Happy Thursday! On Tuesday, I started a discussion of Hindi film history and industrial development, inspired by all the discussion of “nepotism” popping up lately. I don’t usually plug my book in these posts, but if you find these posts in particular interesting, I go into much more detail in my book, so you should check it out. (part 1 here)
Usual Disclaimer: I have no particular personal knowledge, but I have read a lot of articles and books and interviews about Indian film history, and this is my interpretation of it. I hope you find it useful.
I left off last time at the 80s. For decades, Indian film, especially Hindi film, had survived based on a small community of families pulling together and working together despite the obstacles. The Indian government used their censor board, their restrictions on import-export laws, even forcing movie theaters at one point to show government made documentaries instead of popular films. Not allowing film music to be played on government radio, restricting films being shown on television. And, most damaging, refusing to give industry status to the industry. Which meant no money could be raised through stocks and, more generally, banks were reluctant to give loans, and most people if they had a choice would prefer a more stable industry for their careers.
The people who were left were the ones who didn’t really have any other choice. Traditional artists who couldn’t find a place in new India, Urdu poets and dancers from the Tawaif or temple dancer tradition, musicians and Parsi theater set designers and actors, they all landed up in Bombay and in films. You already saw this in my posts on Meena Kumari and Nargis and how they ended up as film actresses. And then there were the ones like the Kapoors, who through the difficult birth of new India ended up losing everything, family farms going away, traditional status, everything else. Until the young people of the family had no choice but to strike out for Bombay and try to start a new life.
(Holi party at RK Studios. I don’t know for sure, but I an guessing most of these people were not born in Bombay, and are awfully happy to have found people to celebrate Holi with in their new home)
As the decades rolled by, the descendents of these first families kept working in film. It was more than just a job, it was a community, it was what they had grown up with. And not just the producers and the actors. For example, there is a great article I read on the generations of the “dressman” of Hindi film. The dressmen would start their training as a teenager or younger, with their uncle or neighbor or father, or maybe an older man you just met the day you arrived in Bombay desperate for a job. They would go to the sets every day and make more money than they could working in a tea shop or a factory. And then after decades of this, they would become the chief dressman and take on their own assistant/apprentice, from their family or maybe just a bright boy you met on the streets. And the mentor would retire on his savings and with the support for the rest of his life of his former apprentice. The old school directors and producers all knew these kinds of workers through working together for years and years, sometimes watching them grow up into the jobs. They would give money for a daughter’s wedding or help out when someone got sick, and they would trust the work because they trusted the workers and knew the workers.
(A dressman and his assistant)
That is just one example of one field, because I happened to read an article on it. But you can expand that to every aspect of filming. The spot boys, the cameramen, the whole community of a film set was made up of people like this, who had originally come to Bombay from somewhere else and found a new home in film, and then passed that new home on to their children and their children’s children.
But then came the 1990s. Two things started happening in the 90s. First was Dawood Ibrahim taking over the local crime industry in Bombay. The mob had always been tied to film. It goes back to the early years after Independence, when black marketers needed a place to hide their war profiteering and film seemed like a good option. It had the possibility of enormous profits, but was not very highly regulated.
And for a gangster, the “family” structure was an advantage. They needed to work with individuals, people they could trust, not corporations. If you are dealing with “black” money, then contracts and legal documents aren’t available to protect your investment. You need to know you are giving it to a single person who will be responsible for treating you fairly. There were a few studios in the early days, “studios” in the American tradition with actual studio lots and 9 to 5 working hours. But they slowly transitioned to being more family and Star focused as time went on. And the norm became tiny “banners”, run by one man who kept the accounts in his head and the money hidden under his wife’s bed.
The mob had always been involved, everyone knew that, and everyone was somewhat aware that a flop film might mean broken legs or a vandalized office until you paid back your debts. But everything was kind of compartmentalized. You borrowed the money, you made your movie, you invited the gangsters to the big debut party, you paid them off.
(Here’s smuggler king Haji Mastan at some awards show, hanging with the film stars)
But in the 90s, Dawood Ibrahim came to power in Bombay. Dawood was different in several ways from the former gangster kings. He brought in drugs, guns, all kinds of things that the “gentlemen smugglers” of the past didn’t bother with. But his biggest weapon was kidnapping and murder. It was almost random, just because you told the wrong person about a bonus you got at work, or because someone saw you buying a fancy new car, you would get a phone call saying “give us money or we kill your children”. And you had to do it, because they actually would kill your children. And Dawood decided that he wanted to take the whole film industry hostage.
Suddenly these new producers started popping up out of nowhere, and you HAD to work with them. If you didn’t, you would get a phone call, a rock through your window, a visit from scary men in the middle of the night. This wasn’t like anything the film people had needed to deal with before, this was something new and terrifying.
But it also meant that there was suddenly an enormous amount of cash floating around, more than films had ever seen before. Cash from two sources. The mob producers, who seemed to have bottomless pockets for contract advances to stars and buying off composers who had been promised to other films, and other “offer you can’t refuse” situations. But also the loosening of the Indian economy which was FINALLY allowing for new audiences to start sending their overseas money to the Hindi film industry. For the first time, there was the possibility of planning for more than just film to film, and some reasons for film to appeal as an actual “industry” to the legitimate money men of India.
And then in 1999, the Indian government finally gave Indian film industrial status and everything changed. The largest businesses in film at the time, the distribution houses, suddenly became interested in production for the first time (UTV, etc.). The tiny family houses started going under, being swallowed up. And international houses came in, Disney and Sony and Columbia all started opening up Indian wings and making investments. The days of the family studios were over.
(Not just outside of India corporations, Reliance Entertainment was formed in 2005, an offshoot of Reliance Corp., India’s largest corporation)
Or were the family studios over? Out of all this chaos and change, one studio emerged as a clear winner, Yash Raj Films. Which has stayed a family business, refusing to go public and keeping itself under single-ownership. And which smoothly transitioned in management from father to son. With Pamela Chopra (the widowed mother) still heavily involved as the public face, and Uday Chopra (the less talented brother), set aside in a smaller role. Yash Raj has managed to make the shift to “corporate” in size and profit, but stayed “family” in structure.
Almost equally important, I think, to the industrial status in 1999 was the release of Kaho Na Pyar Hai a year later. Kaho Na Pyar Hai is a family made film for a new age. Rakesh Roshan produced and directed, his brother wrote the music, and it was all in service of launching Hrithik. But the way they went about the “launch” is what made it so different.
I mentioned in my last section how Rishi Kapoor ended up getting the lead in Bobby because they couldn’t afford to hire someone, so his Dad made him do it for free. That was the case in all kinds of areas in Indian film, not just acting but music and choreography and editing and everything else. If you couldn’t afford to hire someone else, you would make your kid do it. And if the kid did well, maybe someone else would hire them and they would end up with a career. Ramesh Sippy, for instance, before he directed Sholay, was just a producer’s son who would direct his father’s next film and save them the money of hiring someone else.
There were the occasional films that were clearly star launch features. But they weren’t always to launch the producer’s son or someone from within the industry. Hero, for instance, made Jackie Shroff a star. Jackie had no connections to anyone, but he had an unusual look and he would work for cheap, so Subhash Ghai picked him up. And benefited for decades to come, because he built a bond with Jackie through that film and Jackie constantly came back to work with him after he became a star. It’s kind of an investment scheme. You put in the time and energy to help someone when they are starting out, building a deep personal connection, and then if they make it big, they will turn around and help you out.
(Jackie, showing up at the music launch of Ghai’s latest film, 3 decades after he was first launched by him)
Remember how I wrote about Dulha Mil Gaye recently? The producer, back in the early 90s, let a young Shahrukh Khan stay in his apartment for free when he was starting out, and helped him to meet directors and producers. And 15 years later, Shahrukh was the biggest star in the industry and agreed to do a worthless cameo appearance in a terrible movie because he owed him. It’s an emotional investment that paid off for him years later.
The emotional investment can go both ways. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, it’s probably a better idea to spend your time getting to know people and remembering birthdays and building a bond with them, and working super hard at small jobs to prove your commitment, than spending a lot of money to go to some training program. Or even going to auditions and open calls, there are some of those now, but you are just as likely to be cast because you become friends with the right person at the studio canteen.
The reason you need to make these emotional investments goes back to that mob thing. Because the industry was run on “black” money (still is largely, in an effort to avoid taxes), contracts were meaningless. So a star wouldn’t be tied to working with you because of a paycheck or a legal agreement. It had to be a different kind of commitment.
Which I guess is another reason a producer might want to help their children get careers. If you are frustrated working with stars who take off and break contracts, directors who don’t show up for work, and composers who turn around and sell a song promised to you to someone else, it would be tempting to think “if I could just train my son to do this and work with him, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
(Quote from the article where this photo was published: “Duggu [Hrithik] is my strength”)
But, again, Kaho Na Pyar Hai was something else. This wasn’t a trial run to see if the kid had any talent, this was an all in gamble on a major major hit, a gamble that no one had ever tried before. And, as we all know, it paid off big time! Not just because Hrithik was super talented (which he was). But because it was released at the perfect time. Globalization had reached a tipping point, allowing KNPH to hit all over the world at the same time as it hit at home. Funding had reached a point that allowed producers to send out prints through out India simultaneously. New media had advanced, suddenly internet articles and TV interviews were sent out overnight declaring Hrithik a superstar. Hrithik went from a nobody to the king of the industry in one film. And this had two major results, both bad.
Firstly, suddenly every star kid in the industry was offered another major launch with the flawed reasoning that Hrithik had hit just because he happened to be born in the industry. It wasn’t just producers who were confused about this, the media was too. And still is, we are now dealing with a massive obsession with star children in a way that just wasn’t there before because everyone thinks there will be another Hrithik. And all of the new media has focused its potential on tracking every move of these poor kids. In a way that isn’t true in any other popular culture industry that I know of anywhere else in the world.
Secondly, Hrithik’s success was the death knell for the gang involvement in the industry. Which is generally a good thing, I’m not “pro-mobster” by any means. But it was bad because in that vacuum after the mob left, the corporate houses descended and quickly took control. The mob left because Rakesh Roshan was shot, in an attempt to scare his son into agreeing to work for the mob. And that was kind of the last straw. Along with a lot of other last straws. Bombay was immersed in a gang war, gangsters didn’t have quite as much time to deal with movie business. More and more funding was coming from banks and multinational corporations. Oh, and Priety Zinta testified in court about threats she received from Salman Khan and others related to a promotional tour for Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, gaining her the nickname “the only Man in Bollywood”.
(Salman with Nazim Rizvi, the mobbed up producer of Chori Chori Chupke Chupke)
And so here we are today, in the years after Hrithik. On the one hand, studios are now treated as “corporations”. Hiring is expected to be related to resumes and graduate certificates, not on personal connections like Johnny Walker being spotted collecting tickets on a bus, or Guru Dutt and Dev Anand meeting over a laundry mishap.
But on the other hand, that “community” is still there. It can’t go away as easily as that. Just this week, the release of Sarkar 3 was rescheduled last minute because Aishwarya Rai’s father died. That’s not normal!!! Would any other industry in the world delay a major product launch because someone’s son’s father-in-law died? Of course not! They probably wouldn’t even know it happened, because it’s not the kind of thing people who are just business partners share with each other. Or how about when Yash Chopra died, literally the entire Hindi film industry shut down for the funeral. Studios closed their doors, the Mumbai Film Festival canceled all events, location shoots throughout India and the world were canceled so the stars and crew could fly home. This is what happens in a family, not a business.
(Just the fact of co-workers routinely going to each other’s family funerals, that’s not a thing in “corporate” worlds. Let alone the way they are all clearly struggling with actual grief, not just “for the sake of appearances” grief)
And, this is just my personal opinion, but I think that “family” aspect is a strength, not a weakness. American film has never had a family vibe to it. Because American businessmen are, frankly, horrible people. The early film studios were called “factories” and that’s exactly how they were run. Artists were just cogs in the assembly line, disposable. And disposed of, you don’t have to do much digging to find dozens of people who were chewed up and spit out by that machine (Judy Garland, for instance, given hard drugs as child by Louis B. Mayer so she would stay “peppy”).
And that’s where we are today. There is an outside perception that Hindi film should be an “industry”, because it has that gloss to it. International investment, big office buildings, and more and more objective measurements of success, from box office to graduate certificates in specialized programs.
(until 1960 and the founding of the Film and Television Institute of India, there was absolutely no film program in India, on the job training was the only kind of training. Now, more and more bright young upper upper middle class kids are trying to skip that step by going overseas and coming back with a fancy international degree in film, just like you would with engineering or medicine. A film degree which everyone from Ranbir Kapoor to James Cameron to Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged teaches you less than 6 months working on a real set.)
But in the heart of it, yes, it is all about nepotism still. It’s about getting to know people and one on one training and proving yourself on the job. And then getting the big break. It’s not about just showing up the first day and getting a chance based on raw talent. Or about going through a training program and then walking into a job. It’s about building a bond and a trust and only then getting that offer. Because you aren’t just getting a job, you are joining a family.
And on that note, we end the nepotism series! Which means that it is time to pick what I should write about next. And just to shake things up, I’ll give you some big conceptual options as well the usual scandalous bio options:
- Sanjay Dutt (I have to do it sometime before December, why not now?)
- Bombay crime/film
- Parveen Babi
- The history of distribution practices