With roots in kinship and stardom, how Bollywood continues to fuel nepotism despite being an 'industry'
Nepotism is encouraged, above all, by a film industry marked by high risk and volatility. Under such circumstances, the star – who accumulates an almost divine aura in his person – comes to be the biggest investment the producer makes to guarantee a film’s success.
The death of Sushant Singh Rajput last month has opened, yet again, a can of worms in the Hindi film industry. Fans, commentators and colleagues have speculated that Rajput’s state of mind may have been caused, at least in large part, by the insecurities of being a precarious outsider trying to eke out a career in a notoriously insular, harsh industry that trades in dreams but tightly limits who gets to live them.
Bollywood’s ranks are of course not completely closed. Every now and then, it makes room for small town underdogs with a lot of ambition and chutzpah, who, after a few years on the margins of Bombay cinema, may cross over into the mainstream and become gatekeepers in turn. (Think of Anurag Kashyap’s exemplary trajectory, from being an angsty outsider to his current avatar as a playmaker for New Bollywood, comfortable keeping the company of Khans, Bachchans and Kapoors. Or think of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s spectacular rise as an alt-Bollywood star.)
In any case, things have been simmering in Bollywood since 2017, when Kangana Ranaut accused Karan Johar of fomenting nepotism on his talk show, and Johar responded with a glib “nepotism rocks!” jibe during the IIFA Awards. A politically conscious ‘woke’ discourse has since steadily shaped the liberal demand for reform in the film industry, especially mobilising around the issues of nepotism and sexual harassment post-MeToo. Fans, critics and even industry insiders want Bollywood to be more accountable and accessible, to honour merit and talent democratically. This will guarantee, they suggest, not just a better workplace environment, but also progressive films.
As far as public discourses go, the nepotism debate has never been as intense and mainstream as it is now. Even a decade back, a Bollywood reporter could gleefully write an article tracing all the dizzying familial ties between stars old and new: “Is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan related to Mithun Chakravorty? Did you know Mithun shared a connection with the Kapoors through his wife Yogeeta Bali... as do the Bachchans?”
Anyone who has dredged through Bolly-Wikipedia must have stumbled upon the master page which lists all the famous film clans. Between them, these clans seem to exhaust the heritage of Bombay cinema across at least three generations. 'Insiderism' and endogamy have, in fact, beset the industry since the late 1930s at least, when the first generation of ‘star kids’ like Raj Kapoor, Shobhana Samarth and Nargis made their debuts.
In a way, this fact significantly invalidates the common criticism that holds individuals like Johar responsible for nepotism. After all, nepotism is a structural phenomenon that long predates and dictates what someone like Karan Johar can do within a given industrial logic (though he is far from powerless to improve conditions). It characterises, above all, a political economy in which ‘pre-modern’ familial forms of sociocultural capital dominate the relations of production.
Even as Bombay cinema – and India at large – has modernised and integrated into global capitalist circuits, it has held on to arcane models of social organisation (founded on caste and kinship networks) as a guarantor of stability against fundamental change. Updating while remaining the same, Bombay cinema is symptomatic of an unreconstructed society that modernises superficially, but maintains its ancient, hierarchical social relations beneath (caste, for example, persists, not despite but within corporate capitalism). Seen this way, nepotism is a mode of production and risk management that has characterised Bombay cinema for around eight decades. Here, I’d like to dig into its historical roots and show how this came to be.
Nepotism is encouraged, above all, by a film industry marked by high risk and volatility. Under such circumstances, the star – who accumulates an almost divine aura in his person – comes to be the biggest investment the producer makes to guarantee a film’s success. While the star system has always been a feature of all large-scale film industries – emerging by the 1920s across the world – stars function as the lynchpin of production culture in India in a rather distinctive way, that we shall explore in some detail. (This is why 50-plus actors like the Khans or Akshay Kumar continue to play 20- or 30-something roles; the film’s investment in star-value far outweighs any problem of plausibility.) Yet, this outsized dependence on the star was in no sense pre-given.
At least until the mid-'40s, well-organised film companies like Bombay Talkies, Kohinoor and Ranjit Movietone that had secure funding from wealthy merchants, industrialists and maharajas retained stars as salaried performers and personnel. (Banks, however, would not finance films because the business was excessively risk-prone — a fact that had significant bearing.) Although stars enjoyed far greater salaries compared to every other kind of film worker, they were seen as only one – and perhaps the most significant – of the many factors contributing to a film’s production value, marketing and eventual success. Studios devised various strategies to stay afloat. Debashree Mukherjee shows in her PhD thesis on '30s and '40s how Bombay cinema studios like Ranjit Movietone succeeded by quickly turning over film after film, so that resources and labour did not lay idle, and risk could be distributed across many products. Studios with common investors often pooled together resources as well, that is they were horizontally integrated, to reduce overheads.
But the studios/film companies were not all there was. The Bombay film circuit never became an oligopoly in the same way as the Hollywood Big Five (Universal, Fox, MGM et al). Alongside the major players, there existed a huge litany of small, independent producers, who borrowed money from informal networks of speculation, rented studio facilities, loaned stars and personnel, and shepherded projects from start to finish by bearing all the risk of the venture. While studios were somewhat integrated with assured distribution networks, independents were at the mercy of distributors who also acted as financiers. By booking slated films on advance payments under a ‘minimum guarantee’ system, these distributor-financiers gained an outsized hand in the trade. Rookie producers could begin shooting only when the advance had been made.
Studios and independents existed in a kind of uneasy cohabitation. Though established studios made money by loaning out their excess resources and personnel to independents, the latter also attracted ‘black money,’ regularly crashed out of the business and were thought to give the industry a bad name. There were periodic calls by filmy nationalist-progressives to clean up the industry of unscrupulous money and ‘corrupting’ influences, and rationalise it along the lines of Hollywood with state-approved credit support. In 1939, this well-organised and established sector in the film industry constituted an Indian Motion Picture Congress to impress upon the colonial state the necessity of reform and credit support.
World War II, however, dashed those hopes. The colonial state had other pressing things on its mind, and was content to merely regulate the industry from outside, taxing it in more senses than one. A strict rationing of film raw stock and ban on imports led to a sudden drop in film production, from 170 films in 1941 down to 99 films in '45, even as wartime conscription and industrial mobilisation had created a new class of urban worker-consumers who were hungry for more entertainment. Film attendance peaked like never before. Bombay’s mercantile community, meanwhile, grew in strength by speculating in gold and cotton. When restrictions on film stock and imports were lifted after the war in 1946, undeclared trade surpluses from these speculative trades were quickly pumped into cinema to make good on high demand.
Hundreds of rookie producers flooded the market anticipating a jackpot. Something like the crazed speculation of early capitalism took over. The 1951 Film Enquiry Committee Report noted a nearly threefold increase in production volume: from 99 films in 1945, to 200 films in 1946 by 151 producers, to 283 films in 1947 by 214 producers. As in those earlier booms, only a handful of the Bombay Film Rushers actually profited and made more than a film. The 1951 report notes that only 25 producers stayed in the market through 1946 to 1948. But the sheer volume of new producers had decisively shifted the balance in the industry from the studios, which became shadows of their former selves. Because of their decreased bargaining power, studios could no longer keep stars under fixed salaries. But since rookie producers had no resources or alternate strategies to minimise risk like the old studios, they betted entirely on the glamour and charisma of stars to be able to turn out hits.
Borrowing from the new flush of Bombay merchants, uber-competitive producers lured stars through astronomical ‘signing amounts’ and lump-sum payments, resulting in lopsided production budgets and priorities.
Already in pre-war days, studios were prone to splitting apart when stars – and directors, writers, or musicians with whom they shared successful working relationships – felt unvalourised, and decided to try their fates elsewhere. There were occasional defections of studio contracts, when breakaway stars and/or creative units would find new ventures or join rival film companies. In the post-war market, these breakaway units, crystallised around the star-actor, became the de-facto engine of production. As inexperienced producers vied to get star names signed, the stars in turn pushed for their favoured creative collaborators and protégés – directors, musicians, singers, co-stars – to be hired. Nepotism crept in as a way of guaranteeing the minimum possible cohesion of the filmmaking unit within a volatile market, especially one in which the survival of the producer was very shaky.
But if producers were so often going under, how did the industry at all survive? Did this mean that the films themselves were all failing to recuperate their costs? Not necessarily so. In any case, the production volume stabilised after the brief post-war boom. While statistics in Indian cinema are historically difficult to collate, the 1951 Film Enquiry Committee Report does note the outsized dominance of film distributors in the trade. Since there was an acute shortage of film theatres until about the '60s, due to a hold on ‘non-essential’ constructions, distributors had a say on which film could get released when. In fact, when the Bombay’s nouveau-riche mercantile caste-class decided to invest in cinema after the war, they invested not in production, but in distribution networks. Loaning out money to producers on the ‘minimum guarantee’ system, they pressurised them to mortgage the finished film. If a film went over-budget due to shooting delays, labour strikes or other reasons, the distributor-financier essentially became the rights holder, and ultimate profit-reaper.
Here, we chance upon the key fact: nepotism was reinforced by a system in which the financiers of post-war Bombay cinema showed no great desire to properly take control of and restructure the industry. Instead of buying the sinking film companies, which needed them to shoulder a lot of financial responsibilities, most Bombay investors were content to act as usurers or rentiers, who could turn a profit with the least risk taken (since these loans were in undeclared earnings, being in the shadows helped in tax evasion). The Film Enquiry Committee was formed in 1949 precisely to address the problem of industry reform through nationalisation. Due to many reasons, including the state’s unwillingness to understand the cinema as an effective medium, and the reticence of Bombay (film) financiers to be state-regulated, this reform project was, however, compromised and heavily scaled down. Bombay cinema would therefore be only formally integrated into modern capital while preserving pre-capitalist modes of sociality and association.
These state of affairs showed through in the films as well. As Madhava Prasad argues in Ideology of the Hindi Film, Bombay films were made through a heterogeneous mode of manufacturing ('jugaad'), in which pre-existing cultural forms – stories, music and performative idioms from mythological, folk and popular theatre traditions, Urdu literature and poetry, among others – were willy-nilly borrowed without being overall subsumed to a realist narrative. (When they decried the ‘confused excesses’ of the star-driven cinema, filmmakers like V Shantaram and Bimal Roy held up an alternative production culture centred on literary, realist screenplays, which could serve as blueprints for rational planning.)
The predominant genres of Bombay cinema were a confused mix of several idioms, whose overarching narrative tension was finally the preservation of caste Hindu families under the pressures of modernisation. This resonated with the Bombay film fraternity, for whom things moved after all not on the basis of merit and open competition, but by word of honour, associations of kinship and tutelage. The family was the most stable unit of social reproduction.
This story of post-war Bombay cinema has of course changed a bit, especially after the neoliberal corporatisation since the '90s. The industry is now semi-formalised and federally audited; there is some semblance of vertically-integrated structures of economic organisation. Additionally, the narrative structures of even average films have become much more streamlined into psychological-realism (attesting as much to changing audience tastes according to the new mode of production). Yet, something of the old structures of security tied to kinship networks and stardom remain, because the industry is, after all, part of Bombay's scene of speculative finance, where one always looks for guarantees against risk. Nepotism is then in the DNA of – the money which speaks – Bollywood, and will remain so because of those who invest deciding on not giving up accumulated caste/kinship privilege as techniques of risk minimisation. Individual personas like Karan Johar are after-effects, or more precisely, mere symptoms of the problem.
Sudipto Basu. The Reform of Bombay Cinema: State-Industry Negotiations, 1939-69, M.A. thesis, 2017.
Debashree Mukherjee. Bombay Modern: A History of Film Production in Late Colonial India (1930s-1940s), PhD thesis, 2015.
M Madhava Prasad. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 1998.
S.K. Patil et al. Report of the Film Enquiry Committee, Government of India Press, 1951.
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