially media and film critics), or charmed, as in politicians. It is a very lonely place. And the most selfish I have seen. Mind you, I’ve made my living over four decades covering Indian politics.
What makes Bollywood a world so unfair to the outsider so much isn’t just the dynasties and cliques. It is essentially the fact that it is a brutally competitive game with no umpires, adjudicators or whistle-blowers.
Every year for the Screen Awards, my primary responsibility was to let the formidable editor of Screen (Bhawana Somaiya, and later, Priyanka Sinha Jha) set up a jury, and let them decide without any interference. To that extent, we were successful. Neither the management of the Express Group, nor its owner or his family ever called us to ‘suggest’ anything. The pressures, however, came once the awards list became known.
The days leading up to the glittering awards evening in Mumbai, each January, was a nightmare. Because film awards in India are no longer just awards and speeches like the Oscars. These are multi-hour television shows paid for by the host channel which, in turn, collects from the sponsors. That needs ratings. Which is ensured in two ways: Get top stars to perform on stage, ideally to a hit song of each one from that year, and to fill in your star enclosure with the most popular faces. The first was easy, if expensive. The second was the trouble.
Because, a star attending or not would depend on whether he/she was getting an award or not. If we couldn’t ensure an award (which we never did or would), not only would the star boycott, but also the entire clique or dynasty around him/her. I forget precise dates and regret my poor GK on movies, but the first experience was a boycott by the entire Bachchan clan, maybe in 2004, because of one such dissatisfaction.
There was an incident every year. I am choosing the few here to illustrate the power of every possible element: A dynasty, a clique or an individual star. In the 2011 awards (for 2010 releases), My Name is Khan was apparently the biggest hit. It did not get nominated in any category. Right or wrong, we wouldn’t know, because we let the jury be. And the jury that year was headed by someone as widely respected and accomplished as Amol Palekar. Shah Rukh Khan was also a contracted performer and a stage presenter.
Trouble began three days earlier, as usual. There were threats of a boycott. I never heard this from Shah Rukh — before, during the awards or later, to be fair. But from people “around the film”. There was panic and I had to field long, pained, hurt calls from Karan Johar, who simply wouldn’t accept that the jury had not found the film worthy of an award.
I was told dark theories on why poor Palekar might dislike those who made “the greatest hit in years”. How dare he choose instead a “marginal film” like Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan! There were threats of a boycott not just “by us, but the entire industry”. We held our nerve again, and a breather came as the viewers’ choice award, based on an internet poll conducted by our host TV channel, went to the film. We were satisfied because it wasn’t a jury award and our process was clean.
Year 2012 was my last Screen Awards ordeal. The best film was shared between Vidya Balan-starrer Dirty Picture and multi-starrer Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD). So far, so good. But again, in its wisdom, the jury chose Milan Luthria (Dirty Picture) for best director, and not Zoya Akhtar (ZNMD).
On the day of the awards, Priyanka called in panic as usual. The cast and crew of ZNMD, she said, were boycotting. Now, how do you run an awards evening if nobody appears on the stage to accept ‘best film’. We again started diplomacy. But it wasn’t working. Not only was nobody from the film turning up, they had also persuaded all their friends.
At one point that evening, I got desperate enough to even call Javed Akhtar to plead with him. I did get a call back from Farhan. He turned up, sullen and in a black tee. He said while he might have come there out of respect (not for the jury), he wouldn’t accept the award on the stage. He left in a few minutes.
In the front rows, I spotted Krishika Lulla, whose company Eros held the worldwide rights to the film, and requested her to come and accept the award for the film. The temperature dropped to minus-30; she froze. How could any producer risk the ire of multiple dynasties, stars and a sizeable clique all rolled together? We had to finally get one of our staff members to take the award on the film’s behalf.
There were more. And you might find those in my memoir someday. But, notably, in 2007, there was Hrithik Roshan, chosen best actor (male) for Krrish, so far, so good. He was also contracted to perform on stage. He sent word an hour before the event that he would come and perform as contracted, but wouldn’t accept the award.
Why? Because how could he give legitimacy “to a jury that did not recognise the phenomenal talent of his father”? Rakesh Roshan was the film’s director. Hrithik did finally relent, but boycotted at least the customary post-awards star party.
And then, in 2010, when Katrina Kaif was to perform, paid fully in advance, she threw a tantrum minutes before her performance as she wasn’t being given any award. I was taken to her vanity van to plead with her.
Katrina was all dressed and painted up to perform. And then, the outburst. Why do they always call me but give me no awards? I said that was never the deal, you have a contract to perform. But by now, tears were streaming down her face, taking much of the make-up in their wake. Again, we invented a popular choice award.
It is well known that Aamir Khan never attends awards functions because he says they are fixed. Every year I’d call him and ask him if he didn’t trust even me to keep our awards clean. But he kept telling me, you get off this kerb. You will not be able to do this. A totally fair awards process is impossible here. I said my jury awards were clean, ‘popular choice’ ones we had nothing to do with, so we were at least 90 per cent clean. He said, I told you so.
The reason I bare all this now, is because it helps us imagine how lonely and stressed a rank outsider could get in this environment. Already, the stars buy coverage in the biggest newspapers with money. The number of ‘stars’ rating in a film review comes at a negotiable price in much powerful media (with exceptions); awards are fixed using the clout of established stardom, dynasties, cliques. There is nobody who can blow the whistle. No elder statesman, no institution like an association or an Academy, few journalists who carry credibility as well as weight, no whistle-blowers. It is a very, very stressful place for an outsider. Because the system can be turned on you. Not even a newspaper group like the Express was spared.
Postscript: I’m old-fashioned. I called the Chairman of the Express Group, Viveck Goenka, to inform him I was writing this.
He is fine with it.