The turning point in the relationship between the media and Bollywood was 1971, the year Stardust came into being. It put gossip, irreverence and more into print. Earlier, journalists like the late Baburao Patel, editor of Filmindia (and later Mother India), did take on film stars, but with Stardust, the gossip column achieved iconic status. ‘Neeta’s Natter’ was such a runaway hit that it instantly spawned copycat columns. Frowned upon and derided they may well have been, but everyone in Bollywood read them all the same.
Rauf Ahmed, former editor of Cinema Journal and Filmfare and biographer of Shammi Kapoor, is one of those who never indulged in it himself, but could see how it was shaping Bollywood’s equation with the media. He remembers an interesting anecdote of Amitabh Bachchan’s tryst with gossip. “Amitabh used to hang out with the Stardust crowd when he was not big,” says Ahmed, “But after he became a star, he could not get used to being negatively written about. They had written a piece hinting at something between him and Zeenat Aman. His reaction made them write even more negative pieces about him. This was like a breaking point for Amitabh with the media.”
The late Devyani Chaubal, nicknamed ‘Poison Pen’ by the film industry, was a queen of insinuations in her ‘Frankly Speaking’ column in Star & Style magazine. “She was the mother of negative journalism. Stars were scared of her. They hated her, but always tiptoed around her because they did not want to be in her column. She really destroyed people with her pen,” says Ali Peter John, a veteran film journalist of 40 years. Devyani was not a woman of modest ambitions. “She wanted to be a star, but when that did not happen, she became a film journalist,” he says, “She was keen on marrying Dilip Kumar, and when she could not, she started writing only negative stories about him. It continued till the end of her life.”
Once media censorship began during the Emergency, Stardust, a casualty of that dark phase, blamed Amitabh for it. “Since he was close to the Gandhis, the film industry blamed him for all the censorship,” says Ahmed, “A number of film magazines got together and announced a ban on him. He too made himself inaccessible to the media from 1978 to 1991. I questioned the ban, and during that period, I was the only one who had access to him. Those who wanted stories on him would commission me to do it.”
In his long years as a film writer, John, who used to work for Screen and freelances now, has also been witness to many a historic moment. As an apprentice for film maker KA Abbas before he became a film journalist, he saw Amitabh sign his first film Saat Hindustani for Rs 5,000. “Though I was one of the lowest rung employees of Abbas, I was present when it took place,” says John, “Amitabh did not have anything in his favour except an intensity...”
Khalid Mohammed is a journalist, scriptwriter and director rolled into one. He was with The Times of India for a long time, and after that with other dailies. Mohammed says it was he who coined the popular abbreviation ‘SRK’ for Shah Rukh Khan. As someone who has seen Bollywood as both observer and participant—he has written scripts for Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa and directed the Hrithik-Kareena starrer Fiza—he feels that film journalists sometimes develop a sense of power over film stars. This is something the stature of his newspaper helped him resist. “I did not have to throw my weight around as the paper I worked for had a higher visibility,” says Mohammed.
Both Ahmed and Mohammed say that film journalism was looked down upon when they began their careers. “It was thought that stars got film journalists drunk and paid them to write about them,” says Ahmed, “The perception was that there’s a lot of corruption, moral and otherwise, in film journalism. So few entered the profession.”
John, Ahmed and Mohammed all stumbled into the field. While John switched gears from film apprenticeship to writing about it, Ahmed and Mohammed were news reporters who had covered other beats earlier.
Among the perks of the job are the friendships that develop with film stars. But Mohammed discovered that this could cause considerable heartache as well. At one time, he was so close to scriptwriter Salim that they would phone each other every day. “My review of his film Akela ended our friendship.” He also had a special equation with Gulzar, a poet and lyricist he regarded almost as a surrogate father. “He gave me a lot of paternal love,” says Mohammed, “We got involved in the making of Fiza, and he was writing the lyrics. He did not like some parts of the movie, but I stood by it. That caused an irrevocable rift.” His friendship with the Bachchan family—particularly Jaya Bachchan—also ended on a nasty note after Amitabh took offence at one of his film reviews and wrote a blog deriding him.
Some journalists prefer to maintain a discreet distance. Known for her irreverent writing, Nishi Prem, editor of Cine Blitz and former editor of Stardust, says that it was always the art and craft of cinema that held her fascination, not the glamour. “I do not socialise with the stars,” she says, “I do not attend film parties. I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing in my profession, but it is just the way it turns out for me.”
Prem, who has been slapped with numerous defamation suits by Bollywood celebrities—Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and Shekhar Kapur among them—is of the opinion that friendship with stars is bound to influence the way one writes about them. “But friendships between stars and journalists are not that common,” she says, “They barely manage to give their families [enough] attention... friendship is a luxury or distraction they mostly cannot afford.”
John says that he was close friends with both Bachchan and the late Rajesh Khanna at the peak of their famous rivalry. “I witnessed it all first-hand,” he says, “Rajesh Khanna was the superstar, and Amitabh was called all sorts of derogatory names in the industry then. One was ‘panauti hero’ (bad luck hero). Rajesh Khanna would not even look at him. Jaya Bhaduri was the only one who had the guts to say that Amitabh would take away Rajesh Khanna’s crown. It happened exactly that way, and the latter never recovered from that blow.”
Four decades of gossip later, the equation between the media and Bollywood is in the throes of another transformation. With more and more media houses using starry events and awards as allied businesses, film journalists are under pressure to court film stars like never before. According to Mohammed, an editor of a film magazine is now judged by the number of stars s/he can draw to a high-glam event.
Mohammed opted for what he calls ‘Bollywood detox’—he is working on a novel and a film now—after the experience of his last job with a Delhi-based newspaper, which expected him to escort film stars and directors. “There was a summit and I was asked to escort Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar to the event. I got them, and once we landed at the airport, the top people of the newspaper whisked them both away, leaving me behind. I did not know where I had to stay or go,” says Mohammed, “Film journalists today do not have the freedom to write as [their conscience dictates], as they and their organisations are controlled by the PR agencies handling the stars.”
Reporting on stars can also get risky if their subjects decide to take revenge for negative coverage. There have been unconfirmed rumours of a top star using politician Amar Singh to have an editor sacked for a negative review.
John says that actor Govinda had once asked Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray to send Shiv Sainiks after him. “It is I who’d introduced Govinda to filmmakers and [that’s how] he got his first role,” says John, “We were friends. I had written a piece about him when he was at the peak of his career. His chamchas told him something, and he misunderstood the story. Next I heard that he was headed to meet Thackeray to have action taken against me.” But, as it turned out, Thackeray didn’t lift a finger against him. This was because Mohan Wagh, Raj Thackeray’s father-in-law, intervened on John’s behalf.