Bollywood is learning about the perils of vanity, says Anupama Chopra

May 07, 2022 01:07 PM IST

It started with artists buying the spotlight, then believing they‘d earned it. The level of delusion and hubris tends to be proportional to the mediocrity of the work. Meanwhile, films from the South continue to top Hindi charts and set new records.

The current mood in Bollywood is panic. Last week, two high-profile films, Heropanti 2 and Runway 34, with A-list stars (Tiger Shroff and Ajay Devgn), opened to sub-par numbers ( 6.5 crore and 3 crore respectively), and they show little sign of reviving. It was the same with Shahid Kapoor’s cricket-themed Jersey the week before.

Tiger Shroff in Heropanti 2. The film has opened to a lacklustre response, even as the dubbed-in-Hindi Kannada movie KGF: Chapter 2 continues to rake it in. PREMIUM
Tiger Shroff in Heropanti 2. The film has opened to a lacklustre response, even as the dubbed-in-Hindi Kannada movie KGF: Chapter 2 continues to rake it in.

Meanwhile, the Kannada film KGF: Chapter 2 has crossed 1,000 crore in box-office earnings worldwide. Over the weekend, the film’s dubbed Hindi version made more money than the two new Hindi releases. KGF is likely to outstrip Dangal and become the second-highest-grossing Hindi film ever, after Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which was originally made in Telugu. This means that Dangal, at #3, would be the first film on the list actually made in Hindi. Hence, the panic.

There has been much pontification about what has led to the current scenario — “South filmmakers are delivering the kinds of masala movies that overtly Westernised Bollywood filmmakers have little appetite for now”; “South films have more conviction and imagination”; “South stars have built a massive fan following via dubbed films on TV, satellite and streaming”. All of this is true, but perhaps we should also talk about something that, like a termite, has eaten away at the vitals of the Hindi film industry: Vanity.

For a while now, actors have routinely paid paparazzi to take photos of them. A few days ago, a manager at a leading talent agency told me that many paparazzi receive monthly retainers. When there aren’t enough events or photo-worthy situations, they simply stage them together, standing in their building compound near an expensive car or coming in or out of a gym, restaurant, airport or leading filmmaker’s office.

The practice of advertorials, which started with newspaper supplements, has now infiltrated every form of communication, including social media. Everything can be bought, including some magazine covers, tweets and posts on the Instagram feeds of leading paparazzi.

Optics are everything. “Everything is paid. If we don’t pay, actors will. If they don’t pay, publicists will. It’s a vicious circle,” says a leading filmmaker.

The issue with this is that artists buy the spotlight, and then begin to believe that they have earned it. The level of delusion and hubris tends to be directly proportional to the mediocrity of the work. Instagram in particular has exacerbated the situation. The number of followers is being conflated with talent.

Casting agents admit to looking at the digital footprint of an artist before selecting them. The bigger it is, they reason, the more the artist can help promote a project. Meanwhile, leading artists forget that having millions of followers on social media is not necessarily evidence that they can act, or draw an actual crowd in the offline world.

The consistent success of South films has provided a much-needed reality check. As one distributor put it: “Aukaad samajh mein aa rahi hai (They are realising their true status).”

I hope that this leads to introspection and some course-correction. Because ultimately, hype is just that — hype. What really matters in cinema is what happens in the frame between action and cut.

As Laurence Olivier famously said to Dustin Hoffman on the sets of the 1976 film Marathon Man (albeit in another context), “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

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