“यहाँ इक खिलौना है
इन्सां की हस्ती
ये बस्ती है मुर्दा-परस्तों की बस्ती
यहाँ पर तो जीवन से है मौत सस्ती
ये दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है
ये दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है”

— Sahir Ludhianvi

Sahir Ludhianvi’s words have rung like a requiem in my ears for days on end in the past month. There has been much chatter about nepotism and too little about what this environment can do to a person’s mental health. All this in the wake of a suicide by a beautiful actor who happened to be an old friend.

It is being said that the industry seems to be divided between “insiders” and “outsiders”? In my opinion the Hindi film industry and its entire ecosystem is only divided between kind and unkind people. The spectrum of unkind begins at mild displeasure, thieving and at its worst, at the underbelly-level manifests as a desire for sociopathic retribution. But if one’s lucky, kindness too is expressed in a straightforward manner. Genuine people tend to gravitate towards one another and often make lifelong bonds.

Bollywood is a food chain

In the brief time that I have spent here as the first person of my lineage, my assessment is that the industry operates like a food chain. People are scoundrels when they know they can get away with it. Those who are anguished today have themselves been cruel to their subordinates. You hate your bully for not being ethical with you, while bullying someone working under you as though it is a rite of passage for them. This is an acceptable MO in this dog-eat-dog world. Not feeling of remorse is considered a leadership quality; decency, sensitivity is considered a handicap.

Notwithstanding this environment, we are expected to work without being afflicted or getting drawn into the phantasm. And we must make heartwarming entertainment for we tell stories! Our livelihood depends on being creative and expressing our emotion truthfully. But it is no secret that we ourselves are imperfect, vulnerable and bruise easily as artists. It is a deeply isolating profession, wherein success and failure are both public and bring their share of dilemmas. Ours is a business where personal life is invariably affected by public life. Sometimes, for no real reason, actors dominate national headlines for a disproportionate amount of time.

Sushant Singh Rajput and Richa Chadha. Courtesy Richa Chadha.

Do star kids really have it easy?

There are insiders who can be kind and generous, and outsiders who are punitive egomaniacs. In the nascent phase of my career, I was often “cut to size” by outsiders. It took me all my strength to recover from various forms of subtle sabotage. But this is not about me. The tragic part is that everyone here has experienced a version of this.

As for nepotism, it just makes me laugh out loud in real life. I don’t hate “star kids”. Why are we expected to? If someone’s father is a star, they are born into that household the same as we are to our folks. Are you ashamed of your parents? Is it right to expect someone else to be ashamed of their parents/families/legacy?

This is a hateful and nonsense argument. I am a self-made person in this business. Will you tell my children to be ashamed of my struggle to reach where I have, for instance? “Star kids” have to deal with rivalry within their own clans. Often this is an inter-generational, unforgiving and all-encompassing contest. There exist hierarchies within the clan too, wherein say the grandson of a legendary singer or the son of an ace stuntman maybe thought of as lesser than that of a director or actor. Knowing how deeply rooted caste is in our country, why does this unstated ranking system surprise anyone? We may never know what someone else may be dealing with here. I empathise but I won’t know that pain, unless I am standing in their shoes.

Acknowledging privilege

Similarly, there’s just NO WAY someone born within the industry will have the same experience as someone who wasn’t. This takes me back a decade or so. Sushant and I started out by workshopping together in a theatre group. I was sharing a 700 sq ft apartment in Andheri West with a friend from Delhi. Sushant would pick me up on his bike and we would head to the rehearsal, for which I was grateful. I wasn’t poor or broke. But I can’t say money was not a consideration when I had to head out to do an ad audition for a skin brand. I would worry about my make-up melting in the auto rickshaw before I even arrived. This would NEVER happen with a “star kid”, and if it does, they will be lauded for being humble enough to take the rickshaw in the first place. But I don’t resent their privilege.

In the beginning, I had to pick between the number of theatre and dance classes I could take per month, but not for want of money. I could always ask my parents to support me, and did, but I wanted to be able to pay for these extra “luxuries” myself. I was still privileged, and achingly aware of it. I would look at all the brilliant, promising actors emerging out of the NSD [National School of Drama], many of whom I feared wouldn’t make it far in the films because they had either limited knowledge in English or simply didn’t have the savvy to recognise the need for grooming or social media.

So many capable actresses before me were dissed and dismissed because they couldn’t speak English smoothly or weren’t groomed. They got no second chances. You’ll see them today, every once in a while on hoardings for some nondescript web show. So what is this then? A warped form of internalised, post-colonial self-hatred? Because those that can’t even read the Devanagari script, or who can’t speak the language without sounding like they’re using the language of the “help” are applauded for merely existing. How is that ok?

Richa Chadha in Masaan (2015). Courtesy Drishyam Films.

Sexism and reverse nepotism

Here we peel off another layer, one of sexism. A “realistic actor” that becomes a star is an aberration, not the norm. And when he declares bashfully at events that he can’t speak English, it’s disarming right? Yet I have seen several colleagues roll their eyes at an actress who doesn’t have polish in her expression. This, despite the fact that there is almost zero to no emphasis on education in this business.

On what basis exactly do they make fun of others? True, there’s no need to have a degree in astrophysics to act. But would it kill you to know about Harishankar Parsai or Shakespeare? The finesse of stalwarts from the past seems to have evaporated. Amitabh Bachchans and Zeenat Amans we are not and it shows. Privilege, coupled with ignorance, apathy and incompetence is not a good look. Perhaps, it’s time we shed this classism. Sexism, I am aware, will thrive for a while. Because this “last gasp of patriarchy” is basically a gasp for air in the middle of a loud laugh.

An actor I know faces what they term “reverse nepotism”. A distant and estranged cousin of theirs has acquired such a bad reputation in the industry, they’ve has been hired and fired before they could even get to a film set. You may chuckle at their predicament but there are already too many filters in the search for a good, new actor.

Invisible privilege

I had first spoken about nepotism in 2014, before it was fashionable. Nepotism by definition means to benefit from one’s relationships. A lot of actors citing nepotism as a reason for “not being accepted” are the ones that got their breaks specifically BECAUSE of nepotism. i.e. they were physically and/or metaphorically in bed with the influential person that recommended them to a producer who gave them their first film or their family friend’s son was making a film and needed a “new face” which was easily found in the family WhatsApp group. If our industry understood the difference between nepotism and legacy, we would truly be world class.

Legacy is Ustad Allarakha Khan and Zakir Hussain sahab. Nepotism is, well, you tell me. The argument that your acceptance as an actor depends on the audience holds no water either. You have to be cast to be accepted or rejected.

The thing with privilege is, it is invisible to those who have it. We cannot have a sincere discussion about equality before confronting entitlement. And it will not happen by blaming “the privileged” for a man’s death or calling for actresses to be raped. Do “well-wishers” want others to be driven to suicide because of this rancour they’ve unleashed? What would we do then, book you for abetment to suicide? What does this malice achieve? Zilch.

As for privilege, I may be wrong, but so far no one has asked for anything other than a mere acknowledgement of it. It’s like saying the Kohinoor is an Indian diamond that should be given back to India because it was acquired by making a 10-year-old prince sign a treaty under duress. By us saying this, The Queen is not going to remove it from the crown and hand it over, because it won’t undo historical wrongs and also because the entire Museum would then be empty. But it would just be a symbolic gesture.

Here I present the revolutionary idea, that both things can be true. That “star kids” don’t have it easy, albeit they have it exponentially easier as compared to an “outsider”, and that the “outsider” experience rarely has a happy ending here. Therefore, when someone asks if I suffer because I am not a “star kid”, I declare loud and proud that in fact I am. My parents aren’t just stars, they are superstars for raising me right.

Sushant Singh Rajput. Credit: Instagram.

Fans or foes?

This blaming trivialises a situation as grave as this and conveniently ignores the role of mental health. I am surprised by our collective lack of dismay or shock at how low we have stooped in our discourse. The social media timelines of the deceased actor’s friends and girlfriend are littered with filth! Who are these “fans”? I checked out a few profiles online. The same gutter mouths that abused Sushant when he took a stand on the Padmaavat issue are now abusing his loved ones for “not being there” for him. Several of these are fake fan profiles that have emerged overnight, they’re using his images to get their daily fix of online validation.

Perhaps, these bots should stop looking for excuses to spout hate and just accept that they are miserable lowlifes who are vindictive. They are short-sighted. In the real world, this sad attempt to screw with the algorithm will subsume the haters themselves. This hypocrisy is strategic and pathetic. And yet, what hopes do mere mortals have, when the God of cricket can be booed at Wankhede in this country?

Put your hand over your heart and say that this moral degradation doesn’t give you sleepless nights as a parent, as a person. What unfolded post the tragedy is a visual display of what we call “chita par roti sekna”. I never thought a metaphor could be used so literally. I see several producers shedding crocodile tears on social media for the deceased actor. Some of them to this date are not ashamed of the fact that their cheques have bounced on hapless professionals. They have made the crew beg for their own hard-earned money. A make-up artist I often work with told me that the “market” owes him money commensurate with a 1BHK property in Andheri. Due to uncertainty of this lockdown period, he has had to move out of his rental apartment, and relocate to the farthest suburb at a fraction of the previous rent. I know of producers that haven’t even paid their freelance spot boys. The spot boys are considered the littlest players, till food arrives late on a set. These categories of workers, live hand-to-mouth in normal circumstances due to “feast and famine” nature of our business.

Can you imagine the disastrous effect this lockdown must be having on them? The largesse of individual actors, such as Salman Khan must be lauded, along with those that have been helping out silently. Some unions have been checking on their people during these extraordinary conditions. For instance, they have been following up with spot boys to ask if the latter have savings to live off. If they do not, they may call a number, state their artist’s name and get ration. Why can’t other unions follow suit and get more organised?

We need solidarity.This brings me a larger issue. Change is messy and uncomfortable, but not changing may be fatal. So why can’t actors be paid royalty? It is a small price to pay for the loss pf perpetual anonymity. Ditto for directors? Writers?

Richa Chadha in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

Royalty for actors

I was paid Rs 2.5 lakh for Gangs Of Wasseypur – both parts – and that’s alright. [Director Anurag] Kashyap took a chance on me, and for that I am forever grateful. I didn’t even expect to be paid for a break like that. The film went on to become a cult hit. My continuing career is testament to that.

However, someone somewhere must make money from a film’s continued popularity. If I am not wrong, again, (going by rules for residual payments in other film industries) even if I were to earn royalty of this film, (*if I worked under the SAG guidelines, I would get only be getting a small percentage, under different categories capped at a maximum of 6.2%). Does it make sense that a huge star like Parveen Babi allegedly didn’t have enough money for her treatment in her final years? Ditto Hangal saab? Or that Bhagwan Dada lived in a chawl in his final years ?

I am aware my desire to see all credited departments get their due in terms of royalty is the most unrealistic dream. It just will not happen, at least not in my life time. But since structures all around us are crumbling, perhaps we can build anew from the rubble. An extolled man has said to turn adversity into opportunity. However, most have conveniently misunderstood this to mean “opportunism”. We have a chance. Let’s use this pause to evolve.

Several directors were seen sharing condolence messages a month ago. So many among these have run down movies of their peers pre-release, have replaced actresses who refused to sleep with them at the last minute and several have in fact repeatedly forecasted “iska kuch nahi hoga”. Invariably, many such soothsayers only end up making bhurji with the eggs on their face. You’re not God. Stop infecting the world with your jadedness and cynicism.

In this business, one can’t even trust one’s own agency/manager because they will steal from you, even though as talent you may deposit all your trust and confidence in that one person/agency. I had once confronted an ex-agent of mine if he thought it was wrong to steal from one’s own client. This desi Hagrid brazenly declared “ye toh sab karte hain”. If you’re going to make a rotisserie out of the goose that lays golden eggs, that’s the last meal you will have from said goose. But this is a standard operation procedure in our business. Our politics suddenly makes sense, yes?

The toxic PR ecosystem

I saw journalists, publicists, film promotion people post messages of how they were sick of the business and its “toxicity”. Some among these are the most venomous people you might come across. They don’t think twice before sacrificing anyone’s life and sanity at the altar of headlines and TRPs. They themselves could be under-investigation on charges of fraud, rape, paedophilia but will not desist from participating in the demonstration of the very hierarchy they claim to hate. They cannot even spell the word “hypocrisy” correctly but still sit in judgement, sometimes as wannabe “woke” twitterati and sometimes as interviewers who provoke and lie shamelessly.

Last year, I did a film with Akshaye Khanna. I learnt such a invaluable lesson by watching him during the promotions. An eminent journalist asked him to speak about his father’s illness and subsequent passing and why he hadn’t taken on work for four years. After reluctantly giving monosyllabic answers, Mr Khanna said delicately, “This causes me pain, I don’t want to talk about it.” Simple things aren’t always easy.

Most of the press today doesn’t have the spine or strength to be critical of the establishment, so they rely on taking one-line tweets from actors and making them into whole feature stories, often highlighting them actively to bait abuse. Before you ask if speaking up has “consequences”, please ask if affinity to the establishment has advantages, monetary or in the form of awards and IT cell support from either of our two national parties.

Journalists on the scene as the ambulance carrying Sushant Singh Rajput’s body leaves his house in Mumbai. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Journalist or troll?

The definition of film “journalist” has been carefully expanded too include trolls, incendiaries and panderers. I know of this “responsible” journalist who angrily called up Irrfan’s staff hours before his passing to prod if he had indeed passed on. Then later to complain about not being the first to know, because he couldn’t get the “breaking news”. I know of an actor that had a press release sent out even before Irrfan had passed, so that they could milk the tragedy and be in the same frame one last time. A month ago a publication landed up at Ali’s [Fazal] residence in his hometown to gather “info” about his mother’s demise. They wanted visuals of the ambulance and the body.

If you are about to tell me that we signed up for this I may be tempted to wring your neck and ask for the memo. Show me where it says that we are mere products who must not have dignity even in death, or that our loved ones deserve these transgressions.

Media harassment

The reporting around Sushant’s demise has been so disastrous. There has been a spate of suicides in its aftermath. Six people have died by suicide since Sushant’s passing , four of whom were minors. Suicides by icons/celebrities often act as triggers for people that struggle with mental health. Will the press take responsibility? The guidelines for coverage of suicides were repeatedly issued as reminders. But all rules of reporting were flouted; pictures of his dead body were circulated over WhatsApp and social media. Allegedly his psychiatrist’s statement was leaked and published by several portals.

The police stepped in to say that the psychiatrist’s statement had not even been recorded, as social media bayed for the doctor’s blood. Who then decided to write a fictional account of his struggles with mental health? And if you really want to write fiction, why are you a journalist ?

The same journalists send paparazzi to hound Kajol’s visibly reluctant teenage daughter on the streets for a picture and they also want to know the colour of Taimur Ali Khan’s poo. Some of these “paps” chase you down streets to sell images to newspapers and portals. The next day you see yourself on Page 3 being called a “fashion culprit” by a potbellied man who will body-shame you as he types hate messages from his bunker in Dombivali. He just hates that your clothes aren’t rich and/or aspirational enough. There’s also a peculiar lecherous “pap” who positions himself in front of car doors, hoping to get a good shot of the underwear of an actress emerging from a car. He then uploads these videos under the hashtag #wardrobemishap on YouTube and circles body parts of the women in the video. These are the same women he exchanges pleasantries with and photographs for a living. Well done, uncle.

If you feel your high-pressure, thankless job is demanding that you turn into a depraved person, quit. If you’d rather not quit in this market (understandably), safeguard your sanity by setting non-negotiable standards please. Please do this for yourself. If you contribute to a culture where human beings are dispensable, you will be treated as such by your industry.

Outsider a category or an adjective?

For every five nefarious elements in the media, there’s a couple of noble spirits raging against all odds to do the right thing. They attempt to throw light on issues that threaten our humanity. They discuss topics that are uncomfortable and curbed, this often against the diktat of their own studio heads and bosses. They are routinely served “defamation notices” by the powerful. They are the silver lining.

Who first used the word “outsider” in this context, could you find out for me? Is it a category or an adjective? What are we, aliens ? You literally accept foreign nationals, that don’t bother with learning the language of work for decades and you have the gall to call Indians, natives, people who come from other cities “outsiders”? This is the country of artists like Tom Alter, whose command over Hindi and Urdu would put many current “actors” to shame, if they have the concupiscence to know his name that is.

If indeed 2020 is the storm, then let it be one that clears our path. There’s a whole other gamut of discussions that need to happen if any substantial change to come about for us as an industry. The fact that inflated publicity and advertising costs act as a bottleneck for the release of smaller films is discussed, never tackled. There’s no level playing field here either, just a scam of competing advertorials. Often the cost of publicising and releasing a small film is more than its cost of production! When in fact, all we have to do is watch and learn from our sister film industry situated in Chennai. There must be a cap on ticket prices at cinema halls. This is killing films more than any OTT perhaps could. We need an eco-system where writers and directors are accorded the most importance.

What Bollywood actually needs to do

We’ve seen off late, that “content is king” at the box office or on the small screen. Then why is this coronation running behind schedule? We need gender parity in a real, liveable form. People start frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of the word “feminism”. Do we need further evidence that we function in a sexist society/industry? Equality of genders is basic and non-negotiable.

We need robust insurance for stunt artists and light men.

And why is no one talking about what one can clearly identify as a very deliberate attempt to vilify the film business and present all involved in bad light? Why is the industry with influence comparable to sport, lacking in unity in its own interest? Why should a small-fry, non-stakeholder be asking these questions in the first place? These issues are on everyone’s minds. There is no system outside of us. We are the system we so desire to fix.

May this amateur perspective stimulate a long overdue and necessary discussion, because that is all I humbly hope to do here. May we open our hearts to bask in the light of another’s achievements, not relish their failures. Or else this stomping ground we have created will be responsible for trampling our existence. As within, so without. If we keep calling the industry toxic, we must look for the source of these toxins. Look in the mirror and ascertain first that it’s not you.

And while we’re at it,

“जला दो इसे फूंक डालो ये दुनिया
जला दो, जला दो, जला दो”

This essay first appeared on Richa Chadha’s blog and has been reproduced with her permission.