(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline’s BL Ink supplement on April 12, 2014)
Headline: THE MODERN FAMILY
Introline: A few feisty Bollywood daughters and parents are challenging the industry’s patriarchal ways
Changing roles: Alia Bhatt is among the new batch of actors who continue to defy gender bias in Bollywood families
In a season of opinion polls, here’s one of the non-electoral kind. Do you believe a majority of Bollywood stars are from film families? Chances are most of you will say yes. The right answer though, is yes and no.
In this notoriously nepotistic film industry, there’s a gender angle even to nepotism: while it’s true that most male actors ruling Hindi cinema today are relatives of producers, directors, actors and other industry insiders; most female actors are not.
If you think this is a feminist over-reading of the scenario, just run your eyes through the past fortnight’s mainstream Bollywood releases and spot the star kids in each lead cast: director David Dhawan’s son Varun is the hero of Main Tera Hero; producer Vashu Bhagnani’s son Jackky headlines Youngistaan; and Dishkiyaoon co-stars producer-director Harry Baweja’s son Harman with legendary actor Dharmendra’s son Sunny Deol. Score: film family sons – 4, daughters – 0.
Alternatively, consider the male stars in the 30-50 age group who have dominated Bollywood for the past quarter century. Only three – Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham – are rank outsiders. Their contemporaries are Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Imran Khan whose lineage needs no introduction. The percentage is dramatically reversed among leading ladies in the same age group, with outsiders (Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif) far exceeding the number of industry daughters (sisters Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Kajol and cousin Rani Mukerji).
The explanation for this skew lies in Bollywood’s male chauvinism. Sanjay Dutt explicitly states that no daughter of the Dutt clan can act in films. Some star parivaars opt for politically correct public utterances on this matter, but Dharmendra – who openly opposed daughter Esha’s film career – was unblushing about his conservatism when I interviewed him on his 75th birthday in 2010. “Aisi unpredictable line mein jaha ladkon ke liye bhi mushkil hai, usme bechari bachchiyon ko kyun bhejoge? (Why would anyone send their poor daughters into a profession which is so difficult even for sons?) Ultimately daughters have to settle down, to be frank,” he said. “A father wants nothing but happiness for his daughter. They should settle down, live a happy life, and work according to their husbands (sic).”
Don’t be shocked. After all, our film industries are not set in Venus or Mars; they’ve emerged from our very own gender-prejudiced society here on Earth. Like Dharmendra, most industry families are fixated on patriarchal notions of “protecting” daughters who are too “bechari” to take on the world, instead of investing in changing that world.
This industry is acutely aware too of its own culpability with the casting couch. There is also a hypocritical categorisation of women into types: if society at large often labels women as ‘wife material’ and ‘girlfriend material’, for people in the film industry, there is the ‘my mother/wife/daughter type’ who must not wear skimpy clothes or romance other men on screen, and the ‘co-star type’.
Rare is the film family where the baton has been passed from father to daughter; rarer still from mother to child to grandchild. The Samarths – Shobhana Samarth, her daughters Nutan and Tanuja, Nutan’s son Mohnish Behl and Tanuja’s daughter Kajol – are exceptions who have opened doors to others, as pioneers always do. If there had been no Karisma and Kajol, who’s to say whether Rani and Kareena would have joined films. If it weren’t for this quartet, would the past seven years have witnessed the arrival of Anil Kapoor’s daughter Sonam, Shatrughan Sinha’s daughter Sonakshi, or Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan’s daughter Alia? Coming soon is Suniel Shetty’s daughter Athiya.
These girls are droplets in the ocean, but their entry still marks a notable change from earlier decades, partly because they are not pliable or bechari and partly due to evolving parental mindsets. Anyone who has met Anil and Sonam could tell you that he is far too liberal to keep a daughter in a professional purdah and she is far too feisty to follow norms. Less obvious though is the spiritedness of Shatrughan’s daughter Sonakshi, who cultivates an image of traditionalism by discussing family values, sanskaar and her family’s dignity in most interviews.
As I write this column, I place a quick call to Sinha Senior, who is busy in Patna campaigning for his seat in the Lok Sabha polls. On the drive to an election rally, Shotgun – as he is known to colleagues and the press – describes himself as Sonakshi’s shield against the casting couch. I ask: Would she have listened if you had commanded her not to act? “We’re past the era when parents could dictate terms to children,” he replies. “You have to treat them as your friends, guide them according to their capacity, aptitude and qualifications.” Open-minded as Dad clearly is, it turns out too that Sonakshi of the lowered gaze in public, is very much her own woman.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an IntrepidFilm Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
Photograph courtesy: Everymedia PR (shot of Alia Bhatt shooting for Imtiaz Ali’s Highway in Aru Valley, Kashmir)
Note: This photograph was not used in BL Ink
(a) The Dharmendra Interview by Anna MM Vetticad / Headlines Today / December 2010: http://tinyurl.com/pq5ut45
(b) “Bollywood and The Inheritance of Gloss” / Article by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/ne5xzt3
(c) Ranbir Kapoor, on being a Kapoor / Interview by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/ouxawxs
(d) “Ranbir my son is a fourth generation male actor” / Interview with Rishi & Neetu Kapoor by Anna MM Vetticad / The New Indian Express / June 2011: http://tinyurl.com/nj4fngo