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Tea Leaves

Star's death reignites Bollywood nepotism debate

Actor's passing may change India's film industry

Reporters surround Bollywood actor Rhea Chakraborty as she arrives at the Narcotics Control Bureau office for questioning in Mumbai on Sept. 6. Her boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, died by suicide in June.   © Reuters

As a lifelong Bollywood fan I waited years for the emergence of a young star from outside the "system" -- the network of connections that favors relatives of established stars and production executives. One of the few outsiders who managed to break through was Sushant Singh Rajput, whose apparent suicide on June 14 rocked the nation.

Rajput, 34, was a role model for many Indian millennials who want to make it big in life but lack family advantages. A national physics Olympiad winner, he gave up an engineering degree to pursue his passion for dancing and acting, starting as a contestant in a television reality show and later forging a successful career in film.

He was a newcomer to the industry, which is mostly dominated by film families, and a small-town boy from a middle-class family. In his own words, he had no "Godfather" in Bollywood. Behind the glamor, the actor appears to have suffered from chronic depression. Some colleagues said he had received death threats. But news of his death prompted a social media storm attributing his mental health problems to Bollywood nepotism.

Leading the pack was Kangana Ranaut, an award winning actress with a record of vocal criticism of favoritism in Bollywood, who once labeled the popular film producer Karan Johar the "flag bearer of nepotism" for his role in launching the children of established actors during a nearly two-decade career as a director and producer.

Ranaut, who tweeted a warning to the Bollywood establishment not to try to "derail the topic," was not alone. In the days after Rajput's death, calls spread rapidly for a boycott of films featuring so-called "Nepo Kids" -- a term used to identify the children of established stars and film industry executives.

An early victim was director Mahesh Bhatt's film "Sadak 2," released on the Disney+ and Hotstar platform in August, which received only one of a possible 10 stars in ratings by film fans using the online movie platform IMDb.

"Sadak 2" is not very good, but its main problem is its family-focus: the film was co-produced by Bhatt's brother Mukesh Bhatt and stars two of the director's daughters -- Alia and Pooja -- in lead roles. The leading men, Sanjay Dutt and Aditya Roy Kapur, also have film family connections.

The Bhatts are not the only ones getting caught in the crossfire. Film critic Anupama Chopra has been attacked on social media for supporting "Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl" -- a biopic about the first female Indian Air Force pilot to fly in a combat zone. The film stars Janhvi Kapoor, whose grandfather, parents, uncles and cousins are producers and actors in the Hindi film industry. It was produced by Johar.

"The online campaign is an outlet for all the pent up anger and hate against mediocrity in the country and the in-your-face nepotism that Bollywood proudly wears on its sleeve," Shankar Purohit -- a trained theater actor struggling to make a mark in the film industry -- told me. He added that auditions at one of the biggest Indian production houses are often a "sham," that favor debuting offspring of the stars.

The problem goes wider than the film industry, however. What is called nepotism in Bollywood is known as "connection" everywhere else. Selection based on family and friends is common in schools, colleges and workplaces, even outside India's many family-run conglomerates, whose top positions are occupied by members of the founding families.

India also carries the sad legacy of a rigid caste system, which curtails the prospects of millions of people based on the jobs their ancestors were assigned. Some aspects of the ancient system have faded because of efforts by the government and oppressed castes, but discrimination is still prevalent.

The social media campaign against Bollywood is continuing to gain steam. For example, there are calls in Rajput's home state of Bihar and the neighboring state of Jharkhand for a boycott of movies by top producers.

Widespread action of that kind could be a commercial disaster for Bollywood, which has not seen a dance film release in almost six months because of India's escalating COVID-19 outbreak. But it remains to be seen whether the tide is really turning against the industry's cozy insider preferences. 

As for me, I have moved on from bog standard Bollywood productions (a substantial change of mindset from my teenage years), especially if I have to spend money on tickets and popcorn. Many of the films I watch now are produced by independent film makers and star talented actors from non-film family backgrounds.

With luck, the nepotism row will encourage more people to follow my example. If so, audiences may eventually put an end to both nepotism and the dominance of the industry's big production houses.  

Rosemary Marandi is a Goa-based journalist.

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