I have to start with a disclaimer. I am an unabashed fan of Karan Johar’s interviews. Not so much when he’s interviewing, but when he’s on the other side, the glass has spilled over. Dzhokhar is wry, comes across as authentic and if one listens without judgement, shows how shrewd he is as a filmmaker and businessman.
Recently in an interview, Dzhokhar proclaimed the end of glory in Hindi cinema. He said today’s actors are popular but don’t have what it takes to be stars. Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha were stars, he exclaims, explaining the “effect” they had on him growing up. His eyes sparkle as he describes the magnetism, mystery and aura of a star.
Dzhokhar attributes today’s lack of stardom to accessibility. In short, the movie actor’s life constantly threatens and shatters their screen persona. There is no mystery in their lives, he claims, since everyone knows everything about everyone. It is true that almost all film actors meticulously prepare PR-friendly versions of their lives for their fans. The nature of media requires constant engagement. Indeed, the old stellar distance is no more. But this constant change in the “movie star” is as old as cinema itself.
Film actors have always been part of a dynamic ecosystem. Fame has never been a stale idea. With every change in cinema technology, it evolves. Talkies changed the lives of silent film stars forever. Television changed the movie star, digital media changed it even more. OTT platforms are further blurring the gap between the big and small screen. So perhaps Dzhokhar is pointing us to a symptom, and the cause of the disease lies elsewhere.
Towards the end of the same interview, Johar talked about why South India makes more compelling films compared to Hindi cinema. He says, “That’s because what they have is conviction, and what we lack is just that.” He adds, “We’re victims of the herd mentality.” He doesn’t even spare himself, “ …including the actors, they wander around, do whatever the wind blows — Oh, action works, so now we all want to do action movies, including me, who wants to direct one. “
The conviction Johar talks about gave us cinema that made actor Amitabh Bachchan a superstar. Vijay, the Angry Young Man, resonates deeply with the larger emotional rhythm of 70s India. Johar himself played a role in the rise of Shah Rukh Khan, who was reborn as the biggest romantic icon after a string of films in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Raj, this new lover perched on the border between tradition and global modernity in a liberalizing India, mesmerized billions of young Indians who were looking for something to validate their own romantic fantasies and anxieties. There is a complex machine at work that helps build this mystery, this aura of stardom: The myth that makes the people on the street feel good, gives them hope, and makes them believe in something bigger than themselves.
In short, a star is not born. Stars are made. Yes, the winds are blowing. Yes, they should capture a moment in the history of a nation and its people. But the beginning is always when the director believes in a story and follows it. Johar himself says it, “We (Hindi film industry) need to improve our storytelling, we need to empower writers, we need to go back to the basics, the basic love of cinema – the belief in Indian cinema. We have to stop trying to be somebody else.”
In an age of box office formulas, movies, sequels and franchises, perhaps the only stars we invest in and support are our ‘brands’. These brands may shine, but they don’t smile and open their arms wide. No one’s heart skips a beat when the first shot of a logo hits the big screen. No aura.
We seem to have fallen into a black hole.
The writer is a writer-academic-director who teaches at Kamala Nehru College, DU