There are good debates, and there are bad debates. There are futile debates, and at the bottom of that pile–right below the gustatory tussle over veg biryani – is the debate about nepotism in Bollywood. The full force of the N-debate hit Twitter after Zoya Akhtar dropped the cast announcement ofher upcoming Netflix film The Archies. It has three cast members with uber-successful parents or grandparents – Amitabh Bachchan’s grandson Agastya Nanda, Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan and the late Sridevi’s daughter Khushi Kapoor.
In my limited experience, folks who tend to whine about nepotism would like to believe that they were found floating in a river like Karna or Moses. That they grew up in ancient Sparta, where they had to survive in the wild like Leonidas, and that their parents have never–to borrow a phrase from Varun Dhawan–bought them a single pencil box. That they are creatures who have “merit” running through their veins and everything they have achieved in life is by dint of their “hard work”.
If you’re reading this piece, the chances are you’ve had a privileged upbringing. You most probably had access to elite English education and are probably reading this piece on a device that can only be owned by the top 1% of India’s population.
And this is what makes the debate so pointless. We, including this author, are all products of privilege, which is dependent on our parents’ success, which in turn, has been facilitated by a host of variables, including the economy at the time of their birth, their parents’ privilege, and other factors.
If I can reap the success of my parents’ seeds (which I ought to, given I am a product of their seed), why should it be any different for Suhana, Khushi, or Agastya? Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh, and Sridevi not only are/were the greatest actors of their generation, but also rank outsiders who blazed through Bollywood by dint of their talent, perseverance, and hard work. That means their children don’t have to come to Bombay with ₹1500 in their pockets or work in a mercantile firm in Calcutta to support their craft.
It’s not a trait unique to the Hindi film industry. Take the Telugu industry, which is now the epicentre of Indian cinema as far as the box office is concerned. Ram Charan is Chiranjeevi’s son. Allu Arjun, Mahesh Babu, Jr NTR, Prabhas, and Nagarjuna are all from film families of different vintages.
Every industry has its fair share of scions and outsiders. That we are all equal in a race is the mendacious edifice upon which the society is built. Some of us will always have more chances than others. Some will have to work harder to reach the same spot. And some will never reach that spot.
It’s not unique to the film industry. Take the judiciary. How many SC justices have parents or grandparents who were SC justices? How many CJIs have had fathers or grandfathers who were CJIs? How many top TV anchors are the progeny of veteran journalists?
The same goes for politics, but unlike journalism, politics, or the judiciary, the film industry isn’t run on taxpayers’ money and can’t be considered a public service.
Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, or Anurag Kashyap are perfectly within their rights to cast and launch anyone they want. And we, as an audience, are perfectly within our rights to choose what to watch and what to ignore.
The alternative would be to have a parallel government-run, babu-enforced film industry with quotas based on caste, religion, and non-star kids. A PSU version of Bollywood akin to Salman Khan’s MNREGA for his near and dear ones.
The second prong of the nepotism in the Bollywood debate is that supremely talented actors or auteurs never get their dues. While there’s no denying that someone who has a film background will get more bites of the apple, that doesn’t mean talented outsiders won’t get a shot.
Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan aren’t the only ones. Vicky Kaushal, Richa Chadha, Varun Grover, Neeraj Ghaywan, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Piyush Mishra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jaideep Ahlawat, Manoj Bajpayee, and Tigmanshu Dhulia come to mind. And I am only using a subset of people associated with one Anurag Kashyap movie. They might not have had fancy launches, but all of them are respected figures, regaled for their craft and hailed for their talent. And it works both ways. Just because one is a star kid doesn’t mean she will taste success. Also read: Shah Rukh Khan tells Suhana Khan to take day off from Archies shoot, give him a hug, she says ‘I’m a working actor now’
In fact, the proliferation of OTTs has democratised the system even more, where the likes of Manoj Bajpayee, Pankaj Tripathi, and Jaideep Ahlawat are the stars of their own shows.
So, give The Archies and the nepotism debate a break. In fact, I’m fairly optimistic about the quality of the movie. For starters, there’s no way it can be worse than Riverdale. And secondly, Zoya Akhtar is a solid filmmaker who has delivered stellar escapist fantasies like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Dil Dhakadne Do. In fact, what troubles me, is that we can choose our heroes or politicians. We cannot choose our judges or journalists. C’est la vie.