Bollywood’s lexicon has turned deficient in recent months. Several personalities have abandoned discussing and even mentioning “nepotism”, or, as actress Sonakshi Sinha calls it, the N word. The elephant in Hindi cinema’s room — its routine launching of sons and daughters of film families — was casually spotlighted by actress Kangana Ranaut in an interview with Karan Johar. Ranaut, a blunt, self-made star, accused Johar, an influential director and son of a producer, of being a flag-bearer of this practice. In the weeks that followed, Johar first shrugged off, and later justified his partiality towards celebrity progeny. The publicist of an outspoken younger actor says she stopped adding to the debate after receiving flak for it. For fear of jeopardising their careers, many have stayed silent, while others maintain they have not experienced nepotism. By contrast, interest in the subject has only grown among people. Ever since 2004, for as long as Google Trends has been tracking data, searches for “nepotism” have never been higher in India than this March, climbing steadily in the days after the Koffee with Karan episode featuring Ranaut was aired. Favouritism appears to be both widespread and sustained. Out of the top 20 actors and actresses, listed by entertainment website Bollywood Hungama, 10 belong to film families. Among the remaining, two (Priyanka Chopra and Jacqueline Fernandes) were beauty pageant winners and one, Riteish Deshmukh, is the son of a politician. Of the next 20 high-billing stars, 10 are again of film lineage. That is a consistent 50 per cent. Getting a break is relatively easy for Bollywood children. Some like Ranbir Kapoor choose to supplement this privilege with serious stints at acting schools. Alia Bhatt worked hard on her part in Highway to gain the audience’s confidence. Yet there are ample examples of those who are unable to capitalise on repeated opportunities. Ten years after being launched, Sonam Kapoor is still known for her style sense more than acting chops. Arjun Kapoor is yet to yield a breakout performance. A number of others — Imran Khan, Zayed Khan, Fardeen Khan, Tusshar Kapoor — have dropped out of the race over the years. People can make films for their children, but that does not guarantee success,” says Roshan Taneja, veteran acting teacher in Mumbai, who has coached Naseeruddin Shah and Ranbir among others. “Talent decides if viewers will like them.” His institute in Versova, around which several makeshift acting schools and gyms have sprung up, has trained a mix of star kids and strugglers for four decades. He believes optimistically that Bollywood today is more evolved than before, with a sober approach to acting and casting. Casting exercises have, in fact, become structured since the likes of Mukesh Chhabra and Shruti Mahajan began setting up casting companies five years ago. Chhabra, known for discovering Rajkumar Rao, wants to put an end to some practices that have long prevailed in Hindi films: the culture of actors waiting in coffee shops to get spotted, or coming to Mumbai for expensive periods of struggle. “Acting is a professional job and we should treat it like that.” His Aram Nagar office has 400 aspiring actors walking in daily. Their details are recorded according to their skills, region, and dialect, to be accessed at the time of casting various roles. The process is similar for fellow casting director Shruti Mahajan. Her search for actors results in scouring theatre groups, acting schools, and travelling to smaller cities for auditions.
She receives 250 to 300 actor portfolios in her e-mail inbox every day. More production houses and filmmakers have understood the need for casting, she says. Yet, while casting companies are roped in to find fresh, affordable talent for smaller roles, choices for big-ticket lead roles are often made by the producer or filmmaker.Ranaut was echoing the sentiment of aspiring actors who feel hard done by. Despite the effort to clean up casting, the experience on the ground is tough, say strugglers. Young Museer Khan from Mumbai has a popular surname but no cinematic godfathers. After a spell as assistant director, he has been spending long hours at audition venues in Andheri, working out how to sweat prudently and look less tired when it is his turn. Hundreds wait with him. “Like with everything else in India, Bollywood has a problem of overpopulation,” he says. Not just at the top, favouritism plays out in lower levels too. The local audition coordinators let their friends in first, says Museer. The initial dreams of big stardom are quickly replaced by a willingness to settle for anything: playing the friend of the lead, doing character roles, or even appearing in television commercials and web series. Karmaditya Bagga gave up studying engineering in Virginia to try his luck at acting. Unlike actors with connections, the 21-year-old from Delhi needed four hours each day just to find out how many auditions were on in the city. Three months ago, it led him to start Strugler, an app to help others like him to locate auditions. It has bagged 1,000 users. “Struggler is almost a bad word. We get pushed around even though we are artistes,” he says. Getting noticed is difficult for thousands of young actors and desperation creates a risk of exploitation. “People will do everything: they try to get invited to parties, or even send ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’ texts to casting co-ordinators.” While they sweat the small stuff, star kids enjoy a strong support system at home. Rishi Kapoor used to vet the financial aspects of Ranbir’s projects, while Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan watched over Abhishek’s film decisions when he was younger. In a blog post, Johar suggested there is commercial value in casting star kids. Indeed, these youths attract media attention and have a fan-base even before having done any work. Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan, has 258,000 followers on Instagram. Launch films of Saif Ali Khan’s daughter Sara, Sri Devi’s daughter Jhanvi, and Suneil Shetty’s son Ahan are already anticipated. Scrutiny can be intense too. The audience and media are especially hard on a superstar’s son, Bhawana Somaaya noted while describing the experience of Abhishek Bachchan in an earlier interview with Business Standard. Although he was seemingly ticked off by Ranaut, Johar has acknowledged preferential treatment openly before. “As for now, although we do have some talented actors coming from the National School of Drama (NSD), nepotism in this industry is king,” he recently wrote in the foreword of photography book Living the Dream. “Today, half the people who are walking tall in Hindi cinema don’t deserve to be here. They’re here because they have a strong last name, have gone through the right family contacts and made it. So, we have a whole series of really bad actors who have gone on to become movie stars.” Few in the industry seem particularly keen on getting involved or checking the spread of nepotism. But at a time when Bollywood is keen to tackle topics such as sexism and mental health, greater accountability may be needed in the core aspects of filmmaking.