Probably not a coincidence, right? Not like “ugh, another big controversy I am caught in! Hey look, I have a longform writing platform to discuss it. What a coinky-dink!” Probably more like “should I take this column offer from NDTV? I probably should, because it will be useful the next time I am inevitably caught in a controversy.”
Here is the link to the original column. And here is my post back when I first watched the Kangana-Karan Koffee episode and when Karan’s quotes about it first started hitting the media. Okay, are we all up to speed? We have done all our background reading? Good!
Here’s the thing that drives me crazy about this whole thing. The underlying assumption for it all is that being in the film industry is desirable. Or, put it another way, that people in the film industry obviously are choosing to be in the film industry.
And this is just not true! Karan talks about in his column all the super talented people born into the industry who were able to get help with their first break because of their connections. But what he doesn’t say is that those same connections would do them no good in any other industry. Might, in fact, harm them.
Okay, imagine being Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter. Seems pretty great, right? Your dad’s cool, your half-sister is famous, you’ve got a really nice house and loads of cool family friends who come over for parties. And you get to spend school vacations on film sets.
Now, imagine being Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter at boarding school. All your classmates know every detail of your father’s alcoholism and divorce and everything else. They also know you are one quarter white and your cousin is a “serial kisser” onscreen and your big sister directs steamy sex scenes. Obviously, this isn’t the worst thing a teenager has ever gone through, but I’m sure it’s not great.
(Cute photo now that she is a famous actress, embarrassing photo back when she was in middle-school)
Now imagine being Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter and trying to get a boring corporate job. Or accepted into Med School. Or Law School. Or heck, IIT!!! IIT is merit based, but it’s going to be awfully hard to achieve if you are pulled out of schools every time a new scandal breaks in the newspaper, or your father has to shoot for 6 months overseas and wants you with him. So it’s not so easy, right? You are tarnished with the famous name and the “film family” label. Sure, people want to chat with you about the famous folks you grew up with, but they may not be as willing to trust you with sensitive business data, or a responsible professional position.
I don’t think that Alia actually went around on career day at her school and talked to people and realized no one would ever hire her outside of the film industry. Because I think this is something that film kids just know, probably before they can talk. I know I’ve heard from plenty of grown up star kids, and current stars talking about their kids, telling jokes about how they grew up thinking that all adults were film stars, because those were the only people they knew. It’s cute, picturing these little kids going around thinking “every Daddy must be mobbed by hordes of fans when they step out of their cars, because that’s just what Daddy’s are like”.
But it also indicates a deeper truth about society that they probably figured out around the first time they weren’t invited to a birthday party at a school friend’s house. All the “Daddies” they met were in film, because none of the “Daddies” who weren’t in film would come over to their houses. And they weren’t invited to associate with the children of those none filmi Daddies either. By the time you are 18, it must be painfully clear that your only options are to cut off contact with your family and marry out, or to join some form of the film industry.
And this is just getting worse now, with what Karan describes in his article, the way these kids are stalked and turned into public figures their whole lives. You can’t just change your name or move to a new town, you have to change your whole appearance, cancel your Facebook account, get off instagram, never tweet again, and cross your fingers that none of your new friends end up being false friends and selling out your location. It’s almost safer to just take control and embrace the fame, give an interview or do a photo shoot, take control of the narrative.
(Do you remember all the publicity around that cute beach photo of Suhana and AbRam? Because she was wearing a bikini? And suddenly everyone on the internet either felt the need to talk about how hot this 16 year old playing with her baby brother was, or how terrible her parents were for letting her wear a swimsuit on a family vacation to the beach? It’s not a great way to grow up!)
This is not true in America. In America, you can be Harrison Ford’s son and work as a chef, for instance. It’s not as easy as going in to film, because you don’t have the connections in the other industry, but you can still do it. And you can fade into anonymity, the press won’t hound you, your co-workers won’t shun you, you can visit your parents without ten million articles appearing about it, you have options.
(Only photo I can find of him. Wouldn’t be enough to let me recognize him on the street)
And you can also get that first chef job without connections! Karan pointed out that it isn’t just film in India that is nepotistic, which is certainly true, and there’s no reason that film should be singled out. That’s a valid point, but I think there is a flipside to it that he hasn’t addressed.
That also means that it is just as hard for a film kid to break into a non-film industry as it is for a non-film kid to break into film. Again, not saying you can’t do it, it would just be very very very hard. Probably extra hard for a film kid than for an outsider from a different, let’s just say it, “caste”. Because there is that thought process of “oh, you must be so cool and powerful and connected and rich, you don’t even need this job, so I’m not going to help you” and “oh, you are cool and connected and rich, but I am also uncomfortable around you because I know all your family scandals and I assume you are sexually loose and scandalous yourself, and therefore I am choosing not to hire you.”
I am aware that we are grading on a curve with all of this. I’m not saying that Alia Bhatt has a harder time in life than someone living on the street. Or even that she has a harder time in life than plenty of other teenage girls in Bombay. But she has a harder time of it than another girl born into her exact circumstances in terms of money and education but without the famous family and film label around their neck.
And remember, we are talking about star kids now and their particular troubles, but the “star parents” usually have their own much much much much worse troubles which are why they landed in film in the first place. Mahesh Bhatt was a “star kid” too, his father was a producer. But his mother was an illegal “second wife” and a Muslim. I doubt that it would have been easy for Mahesh to get a job outside of film in any circumstances, but with an illegitimate birth and a joint religious identity hanging over him, and then eloping with a Christian girl in college, I don’t think he could have found work anywhere else.
Every film family has a story like this somewhere in the background. Partition refugees, elopements, orphans, criminals, and so many cross-religious, cross-ethnicity, and cross-caste families that it is notable when they AREN’T mixed. If they hadn’t landed in film and been successful, they might have ended up qualifying for government assistance or police protection. Or, more likely, ended up dying poor and alone or killed in an honor killing. And their kids would be born into that situation and try to survive it.
(We’re not even talking that long ago, back in the 80s Aamir was a producer’s nephew who first seriously looked at acting because he needed a job so he could marry the Hindu girl next door, since he knew their families wouldn’t approve or support them)
Kangana is the one who first raised this concern, and she addressed it to Karan, so let’s look at the two of them as a test case. Kangana was thrown out of her family home at 15. She landed in Bombay and could only find work modeling (one of the many Bombay industries supported by and interacting with film), and then that turned into acting. Just as it has done for the outcasts of society since the teens, the Hindi film industry took her in and gave her a place that she never would have been able to find otherwise. It’s not just that she got a place in film despite not having film family connections, as has already been pointed out by plenty of people, she got a place in film despite having so many strikes against her that she would never have been accepted anywhere else.
I know Kangana probably worries about other girls like herself, who don’t win this “golden ticket” of access to the one industry that will accept them. She probably looks at Alia’s success and thinks “that rich and beloved young woman is getting the chance to be a heroine, and somewhere there is a teenage girl just as talented who desperately needs the work to survive and isn’t getting it.” And I am sure that is frustrating.
But do we really want to play the “who needs it more” game? Or the “merit” game? Because there is never going to be an objective measure for that. Alia is super talented. Maybe there is someone somewhere in the world who is even more talented than she is. But that is one of Karan’s points in his column, he held open auditions, he looked at many many other girls, and she was the best one. Was he supposed to just keep looking until he found someone even better, no matter how long it took, just because it wouldn’t be “fair” to hire someone from within the industry? Is that his responsibility?
(Even if you are a “bad” producer and don’t bother with open auditions and just cast your own kid, there is still a merit level. A truly untalented producer’s son, no matter the amount of pressure his father puts or money he spends, will not last long)
And besides the inborn talent kind of merit, this lifelong film training is nothing to be sneezed at. Karan says that he hired Varun as an AD because he knew him because he was David Dhawan’s son. But he gave him the role in Student of the Year because he saw how well he did as an AD. I am sure that was partly Varun’s own inborn talent and film sense. But I am sure it was also the result of showing up on set with a lifetime of experience being around films. If you don’t think of it as a choice between David Dhawan’s son and an outsider, but instead think of it as a choice between someone with 22 years experience in film and someone who just finished a 6 month film course, then the choice is clear. I guess that’s a kind of nepotism, since the unfair advantage comes from the family you were born into, but it’s also a practical merit-based decision on the part of the people who hire you, not a sentimental one.
And as for the “who needs it more”, let’s look at Karan himself. Do you think Karan would even be alive today if he hadn’t managed to find work in film? I mean literally alive. Suicide, hate crime, overdose after self-medicating for depression, I think there’s about a 75% chance he wouldn’t have lived to 40 if he hadn’t landed in the film industry. Or else he wouldn’t be in India. That was the plan, before he started in films, his family was trying to send him out of the country. Because outside of the Hindi film industry, there was nowhere else in the entire country that he would fit in. Maybe for Alia and Varun it is a simple matter of having a hard time breaking into any other area of society, and fitting into it after they have broken in. But for plenty of the people in film, not just the actors but the crews and everyone else, this is the only place they would be able to be themselves and survive. Whether it is because of their sexual orientation or their religion or their family background or anything else. And it doesn’t matter if they happen to have been born into a family that has film connections already, that doesn’t make them any less endangered than anyone else with their social handicap (handicap in the golf terminology, not physical).
(Golf! And also, social handicaps! The daughter of a Muslim woman with 3 husbands, and the hard-drinking son a landed family that lost everything after Independence)
But, as Karan says in his column, all of this second guessing on “merit” and “need” is meaningless, because he’s not running a charity here! Or a government agency or anything else. He is running a private business and he doesn’t have to answer to anyone but himself. He wants to work with the people he wants to work with, and he doesn’t want to work with those he doesn’t want to work with. And everyone else has that exact same right, they can turn him down and he can turn them down just because it’s what they want to do. And what gives the media, or the public, or even other people within the industry, the right to judge him for his decisions? If we don’t like how he casts his films, stop buying tickets for them. Otherwise, stay out of it!
Actually, if we are going to make this a Karan versus Kangana thing (which seems to be what the media has decided it is), I am much more concerned about investigating Kangana’s background. Because it seems like she has been a victim not of nepotism but of sexual exploitation. Gossip claims that as a teenage model she was first introduced to the film industry by her much older, married, and on record as an abuser boyfriend Aditya Pancholi. That’s a moral issue, not with Kangana, but with Aditya. He shouldn’t have been abusing his power as a connected actor to force a young girl into a relationship with him. There is direct obvious harm here. Not Kangana’s place to bring it up necessarily, not my place to say she has to, but the open secret is that the film industry functions either through sex or family. And the sex half of it has the potential to be way more exploitative than the family half of it.
(Kangana and Aditya. This is much more alarming to me than Karan giving a helping hand to some kid he remembers from when they were in diapers)
All of this is a lot of words to make 3 simple points:
- Working in the film industry is a lot less desirable than it looks and not necessarily something people would do if they had other choices available to them
- Being born into a film family makes it easier to get a break in the film industry because you have connections and experience and may even have talent, but it makes it a lot harder to get a break in any other industry.
- It’s not a national moral issue if someone made a particular decision in casting a film based on family connections or old friendships.