Hindi Film 101: Media from Prithviraj Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan, Newspapers to Websites

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.

Related image

(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.

Image result for lily langtry

(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”.

Image result for 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.

Image result for prithviraj kapoor young

(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”.

Image result for first edition of filmfare

 

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.

Image result for filmfare raj kapoor

(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.

Dilip2

(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.

Image result for kangana ajay stardust

(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.

Image result for cineblitz cover

(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.

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7 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Media from Prithviraj Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan, Newspapers to Websites

    • Just curious, did you have to look it up or did you know that off the top of your head? Because I can’t imagine many people have the spelling of celebrities from 100 years ago in their heads.

      On Thu, May 17, 2018 at 10:58 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I knew it was pronounced “LANG TREE” so I knew you were wrong. But I had to look it up to check what was correct.

        (and, you haven’t corrected it!)

        `

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  1. Pingback: Hindi Film 101: Media from Prithviraj Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan, Newspapers to Websites — dontcallitbollywood – Business Startup-Bay Area

  2. I think it’s really interesting that you used the American experience as the baseline for this topic because that’s probably the least globally true of them all. I don’t mean that as a diss, just that the American culture is truly unique and basically developed in isolation, free of deep historical BS that the rest of us had to deal with.

    In terms of celebrity culture, I think to get a true sense of what that means for India, one needs to see how it existed pre-films and pre-modern/western media. So, who were our celebrities before the film stars? I think it would be a tough competition between gods and rulers.

    This means that “celebrity” meant something completely different to the people. For example, the Asafi Imambara in my town was built in the mid-18th C (an employment project ‘cause nobody wanted to be the recipient of charity because swag!) and the nawab that had it built is still invoked when people go there or even talk about this town with the lines “Jisko na de maula, usko de Asaf-ud-Daula” (trans. Asaf-ud-Daula will provide livelihood to whomever couldn’t receive one from God). So the dude that’s been dead for 200+ years is still a bit of a celebrity. I’m sure it’s the same for everywhere that had kings and lords and stuff. Artists and people that became celebrities for having created artworks and entertainment were always second tier or lower in terms of celebdom. Because they weren’t people ‘of consequence’.

    Even in those times, bards and artistes that created content were highly regarded and widely known. But they weren’t celebrities in the sense that people were interested in their personal lives. More like, they got famous for their content only and it was much much later when they had proven to be a person of consequence for that era that someone took note of their personal circumstances and that too to give context to their work. Think Kabeer, Meerabai, Ghalib and the sufis, in the north alone. Their work is a hell lot more familiar to the general public than what their personal life was like.

    Focusing on the artist as an individual is a very western construct. Like even today, you wouldn’t find too many people that can name all three of SRK’s kids (or how many kids he has) but they could probably name all the SRK films that came out this decade and maybe even tell you what they were about and songs from them. People that get famous for being famous are forgotten 5 minutes later IF they’re famous famous to begin with.

    I think you’ve wayyyy underestimated Indian population and what that means for “celebrity”. We’ve always been a populous nation. You couldn’t throw a single stone and not hit a dozen Indians at any time in our history. That makes a huge difference. This meant there was always gossip available and culture/current events moved at a very fast pace and content meant more than gossip about people’s personal lives. Also, this meant that enjoying art and culture that required one to get out of the house and buy tickets, immediately became an elite pastime that excluded 90-95% of the population.

    Before films, and rather even after films, stars’ private lives were largely kept private. Not because the stars were too posh to talk about them. But because it is considered uncouth to talk about your private life like a narcissist if you’re a celebrity and also mean spirited to talk ABOUT a celebrity’s private life if you’re a celebrity yourself. Like it makes you a tattletale. You see KwK and how even KJo needs to veil his words because you just can’t talk about celebrities’ private lives, even TO them. To do that and do that well, it has to be a somber and serious environment and an elevated platform like Rendezvous with Simi Grewal which was extremely controlled by the guests. And we, the audience, like that distance too because it would become impossible for us to overcome our prejudices if we looked at the people beneath the art or the role. The Khans would never be accepted as Hindu heroes if we didn’t dissociate their real life selves from their roles.

    Heck, look at Pranushka. Never confirmed but the public will continue to believe that’s a thing till they marry other people. At this point, the gossip is completely independent of their reality and the public knows it but it almost doesn’t matter to them anymore.

    And stars, even film stars today, too go to great lengths to sustain the persona they first got famous for simply because the public doesn’t give a fuck about their “real” selves. Like you said in the video too and in this post that even magazines abstained from dishing out real gossip about stars’ real lives and they merely presented items from an angle that allowed people to make up their own minds about things.

    What’s really interesting is that these magazines were not a staple in people’s homes. You had to be a certain kind of person to have a subscription to them. These English language glossies competed with the likes of Sarita and Dharmyug and India Today magazine which were still just a higher level of what our newspapers contained. Very A-grade journalism and writing. The Hindi language film reporting was basically considered as porn. You see a film like Saajan and it’s just a glam version of what was happening on the ground- shayars were writing poetry and it was being read and sung at school and college events. Books of poetry sold more than filmi glossies back then or even today.

    Even on screen, I think barring the few OTT Rekha and Sri Devi films, you would be hard pressed to find film magazines on coffee tables on the screen or have people on screen reading them. That’s the truest depiction of celebrity culture in India. That you’re supposed to get your gossip through the informal route.

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    • That informal route is SO FRUSTRATING for us non-desis. Thank goodness I got into the films when I was in college and surrounded by desis, so I was hooked into the good stuff. But now it’s harder and harder. Especially because it feels like even online is considered not necessarily the right place for sharing that stuff. Not talking about articles, just chatrooms and comments. Like, you are supposed to be face to face with lowered voices saying “you know, so-and-so had an affair with such-and-such”, you can’t just write that boldly down in a comment section.

      On Fri, May 18, 2018 at 11:38 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • It may be a cultural thing, you know, this need to know for sure or to have authentic sources and definite answers. I think desis organise their feelings about everything into love and hate and their thoughts about everything into a massive gray area. This helps us accept our diversity.

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