An era of superstars

Last Updated 28 June 2014, 16:16 IST

Not too long ago, people built temples for film stars and got married to the photo of their favourite stars. Such was their love, obsession and devotion towards their cine-idols! It was the era of superstars. However, in this age of the internet, do we still have such superstars who can send legions of fans into frenzied hysteria, wonders Sudarshan Purohit.

Recently, in a public chat session with Prem Chopra, popular Bollywood actor from the 70s and 80s, someone asked him what he thought of the era of ‘superstars and villains’. Mr Chopra replied readily enough, “Superstars and super villains will always be there.”

To the casual observer of the film industry, this is true enough today. When Kochadaiyaan was due to be released, hoardings of its hero Rajnikanth went up everywhere, and congratulatory messages from fan clubs jostled for space on the walls. Whenever there’s any big movie release, garlanding of giant movie-star cutouts is common. Salman Khan movies are perfectly timed to public holidays, and celebrated more than the holiday itself. Every autorickshaw in Bangalore still has a photo or sticker of ‘Auto Raja’ Shankar Nag. Superstars are still very much around, it seems.

But still. When we talk to our parents, or think back to our childhood, we discover stories about superstars that defy belief. There was the young woman who, unable to contact Rajesh Khanna himself, got married to a photo of him. People built temples to NTR and Sivaji Ganesan. And when Amitabh Bachchan got punched and then hospitalised on the sets of Coolie, it seemed like the nation held its breath. The history of Bollywood in those days was the history of its superstars: If Rajendra ‘Jubilee’ Kumar defined the 60s with his romantic and social films, the 70s and 80s were personified by Amitabh’s angry young man.

As a 10-year-old, back in the 80s, I remember being in tears because my parents were taking me to see some unknown movie (Samraat, starring Dharmendra and featuring a hunt for a sunken ship). I refused to go, wanting to go see the latest Amitabh movie instead (Nastik, which can’t be termed a good movie by any stretch of imagination). A non-Amitabh movie in any kid’s opinion was not worth seeing in those days. The plot, the songs, the director, all were secondary to the hero of the movie.


We aren’t talking of just the viewing public, but even the filmmaking industry itself. Movies lived and died by their stars — a film director wouldn’t be worth his salt if he hadn’t worked with an A-lister. A guest appearance by Amitabh in a movie meant a lot more publicity for it.

And if you go back even further and onto another continent, you see Hollywood had the same thing back in the 40s and 50s — the leading men and leading ladies were divas, seeming to float above mere mortals, living a charmed life. The era of Garbo and Bogart seems like a whole different world now.

That kind of stardom certainly doesn’t exist today. Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan will never have the kind of mass appeal that Amitabh had in his heyday. There are enough people that think of Rajnikanth as a butt of jokes rather than as a star. Something — some measure of charisma, some sort of universal acceptance — is gone now, and is unlikely to ever come back.

In fact, why limit ourselves to Bollywood? Take any mass entertainment medium — cricket, for example (there will be some who object to cricket being termed entertainment. To them, I only say, look at the IPL tamasha). About 10-15 years back, cricket in India was personified by Sachin Tendulkar, and to a lesser extent by two or three stars of the team. One could not imagine the sport without these players, and they were mobbed by fans wherever they went.

Today, while the star players are still popular, the fan base of cricket has split up along various lines: there are people who follow their ‘own’ IPL franchises, there are others who think the current coach is the one responsible for the team’s fortunes, and there are people who track their local player through various Ranji, IPL and international matches. And of course, cricket is no longer as all-pervasive as it used to be — Formula 1, football, and tennis have made inroads into the Indian sports fan’s mind.

A similar situation exists for Bollywood now. Instead of following the superstars, fans are now split up, tracking the industry through their own favourite aspects: you have followers of the new realistic cinema, which is spearheaded by Anurag Kashyap, you have music followers, who will go watch all movies with music by A R Rahman or Ilayaraja, you have fans of this or that director, and you have the jaded crowd who ignores Bollywood for the most part, preferring to watch ‘World Cinema’.

These are certainly not bad things to happen. They indicate that the public’s understanding of their favourite industry has become more nuanced. Where Bollywood as a whole was earlier understood as represented by one image, it is now being examined through these different lenses, and evaluated more thoroughly.

The success or failure of a movie project is no longer dictated by the star who acts in it, but also on the basis of the director, the music director, the scriptwriter, the various other contributors, and last but not the least, the real quality of the final product.What has led to this change? It is not simply a coincidence that the cult of the superstar is fading away in Bollywood, in sports, in literature and art, in just about every sphere of public life. Perhaps what is causing the change is the ease of access to information in this modern age.

It’s hard to remember those days now, when all the information you could possibly want wasn’t available at your fingertips. Back then the net, the current explosion of magazines and TV channels and social networking were just a dream. I remember a time when, as a wet-behind-the-ears teenager, I went to a friend’s home to copy off a few English pop songs from his collection. He was famous in his circles for knowing a lot about ‘English music’. All that evening, we went through his collection of 30-odd cassettes, choosing the highlights of each one, and finally recording those highlights onto a blank cassette I’d brought with me.

“And now you have the best of the best of English music,” he declared, when we were done. I had, maybe, 20 songs in total. I was elated. In that list (which I now cringe to remember) was one Bruce Springsteen song, three George Michael songs, two from Madonna, and several other pop icons of the 80s.

“What else can I add to this collection once I’ve heard all these?” I asked in all innocence.

“Well, I don’t think there’s much else worth listening to… maybe you can get some more Madonna songs, there are a few other good ones she’s done.” He said vaguely. I went home and listened to those songs, and for quite some days, thought I knew all about ‘English music’.

I doubt I was alone in this kind of belief. About 30, even 20 years back, it was next to impossible to know about the vast range of music in the world. The Grammy awards programme on Doordarshan was, for most people in India, a line-up of music they had never heard before, and which they’d likely never hear again until the next iteration. If you did not hear of, say, Cliff Richard or Herbie Hancock from some friend in the know, then you just never knew of them. There was no way to find out about them for yourself.

It was the same for Bollywood movies and music for the most part. You knew of new movies coming out only when the trailer released, or perhaps if you bought Stardust or other such magazines. So a movie like Samraat, which would today build up excitement about its theme much before it’s released, would come and go without much of a ripple.

Superstar years

What happens when information is scarce is that you tend to simplify the subject itself to fit it. If all you know is Amitabh Bachchan or Rekha, you tend to think that that’s what Bollywood is all about. If all you know is Michael Jackson or Madonna, you think that’s what western music is. And of course, what these people do becomes the only thing worth following — the very definition of a superstar.

And so we have the superstar years for Bollywood. Or Hollywood. Or pretty much any industry. It works the other way too, of course. These representatives of the industry stayed firmly in the mainstream for the most part, doing what would be acceptable to the majority of their followers.

Chris Anderson, in his book The Long Tail, discusses the phenomenon of information scarcity in detail (though he probably wasn’t thinking of Bollywood when he wrote it). Decades ago, popular fandom was a single, unified entity with common taste. This was caused by lack of information, and used by the marketing departments of the industry to great effect. In other words, everyone followed the same people, the same films or serials or books, and they would turn and follow whatever the marketing folks declared as the next big thing.

 The only way to consume the media — the distribution channels — were also controlled by the content creators: movie theatres or TV or publishing or cassettes, so it was easy to shape public opinion. For example, the only way to watch a movie was in theatres, where the big mainstream movies would play for months and months. Wanted to watch old Ashok Kumar movies? You were out of luck unless you owned an expensive VCR and the cassettes.

If you missed an episode of Hum Log on Doordarshan, it was gone for good, so you better follow the timings and schedule that TV offered. In the US, you got milked into paying extra if you wanted old comics or movies: you had collector’s limited editions of comics, books, and albums, and so on.

As time has gone by, the distribution channels have become decentralised. In the case of movies, that meant that DVDs and cable TV, TiVo and YouTube, meant that one was not limited to the latest-and-greatest release of the day. One could opt for quality and watch only older or foreign movies of one’s taste. In India, think back to when pirated DVDs suddenly blossomed, sold by teenaged youth on folding tables at every street corner. I remember travelling late through rural Rajasthan, a couple of years ago, and stopping at a small dhaba in the middle of nowhere. Such places have a staff of waiters, cooks and cleaners who typically live at the dhaba itself, and get to go to the big city nearby only when buying supplies. In this place, far from civilisation, they had a small TV and a cheap chinese DVD player.

They were serving us food quickly, waiting for us to be done so they could close shop and put on a movie on that set-up — from a DVD they’d bought for 30-40 rupees from the city that week.

What forces them to only buy the latest, hyped movie? Nothing. If they happen to be Dilip Kumar fans, they could just as well put on Ganga Jamuna or Madhumati. If they like Pakistani comedy plays, they probably have seen Bakra Kishton Mein a dozen times by now. Or they may like Shah Rukh Khan, yes, but they could go watch Paheli or Baazigar instead of the new one — everything is 40 rupees away.

Given that sort of reach and accessibility, the unified fan base splits up. People go their own way, and choose what they want to follow. To feed this interest, they need information — which is now available all over, through every type of media. It becomes very rare, then, for a superstar to emerge, someone who unifies the entire fan base again.

This doesn’t mean that there can be no such superstars. We have had them happen in spite of the scattered tastes of fans, but they are rarer than ever.

For example, in the last decade, one such superstar emerged in the fragmented world of books. This was J K Rowling with her Harry Potter series — readers and movie enthusiasts of all stripes, from classics fans to fantasy, to YA, to serious lit, everyone turned away from what they were reading to focus on the adventures of a boy wizard through his greatest battles. Rowling, as any superstar does, revitalised the industry she was in and set a trend for hundreds of writers to follow. She made YA and fantasy cool, bringing in followers for the long term into these subgenres.

Spielberg did the same thing in the 70s with Hollywood. His new genre of Summer Blockbusters unified the industry and the viewers. He did this by making movies that appealed to everyone, of all tastes. He also created a new type of movie: the summer blockbuster, released to take advantage of the holiday mood of summertime. Today Hollywood still has the pattern of releasing popcorn movies in the summertime and Oscar contenders in winter.

What do these people do that’s different? They understand the industry well. They study it in depth. They create a product that appeals to everyone, without sacrificing quality. They have the integrity to go their own way. They aren’t created by the industry, but by the admiration of the larger fan base.

Do we have this new kind of superstars in Bollywood today? Let’s do it this way: if we can all agree on the same person, the answer is yes.

(Published 28 June 2014, 16:16 IST)

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