Sushmita! Sushmita! Show us your tattoos!”
She toys with the photographers. Looks at them straight in the eye, lightly touching an arm or a wrist, the most exquisite touch they will ever feel.
Of course, she hears some of them call out, but can’t respond right now. She’s talking to a frumpy journalist from News 9 about her style for tonight and the football and the rains. To look away now, in the middle of saying romantic things about the rain, would give her a distracted appearance. Which makes for photographs of the kind published on the front page of city tabloids in not-so-good times. When she is done, flashing a smile that is a little wider, her eyes crinkling into slits smaller than before, they call out again. “Tattoos! Tattoos!”
She mock frowns at them, “Cheaters!”, and shows them the marks on her arms with a smile that says ‘oh, all right’. Like she would deny them. They don’t ask for much. Only “left” or “little more” or “look here also”.
“The one on your back!” a photographer from the scrum calls out. This makes her laugh, and she turns around to give them a peek. There’s a tense rustle, a collective inhaling of breath, and a loud sigh of clicks and flashes. Then she waves and floats away. What remains is her perfume.
“Sssssss,” the photographer who asked for the tattoo on her back sucks in a long breath as he watches her disappear through the entrance to the People Most Beautiful party inside. “Those are old tattoos. I’ve seen them before,” he says, which makes people turn to look at him and wonder.
Photographers tonight are confined to an outdoor enclosure behind rusty black barriers. The party they’ve been invited to is down the green carpet in a cool enclosure they have no access to. On this rainy night, short bursts of hectic activity bracket long stretches of tedium, during which bored photographers share SMS jokes, light into each other, and loudly tell anonymous party invitees to move along because they’re not famous. One man in the contingent leans on a
barrier and stares vacantly at the sponsor boards, looking right through two models in black standing beside a fridge. This is one of four big events around town, he says, trying to recall the other three. But major celebrities might turn up for this one. He points to the rain and says, “Who knows?” He earns a living by showing up at events and waiting for celebrities. “I left my last job at a studio because I needed a change. I was stuck in one place all day long,” he says. “At least I travel now.”
The pictures snapped by this wandering contingent are bought by newspaper supplements, tabloids, and film magazines, or by news and photo agencies to meet an insatiable demand for celebrity pictures. Since photographers sell outright permission to these pictures, they receive only one payment. This payoff amounts to anywhere between Rs 150 and Rs 200 for a regular picture. On a good day, a photographer might sell one picture for ten times that amount. But those are rare occasions. To make a career of this, they deal in volume. The idea that a photographer could be rewarded handsomely for exclusive candid pictures of celebrities has not found takers here.
Photographers say that inadequate payment and, more importantly, little demand for revealing candid photographs make it unremunerative to be a paparazzo. And so the very definition of the paparazzo’s role has been altered to fit in with the harsh Indian reality.
“No, there is an Indian paparazzi,” says a photographer. “They gatecrash parties, take some quick pictures, and leave.” He doesn’t follow people around. Nor does he know anybody else who does. There’s no time for this. There’s no real money in this gig. Besides, the risks and rewards are too imbalanced.
Aakar Patel, former editor of Mid-Day, a city tabloid, says that the paper tried to introduce a paparazzo culture under his watch; it failed. (Colleagues describe Patel as an impulsive risk-taking editor with a nose for news. He once carried the entire transcript of the Tehelka match-fixing sting, dedicating pages to the subject—an idea the publisher was reportedly jittery about. Patel says the publisher wasn’t jittery about it.) When he became editor, Patel says, he believed that there was an opportunity to do paparazzi journalism. “I tried doing a bit of it. But there were structural problems.” The paparazzo doesn’t have it easy in India. “Firstly, stars don’t step out of their homes in their track pants. They step out as stars. A secondary aspect of this is that we only have ten people in Bollywood and ten in cricket. That’s it.” In the West, Patel reasoned, the universe of stars was much larger. Which is why a publication or website could “put two or three people behind a single star and be rewarded for it”. Most editors here balk at allocating a newspaper’s limited resources to pursue a star. “There’s also a problem of budgets,” Patel says. “Newsrooms in India are staffed for adequacy, not for special [features]. They hire only as many people as they need to bring the paper out the next day.”
The paparazzo, reviled as he is, also works alone. A remarkable photo feature by the photojournalist Jessica Dimmock explores paparazzo lives, their work, and their stories. One picture is of a photographer perched on the edge of a wall as he leans around a barrier with his head in a thicket to peep into a celebrity’s home. Another shows two photograhers arguing through open car windows about losing Katie Holmes in a car chase. A paparazzo’s brief is to wait and wait until something happens. That can only happen if the promise of a reward exists.
The photographer who left his studio job to do this says he’s a freelancer. “Bombay Times, Mirror. Stardust.” He wears a pale blue formal shirt, grey pants, and black floaters. On other nights he flits from event to event, capturing everything in sight. Someone will sift through this volume eventually, and if he’s lucky, something valuable will be found.
“We don’t have the money to pay somebody. Katrina Kaif was in Spain, shooting Farhan’s sister’s film, and I’m sure she was on the beach in a bikini,” Patel says. “But we don’t have the money to tell someone ‘What the hell, go there for two-three weeks and chase her’. We can’t take that risk.”
“If I do paparazzi,” says Yogen Shah, a photographer who runs his own agency, “with a person like Tom Cruise, I don’t need him for another two years. But if I do it here… I cannot spoil my relations with any one of those five stars.”
Desk journalists filter pictures that might annoy stars, according to Shah. “They worry about what the star might say to them. They worry if stars will speak to them again.”
“You know, people say paparazzi this and paparazzi that, but do you know what the paparazzi in India do? If they take a picture of two people together, that’s paparazzi [material].” He sounds bitterly disappointed. Shah takes a swing at a prominent journal he won’t name. “Recently a big newspaper photographer submitted a photo of a star that was paparazzi-like. The journalist who was writing the story called up the star to ask him what he had to say about this. The star said he’d call him back, and called up the paper’s owner immediately.” The story has it that the owner nixed the picture and ticked off the journalist.
Shah is convinced that unless things change, readers will continue to see pictures of smiling celebrities dressed nicely. He and most others, the sorts found outside events saying ‘left’ and ‘right’ and asking for tattoo displays, wait for the day when candids are required, and publications are willing to pay. Until then, they will turn up and snap away, bored out of their minds.