Another big structural thought post! This one is on the problems that come up when the same handful of people, at the very top the industry, are controlling everything. And no, I don’t mean the stars.
Years ago I read an interview with Karan Johar where he talked about why, of course, he is going to want to use big names and established stars in his films. Because they bring so much experience and talent and everything else to the table, it’s just easier. He doesn’t want to struggle with some newcomer.
And then a few years after that he made Student of the Year, which seemed to indicate that he had changed his mind and DID want to struggle with newcomers. But I think what Karan really meant was that he didn’t want to learn how to work with someone who was new-to-him. Maybe he didn’t even realize that’s what he meant in the original interview, but that seems to be what has become the pattern since then.
(Two former assistant directors of Karan, a child star he worked with 10 years earlier, a teenage girl he’d known since she was a child, and Boman Irani’s son. Also, 3 other actors he didn’t know, so it’s not a total friendship fest)
And it’s not just a pattern with Karan, it’s a pattern with Aditya Chopra too, the other man who defines the mainstream popular Hindi industry. In a different way, Adi doesn’t cast old friends, but he likes his casting director to find and groom actors for him, and then keep working with that pool of actors instead of branching out to actors trained elsewhere. They like working with people they know. And is that really a problem? Don’t we all like working with people we know?
It didn’t used to be a problem. Until about 20 years ago, the Hindi film industry was made up of dozens of small independent producers. Even the “established” banners were still only making about one film every 5 years.
It was a risky business to be in, but the benefit was you were entirely your own boss. You could work with the people you liked, give jobs to friends and relatives you wanted to help out, all the reasons everyone wants to start their own business and be their own boss. And they were usually started like most small business started, people with other full time paying jobs that helped with the start up money, and helped get them through the rough patches, using family and friends labor to help keep the costs down until they were up on their feet, and then paying back those friends and family by hiring them once the business was going.
(Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, and Raakhee doing Yash Chopra a favor by being in his first movie. 18 years later, Yashji would launch Sharmila’s son)
Beyond that, because it was a small business owned entirely by one person, you had the option of just hiring people you liked. Someone who walked in the door and you liked their sense of humor, why not? And if you were doing contract work, you would keep bringing in the same people you liked for every contract you could. Didn’t hurt anything, they weren’t very good jobs, you were just doing this business for fun, so why not hire people you liked?
Really, they were not very good jobs. Prem Chopra in his biography talked about his job, his real full time job that paid him a salary. He was a newspaper distribution manager for Times of India. For over a decade at the start of his film career. His face was on posters, his name was everywhere, he was famous, and he wasn’t making enough money to support himself without another job. But even with movies just being his “extra” work, he was still very pleasant and kind and took the job very very seriously. So, yes, he was hired over and over again because of “nepotism”, but did anyone else even want the job? And if there was someone else out there who wanted the job, but also was a less pleasant person to work with, is it worth it to hire them considering that most people were just working on the films for “fun”, not as a job? Why not keep it fun by hiring people you liked and who liked you?
Most of all, one of the rarest elements of Prem Chopra was that he got along with EVERYONE. If you look at the character actors in films before the 90s era, there were very few overlaps between directors/producers/banners. Even between the major stars, a top actor would have the ability to suggest names of people they wanted to work with, and they tended to work with the same people over and over again.
(Amol Palekar, worked almost exclusively with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee. And also had a job in a bank and started a theater group, because movies weren’t enough to fill his time or his money needs)
And this was good! This was healthy. Prem Chopra got to make a living, eventually quit his day job and buy a nice house and raise a nice family. And a whole bunch of other people got to make a little extra money to take home on top of their regular jobs. And most of all, people had fun! Because why make a movie (which is almost guaranteed to lose money) if you aren’t having fun?
I talked before about how, for the insider types who really ran things, this was a “family business”. But for the other people, not the stars or the top directors or the few full time producers but everyone else, it was more like community theater. Or an internship. Or a summer job. You did it because it was fun, you liked the people you worked with, and you picked up a little extra money. If you wanted it to be a career, you would work very hard, and make connections, and patiently build up towards having a full time income from it.
And the end result of this was, you had the family business groups of related people, and then you had the second circle of friendships, people who you just liked hanging out with, who liked hanging out with you, who you would give a call too when there was a position you had to fill. The first circle might be small, but the second circle is fairly large. And seeing as every small producer, movie star, director, even music director had their own circle of friends to call on for part time work, the total number of people in all those second circles was pretty large. And it wasn’t impossible to break into that second circle, going back to Prem Chopra, he got his first break, made a movie, didn’t get another offer for a long time but stayed in touch with his friends from the industry, got a second chance, took it seriously, made more friends, and eventually was working steadily. It wasn’t an overnight success and it wasn’t easy, but it was something you could do just by making the rounds of the studios and taking the chances that were offered to you. No need to be rich or powerful or born into it.
Now, let’s look at today! Instead of having small independent businesses run by multiple people, you have a few very very large businesses run by a few people. Power is concentrated. Which means those connections are concentrated as well, making them VASTLY more powerful.
And, on the other hand, the jobs are a heck of a lot better now. These are jobs people would actually compete for, well paying and respectable and something you can make enough to live on instead of just for fun around your real job. So now there are a lot of people competing for jobs that are controlled by very few people. Instead of a few people competing for jobs that are controlled by a lot of people.
(Jim Sarbh is working on films off and on, and in theater, and in ad campaigns. He isn’t a big star yet, but he also isn’t working at a bank to make ends meet. Acting pays well now)
Let’s compare the 3 Kai Po Che boys. Rajkummar Rao, he built up a connection to the extremely talented director Hansel Mehta. He works with him steadily, and mixes in other connections to other people, slowly building a career. Amit Sadh, he wasn’t able to find a job for a while until he finally got a call from Salman Khan who helped him get a role in Sultan. From there, he got a small rom-com Running Shaadi, and then the Breathe miniseries.
Both of them are building a career the same way Prem Chopra did. A few jobs, a few connections, slowly making their mark. Only, eventually, Prem Chopra was able to break through to having steady work. There were enough movies being made, and enough different directors and producers working, that he could slowly get noticed and get connections and finally get jobs.
But now there is a monopoly on certain jobs and certain opportunities that just wesn’t there before. Unless you get in with Dharma or Yash Raj or (maybe) Excel, you just cannot make your mark. Rajkummar is generally acknowledged as a brilliant actor, and he has worked with dozens of different directors/producers. Amit Sadh is now friends with one of the top 3 stars and also extremely talented, and traditionally handsome. In any other era of film, that would be all they needed to be at the top level. But Sushant Singh Rajput is the one who is suddenly becoming famous, getting the big roles. Yash Raj got behind him, gave him a jumpstart and established his career right at the beginning. And suddenly with that major backing behind him, he as getting offers from all sorts of other groups, major roles falling into his lap. Roles that Amit or Rajkummar could just as easily have been given, none of them being born into the industry and all of them being talented and experienced, the only difference is that Sushant landed on the Yash Raj list while Rakummar landed on the Hansel Mehta list and Amit landed on the Salman Khan list, and that’s just not as good any more.
(5th time Rajkummar and Hansal Mehta are working together in 5 years)
This is the new era. The “corporate” era. The problem isn’t what Dharma and Yash Raj are doing in isolation, it is what they are doing in context. Both of them are still private companies run by family and friends. And so of course they are still functioning as these places have always functioned, hiring people they like to work with and know well, so that work is fun.
But they are no longer just one of many many many small family businesses, they are the ONLY businesses. If Dharma films chooses to only hire Manish Malhotra, it’s not just that Karan wants to work with one of his oldest friends, it’s that half the major film releases of the year will have Manish Malhotra working on them, meaning all the other possible costume designers in India will be left to fight over only half the remaining films.
It’s not a problem with “nepotism”, all businesses run on personal connections, it’s a problem of concentration of those connections. You always needed connections to get a job, but now, suddenly, you need connections with one of maybe 5 people, instead of one of 50 people.
And this is a very very recent problem! Student of the Year came out in 2012, after Dharma had no films at all in 2011. It wasn’t a big deal that Karan was handpicking new actors because Dharma wasn’t making that many movies. But 2011 was the last year like that, Dharma is now making 3-5 movies a year, and they are all major movies. There is no space to build a career unless you are on the Dharma shortlist. And YRF just started their grooming system in 2010, working on Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma instead of bringing in established stars, and now it is the same problem, unless you are on the YRF shortlist, you can’t get in the major films of the year.
(Dil Bole Hadippa with Shahid and Rani in 2009, Band Baaja Baaraat with Anushka and Ranveer in 2010)
This goes back to the “3rd Film” problem I talked about before. Obviously if you are risking it all to launch someone, you will pick someone you like. And if you want to get a big name for your movie, you will pick someone who was just launched. This is why Dharma and Yash Raj keep launching people, so they get that bump for the first and second movie. But for that third film, where you aren’t doing a launch and don’t need a big name, you don’t HAVE to pick your old buddy that you enjoy working with, you can pick anyone. And if you are rapidly becoming a monopoly in the film industry, you have a responsibility to, sometimes, pick someone new. Or in other words, SOMEONE has to hire Rajkummar Rao, Yash Raj has to stop calling Ranveer Singh and Dharma has to stop calling Ranbir Kapoor. Even if they really really like working together.