Sonam’s wedding is the perfect opportunity to discuss the changes of old media and new media and blah blah blah to how the Hindi film industry operates! And, hopefully, how it will start operating in a new way. I’ll get to Sonam in the next bit, but first I have to back up and deal with celebrity culture in general, and how the media works with it.
Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge of anything, this is just how it appears to me by analyzing publicly available data. Feel free to disagree!
All over the world, media and celebrity have gone through rapid shifts in the past 100 years. It used to be that celebrity news, like all other news, traveled at the pace of horseback. Or at the fastest, of moving trains. Telegraphs started the shift, but they were unlikely to be used for something as unimportant as the rumored romantic life of a famous actress.
Celebrities used to be much closer and much farther away at the same time. Farther away, because you would get your celebrity news from physical newspapers, traveling across country to you. But also closer because the celebrities themselves would travel as well, it was the only way to really make their impact felt, personal appearances in cities and towns all over the world. And because of this need for a personal connection, and the slowness of information travel, every major metropolitan area also had its own personal celebrities, ones who you would see in the street or the stores, might know someone who knew them.
(Princess of Cooch Bihar in London in 1902. This photo was no doubt reprinted in various newspapers through out India because she is pretty and it is a good photo, but if you happened to be in Calcutta or London, you could also just see her in person without too much difficulty)
This is where the media relationship to celebrities lived. Either they were your local celebrities, your friends and neighbors and (more importantly) your meal ticket since you had to stay in good with them or else be cut off from the local celebrity news items you needed to stay relevant. Or they were far far distant persons, tiny black and white photographs or sketches in newspapers you got mailed to you months or weeks later from distant cities with stories you reported word for word, or expanded with your own imagination knowing they were too far away to ever really care.
And “celebrities” at this time encompassed a wide range of people. Politicians, royalty, socialites, authors, composers, all kinds of people in addition to entertainers. Entertainers had an edge in that they were more likely to be visible to you, to appear on stage or travel the country, but the other celebrities might as well, personal appearances, speeches, even just stepping out onto the train platform and waving at the crowd.
Film started to change this. Suddenly those distant celebrities could be brought right in front of you on screen. People began caring intensely about folks they didn’t know, and would probably never see in person. And suddenly “celebrities” began to narrow down from a whole variety of people to primarily actors in movies.
(For instance, Lilly Langry was a stage actress/royal mistress/just generally famous)
It was a slow process, films themselves were not available to large parts of the population for a long time, movie theaters are expensive and complicated to build, there had to be proof of profit before they could go up. And there was a delay built in even after all those theaters were built, the major cities would get films and fall in love with the people onscreen long before the smaller towns would. Celebrity status began to chase it’s tail a bit, you might see a poster for a movie, read an interview with the star, form an opinion on everything, before you actually saw the film. Or the opposite might happen. Depending on where you were living, and what materials were available to you, you could “meet” the person first onscreen through a performance, or offscreen through their “personal” life in any order.
American early film celebrity culture has clear benchmarks and research, so I will start with that instead of India, because most of what was discovered is simple human universals. The film producers did not want “stars”. They wanted people to come for the movies, not the actors. They didn’t expect that the audience would latch on to certain people. The first true film celebrity was Mary Pickford/Florence Lawrence. Both women were known simply as “The Biograph Girl”, meaning the actress who appeared in films from the Biograph film company. Their names weren’t widely known, they weren’t promoted as a special part of the picture, but people cared about them and wanted to talk about them, so they used the only name they had, “The Biograph Girl”.
(No star names, just the description of the film was supposed to be enough to sell it)
Film producers had to give in to the inevitable, let audiences build these connections with the people they saw onscreen. But they also wanted to closely monitor those connections. Since film was largely isolated from the rest of the country, the actual people remaining within one city while the product was exported, it was easy to create artificial biographies and personalities for the film stars who people saw onscreen.
This is where India begins to take a sudden break from film in other places. First, because it had developed a thriving film industry under the shadow of colonialism. This was a miracle, but developing a similar thriving news industry around the film industry was even more difficult and took far longer in India than in other places. And second, because India had so many separate industries for each language group. The movie stars were not, in fact, limited to one city. Each major city had its own group of stars, they weren’t quite as remote as in other places in the world.
I am reminded of this every time I write a history post, the lack of official access and the huge amount of unofficial access. For instance, there are no images of Prithviraj Kapoor and his young children together, despite him being a major film star of the 1930s and 40s. But at the same time, if you lived in Bombay you could stop by Prithvi theaters where Prithviraj ran his stage shows in addition to his film work and meet him in person. And his 3 sons and his wife all of whom worked with him. For people outside of Bombay, Prithviraj was a familiar face flickering onscreen in films that came at random intervals to their towns and nothing more. For people in Bombay, Prithviraj was the guy with 3 sons and the struggling theater company that you might see at the vegetable market or sitting around in a park with friends.
(No, I tell a lie, here is Prithviraj with his youngest son Shashi. Only, it’s a still from a play. So it’s still true that the best way to see anything about Prithviraj and his family is to simply stop by the theater where they worked)
The first magazine for Hindi film was FilmIndia, founded in 1935. It was run by one man, plus his wife. It published reviews, political commentary, and reposted items from American sources about Hollywood films. And also a few articles informing the public of basic facts of the lives of their heroes, who got married, who had a child, and so on. It had a circulation of 32,000 at it’s highest, mostly within Bombay. And including people like a young Dilip Kumar before he became a movie star. But not before he was friends with Raj Kapoor, fellow future star and son of current star Prithviraj. Raj and Dilip went to college together and everyone in their college read FilmIndia. You could read the magazine, and you could also befriend Raj Kapoor and go over to his house and meet the people in the magasine.
Screen and FilmFare were a different kind of film magazine, both spinning off of local Bombay English language newspapers that already had film sections, Screen founded in 1951 and FilmFare in 1952. These weren’t magazines with thoughtful reviews and fiery political statements, they were straight celebrity news. Which makes sense, this is the same era in which (led by Raj Kapoor) the box office for Hindi film took a sudden massive leap forward, reflecting a sudden increase in the size of the audience. And this was also the era in which industrial changes allowed for the birth of Star Culture, the money that was flowing into the Hindi industry postwar killed the studio system, films could be made one at a time now and based around a powerful central star. All of this lead to an audience for two separate full sized film magazines, people could now get to know their favorite stars all of India, not just from local Bombay newspapers.
But Screen and FilmFare were old-fashioned style celebrity media. They tended to tow the line, they would print stories that the celebrities wanted to come out, to support the idea of Film as a noble respectable profession in which people were “just like us” but also slightly better. To the point that both publications founded award shows.
Again, I have to go back to Hollywood for comparison. The Academy Awards were founded in an effort to stem a massive PR problem. Word was beginning to leak out that movie stars in Hollywood weren’t actual the perfect virtuous wonderful people that their carefully constructed images drew them as. And so there had to be a sudden change of course, instead of film stars being “hardworking decent folk just like us”, they needed to be presented as Artists-with-a-capital-A. Something slightly different, with different rules. Thus, the Academy Awards. A big fancy show that would be broadcast on the radio and shown in newsreels and teach people to see film actors as “special”.
And in India, the media did this work for them. Rather than trying to dig up dirt and make the stars more human, they put in an effort to make them less human, more “special”. Which, yes, makes sense. You don’t buy FilmFare because you want to read about people just like you, you know people like you, you buy it because you want to read about people who are different than you. And so it is in FilmFare‘s interest to convince you that these people are different than you, better than you.
The other odd thing was that FilmFare and Screen didn’t have to dish the dirt on the stars in order for these stories to get out. Bombay was a small enough town, and India has a sophisticated enough gossip pipeline, that the news would get out anyway. Not all of it, no one cares if Dilip Kumar’s sister elopes with K. Asif, no one but Dilip and other people actually within the film industry. But if Dilip Kumar’s engagement to Madhubala is ended because of her father’s objections, word will get out. All FilmFare and Screen have to do is, in a very dignified way, present photos of the subjects of these stories along with a few words hinting at the truth. Perhaps ask an interview question along the lines of “what does love mean to you?” and see where it leads.
(This is how you say “Raj Kapoor and Nargis spent the night together” while pretending to be saying “look at this cute photo of them with a fan”)
During this era, and even today, the funny thing is that these open non-intrusive questions can sometimes result in shocking moments of honesty. These celebrities didn’t have studio fixers following them around, or hired PR teams, or managers, or anyone else. They just answered questions the way they felt like answering, were themselves. What’s remarkable to me isn’t so much the moments of truth, as the moments of untruth. That these celebrities were able to be brilliant artists onscreen, and also aware of their public persona and how to craft it, aware of the perfect way to build a “real” persona to match their “reel” one.
Because, remember, this is still the era when you don’t know what is going to hit the audience first. Will some interview of yours be reprinted in a local paper and reach a small city weeks before your latest film arrives? Or will it be the other around? Your film has to support your interview and vice versa, there is no split second coordination of the two, everything has to be timeless always. Your image is set and must stay set. And the way these early stars were able to create and continue those images was masterful.
(Dilip Kumar, every interview perfectly matching his onscreen tragic lover image)
The problem with these perfect images, the glamorous photo spreads and awards shows, is that it built the celebrities up, and the only thing people love more than worshiping heroes is watching heroes fall. Enter CineBlitz and StarDust!!!! In 1971 and 1974, after the first generation of major Hindi stars and massive fan followings were over and the second generation was rising. They were the cheeky youthful irreverent option, the ones who would flat out say, or at least come awfully close to saying, the things that FilmFare and Screen were a little too dignified to talk about. CineBlitz‘s first tagline was “C to Z of Hindi Films – Everyone Covers AB” (“AB”=Amitabh Bachchan), which gives you the feel for their attitude.
All of a sudden the gossip that was whispered was now being shouted. Without much discrimination, every crazy story was accepted, some of them true and some of them false. Whatever got people talking and willing to buy. Even if it meant flat out lying. For instance, for the first edition to promote it they decided to have a model streak through downtown Bombay and publish the photos. But then there was an outcry over public obscenity and so on, so they switched and said that the streaking took place in Goa and Bombay was photoshopped in. Didn’t matter, still sold magazines even if it was a total lie.
For years the media and film stars had been friendly enemies. But now they were enemy enemies. It was no longer a matter of reporters trying to catch you in a revealing moment of truth, it was a matter of reporters making up their own truth and not caring if it made you angry. Every male and female co-star was reported to be having an affair, every marriage was falling apart all the time, and or else were secretly dating and about to be married. And sure, a fair number of these stories were true, that’s what kept people reading, but a large number of them were false. And if you had an ax to grind with anyone, all you had to do was pick of the phone and offer a “scoop” to one of the magazines and they would print whatever story you told.
(Still will, Kangana went to Stardust when she wanted to give an interview about dating Ajay Devgan)
Stars reacted in different ways. For instance, in the early 90s when CineBlitz published a story saying Shahrukh was having an affair with his (also married) co-star Deepa Sahi, Shahrukh stood outside the reporter’s house and yelled death threats in the middle of the night, along with refusing to give an interview to CineBlitz for years. Or you could simply ignore it and never acknowledge the stories, which is what Amitabh did. There wasn’t much else you could do, these magazines were going to publish whatever they wanted, and there was no way to stop them short of threatening bodily harm.
(I say this as someone who would pick CineBlitz over FilmFare every time. I want to know what the jinx is that’s destroying the industry men!)
But then, as we all know, things changed with the advent of the internet. Suddenly photographs and celebrity spottings and so on went from content for weekly magazines to content for hourly website updates. The number of papparazzi exploded overnight.
And that’s where I will end! To come back and talk about Dilip Kumar versus Amitabh Bachchan versus Karisma Kapoor versus Abishek Bachchan versus Anushka Sharma versus Sonam Kapoor and allllllllllllllll of their weddings and what it means about the media.