Happy Tuesday! I was planning to do a Hindi Film 101 One-Off today on Sanjay Dutt’s court case or something, related back to the Nargis series I just finished. But “nepotism” has become the catchphrase of the day, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the history of families working together in Hindi film, where it started and why. Oh, and I don’t usually plug my book in these posts, but this one is really very similar in tone and contains some content that I go into in more detail there, so if you like it, buy the book!
Usual Disclaimer: The specifics of what I am about to say may or may not be true, I don’t know these people in real life, but this is based on the routinely accepted “truth” of Hindi film history, as recorded in multiple books and articles and interviews.
The big thing to remember about the Hindi film industry is that it is an industry founded in the shadow of colonialism. Which means it functions in a pre-industrial structure. It was the arrival of the industrial revolution which started changing the way we look at “work” versus “home”.
Think about, for instance, a cobbler. His workroom is his living room and his kitchen as well. If someone shows up to pick up a pair of shoes or drop off a repair while he is out, his wife is there to handle it. If she has the time, she probably helps make the repairs as well. And if work is slow, he helps chop vegetables. The kids help out too as part of their chores, and are given slowly increasing responsibility. And by the time their father or mother dies or becomes ill or retires, the kids know enough to smoothly move in and take over.
You can still see this kind of household on a farm. Everyone works together, men women and children. And they all know just as much about the business and are just as invested in its success. There is no one “farmer”, there is a farm family.
And then the industrial revolution came. Our cobbler had to stop working out of his house because everyone wanted fancy new factory made shoes. So he gets a job at the factory. Now, suddenly, the time he is at the factory has become his “work” time. And the time he is at home is his “home” time. He no longer helps his wife in the kitchen, and she is no longer invited to share in the knowledge and responsibility of his labor. And the kids are sent to school where they do their “work”, and suddenly what they do at home has become “chores”, not just a part of life, and certainly not “learning” because that is what is done at school.
(The whole “8 hour work day” concept wouldn’t even make sense in a pre-industrial society. You work when there is work to do, and you don’t when there isn’t. And that is how film still works, a dinner with friends is also a script narration and a contract debate. And you don’t end a film shoot after 8 hours, you keep going all night until the shot is done)
None of this was an accident, especially not in colonized cultures. In one of my grad school seminars, we read excerpts from education texts of the era, written by Europeans of course, and they were openly focused on training children to run on schedule, to obey commands, to value memorization and recitation of facts over thinking. Lower class and colonized children, of course. Upper class children were never sent to these schools, they were expected to be free thinkers with tutors and independent thought.
(Classrooms were designed to be similar to factory work benches, to get them used to working that way)
What made it even worse for the colonies was that our poor cobbler didn’t even get that shoe factory job. His shop closed, because everyone was buying factory shoes, but they were imported factory shoes. Colonialism was all about taking raw materials from the colonies, bringing it back to Europe, turning it into manufactured products, and then selling it back to those same colonies where the materials came from. So our cobbler gets poorer and poorer, his wife is dragged down with him, and their kids are sent to a charitable school where they are trained to be “good colonial subjects” and eventually enlist in the British army or get jobs working as servants or clerks, and fervently believe that they are lucky to get the job and the British are saving them.
Now, if you paid attention in Indian history classes, you already sort of knew all this. This is why there was such an effort to get people off of manufactured goods and out of British schools. Because the acceptance of British products and British training was poisoning people against what was their own good.
(Gandhi wanted people to make their own cloth not just to stop money from going to Britain, but to break this whole cycle)
Enter film!!!! The British haaaaaaaaaaaaated Indian made films. They did everything they could to restrict them, censoring and blocking access to training and materials. There was no way for film to grow as an “industry” and so, despite being one of the most technically advanced businesses in India, it was one of the most old-fashioned in structure.
This goes back to the very first filmmaker in India, Dadasaheb Phalke. He fell in love with film and was determined to make his own. So he traveled all the way to England to buy a camera, since it could not be imported. And he trained his wife and children as his film crew, since no one else was willing to take a risk on this new business. The whole family worked together for years, partly because it was cheaper to use his children and wife as crew than hire someone, and partly because it never would have occurred to them to do anything different. Would you expect a grocer’s wife not to help take inventory or a grocer’s son not to work behind the counter? Of course not! If it is a family business, it means the whole family works together, lives together, eats together, and there is no division, no “work” and “home”.
(You can see this in Celluloid, the first Malayalam filmmaker shot in his backyard and used his wife for costumes and make-up)
After Independence, while other industries in India slowly began to move away from the “family” model, film lagged behind. Because there was no other choice, the new Indian government was censoring and hindering it almost as much as the British had. You still couldn’t get funding for a movie (unless you went to the mob, which I will get into in a second part), and it was still hard to find people willing to work with you.
And this meant that there was still no division between “home” and “work”. Your family was still your support staff. And, on the flip side, those who were willing to be hired on from the outside were naturally treated as “family”. Everyone ate together, everyone lived together, it was less like your staff at the office and more like your live-in maid who became a part of your family. Think less Shahrukh at NASA in Swades, more Farida Jalal working for the Raichands in K3G.
Rishi Kapoor in his autobiography talked about this as recently as the 1980s when they were finishing the film Henna. He served as star of the film, but also as production manager. Neetu wasn’t officially attached to the picture in any way, but she was part of the family so she ironed the costumes at night and served food to the crew during the day. And this wasn’t some low budget art picture! This was a mainstream major release from one of the biggest studios. But film people just didn’t know of any other way to do things, this is how they had always worked, with the whole family pitching in to get it made one way or another. Rishi also talked about how the foreign crew they used on location shooting couldn’t wrap their heads around this way of functioning, and the Kapoors didn’t bother to explain because they knew it wouldn’t be understood.
For decades, Hindi film was about families living together and surviving film to film, all pulling together to make it work. There was no outside money, so if your film flopped, it didn’t just mean a bad day at the office, it meant you lost your house, your wife’s jewels, everything. So naturally, the whole family took a deep interest and was heavily involved in making sure the films succeeded.
This is where some of the earlier incidents of “nepotism” come from. For instance, Rishi Kapoor was cast in Mere Naam Joker because his father thought it would be interesting to have his son play a younger version of himself, and it was easier than going out and finding and paying another teenager. He got Bobby because Mere Naam Joker flopped and they were desperate for cash and couldn’t afford to pay another actor to star. Heck, they probably couldn’t even get another actor to star! Months of filming with a director/producer whose last film had been a massive flop wouldn’t be too appealing. And so Raj told Rishi he had to do the film, just like another father might say “you have to take out the garbage”, and it turned into a hit and Rishi became a star. A star who worked for the family studio whenever needed and, of course, never took payment for it. Who asks for payment from their father? Especially when you are working to support a business that you will inherit one day?
There were still the fly-by-night producers, the one-film actors, the ones who didn’t last. Yash Johar, for instance. Karan in his autobiography talks about how he knew he was on the outside of the “real” film people, his Dad produced movies some of the time, but it wasn’t his life’s work, and it wasn’t anything they talked about as a family. But the inner core of the industry were these dedicated artists, and their families, who worked day after day and year after year managed to survive in a very uncertain business. There was a natural bond that came up between them, they all moved to the same neighborhoods, socialized together outside of work, and made sure that there was always someone to help out one when of them was in trouble.
For instance, there is the film Don. The producer was a long-time member of the film fraternity (just the fact that “film fraternity” is a more common term than “film industry” tells you something) as a cinematographer. The cast, scriptwriter, everybody agreed to do this film mostly as a favor to him because they had known him for so long. And then he died halfway through filming. The film carried on with stops and starts, picking up again any time the stars had a few weeks free, so that it could finally be released and the profits given to the producer’s widow.
There is one more part of this community, that it is a new community. So anyone who suddenly lost an established ancient community could easily slip in and build a new identity in film, much more easily than trying to, for instance, move to a new village and start farming again. This is more of an element in the Bombay industry than in others, because Bombay is that kind of a city. It is filled with people from somewhere else, looking for a new start. And so the Hindi film industry became filled with people who had been pulled from their communities in the Punjab, or Bengal, or old Delhi. The film industry in Bombay in those days replaced those lost original homes, it wasn’t just a “job”, it was a whole network of support.
This kind of community continued unchanged from the 1930s through the 1980s. And then in the 1990s things began to change rapidly on two fronts. And I will get into that on Thursday.