Whether you’re a spot boy, animal wrangler or journalist, a little bit of stardust is bound to rub off on anyone who works in the film industry. But if you look beyond the glamour, all that’s there is a lot of hard work, uncertainty, stress and, yes, a little bit of sleaze.
I’ve spent the best part of two decades writing on movies and movie stars for newspapers, magazines, television and online portals. At the time I started out, it was normal for a journalist to drop into a movie set for a chat and a chai. In my first week as a trainee at the now defunct Zee Premiere magazine, a senior colleague took me along on set visits. We chatted with Govinda and Karisma Kapoor in their respective trailer vans, as David Dhawan set up the next shot for Haseena Maan Jayegi, after which she took me along to meet Bobby Deol at a photo shoot. There was no agenda, no interviews. Just lots of gossip and laughs.
The stars on earth
From gilded homes to chaotic movie sets, I’ve watched Bollywood and its stars at close quarters at all hours of the day and night. Interviewing Akshay Kumar meant that one got to his Juhu home at the crack of dawn. If the phone ever rang post midnight, it was probably Shah Rukh Khan returning a call. The preferred location for interviews in the initial days of my career was a movie set. Between shots, in the midst of a flurry of activity, one sat behind the camera and monitors on a plastic chair pulled as close as politely acceptable to the interviewee.
Being invited home for an interview was just as common. Morning interviews at Urmila Matondkar’s came with a side of the fluffiest idlis, while Juhi Chawla would have a spread of Gujarati food laid out.
I remember sitting in a dilapidated garage in North Mumbai at one am because Hansal Mehta was shooting nights with Tabu and Manoj Bajpayee for Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. In the days before Uber, late-night interviews inside Film City in Mumbai meant that kind-hearted actors like Ameesha Patel and Preity Zinta would get me dropped off to the nearest rickshaw. Regardless of the time of night, I never felt unsafe on a film set simply because it was always teeming with people. A journalist was considered to be a guest of the star you were interviewing, and there’d always be someone looking out for you.
I was also, almost always accompanied by a male photographer. Through my career, I have had only one bad experience. And, it happened in the middle of the day in a home where I was told there were other people.
Entourage? What entourage?
As recently as the early 2000s, actors barely had an entourage. These were the years when you didn’t need to know Sanjay Dutt well to sit down next to him at the end of a film party, and he’d regale you with stories. These were also the times when you could drop into Sushmita Sen’s home to watch the sunset from her sea-facing apartment. This level of access meant the scoops were juicier and the interviews free-flowing.
Today, all interviews are done only when an actor wants to talk in the weeks leading up to a film’s release and after the release if the film is a success. Non-release related interview requests are vetted and processed by an army of personal publicists, who can sit in on an interview and even dictate the line of questioning. It’s not unheard of for an actor to not want to talk to a specific journalist or, at times, even a publication. “No personal questions” is the most repeated (and most ignored) directive.
What changed in the 2000s
In the first decade of the 2000s, as the industry became more corporate and the media exploded, the distance between actors and journalists increased. Filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali began enforcing no mobile/no journalist film sets for films like Black. I remember Rani Mukerji apologising because I had to wait outside the set for her to finish her shot.
Today, it’s almost unheard of for journalists to be invited to a film set. On-the-set reports that used to be regular at the start of my career have all but disappeared. I’m quite certain that most film journalists wouldn’t have experienced the heady magic of a film set.
Instead of one public relations officer, or PRO as they used to be known, films started having fledgling companies to handle the publicity of a film. Campaigns were built around a film, and marketing began to involve more than just issuing advertisements in newspapers and putting up hoardings. One of the earliest films I remember that had a proper marketing and public relations strategy right down to the posters and images was Shashilal K Nair’s very controversial Ek Chhotisi Love Story, starring Manisha Koirala, in 2002. All press interactions and stories were filtered through an agency.
Compared to their predecessors, the actors of today are a lot more polished in every aspect, including how to interact with the journalists. Newbies are given media training that preps them on how to handle press conferences, one-on-one television and print interviews and social media. I recently interviewed an actor from the 1970s for a book that I am writing, where he addressed me as “Darling” (in a very non-sleazy way) throughout. I can’t imagine the newer lot of actors like Varun Dhawan or Anushka Sharma taking such liberty.
Selfies and the paparazzi
Social media has changed film journalism. The medium gives celebrities direct and unprecedented control over how they disseminate important news. Whether it’s a baby announcement or their stand on the #MeToo movement, all it takes is one tweet to make news. Going ‘Instagram official’ is a thing that Bollywood has embraced.
Farhan Akhtar recently posted a photo that Shibani Dandekar had posted way back in September to announce their relationship. while Neha Dhupia and Angad Bedi made their baby announcement with a series of photos in August.
Also new to Bollywood is the paparazzi culture that every actor worth his or her weight complains about. It all started with ‘airport shots’ about a decade ago. Like Manish Malhotra in the ’90s, Sonam Kapoor gave Bollywood a fashion makeover. Stylists became an integral part of an actor’s entourage, and it was unthinkable for someone to wear any old saree to an award show any more. But a handful of Bollywood red-carpet events weren’t enough to build a fashionista’s brand. So, publicists started informing the two paparazzos in the industry about when their client would be landing or taking off from the Mumbai airport.
The number of photographers has ballooned since, but a large percentage of the photographs clicked outside airports, gyms, restaurants, theatres, the producer’s offices or even an actor’s home are because the celebrity’s team has informed the photographers. Unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, our stars are yet to get the real taste of what it means to be hounded by the picture-hungry paparazzi, who routinely chase celebrities at high speed and crash weddings.
The nonstop rounds of film promotion, the minute-by-minute access to their lives on social media and posing for photographers every single day has taken some of the sheen off movie stars. It’s also made the lives of film journalists like me a tad difficult. Every interview today is a tug-of-war between a journalist trying to discover about the subject and what an actor is flogging. Conducted under the watchful eyes of publicists, such interviews are limited to 15 minutes or 20 if you are lucky and held in sterile hotel banquet halls.