Why is John a star but Nawaz an actor?

Mayank Shekhar runs the pop-culture website
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Decoding ‘stardom’ in Bollywood
Pontificating on what’s common to all actors who turned out to be Hollywood’s top stars, the late Roger Ebert—arguably the world’s greatest chronicler of films—said he had a theory that he had been pelting for years but no one would ever take him seriously. His observation was that all stars, without exception, had unusually big faces and large heads, that’s it. This automatically made them stand out from everyone else on the screen. Simple as that sounds, for all you know it’s probably empirically true.

In the Indian context, the qualification is probably even simpler. We associate actors with stardom if we have watched them dance and lip-sync to a song. This occurred to me only recently while watching the extremely entertaining musical Jhumroo at Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon. The show’s hero is an average looker, having a hard time wooing the girl he fancies, and can’t sing. Kishore Kumar’s voice enters his body, and he begins to lip-sync and dance. Almost immediately, not just the girl he’s wooing but even the audience begins to find him incredibly attractive—a star, as we know it.

Songs survive. Films rarely do. When you hear a Kishore Kumar number, chances are the image that will come to your mind is Rajesh Khanna’s, undoubtedly the biggest Bollywood star we’ve had, even if only for a brief while.

Farhan Akhtar says the toughest thing he’s attempted as an actor wasn’t the training he underwent for two years to look and run like the athlete Milkha Singh for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. His most nerve-wracking experience was the first time he had to dance while directly facing the camera for the song Baawre from Luck By Chance. He landed up on set and told the choreographer he just wouldn’t be able to do it. Hrithik Roshan, who also appears in the same song, told Akhtar to look toward the camera but imagine a large crowd behind it. The sequence somehow finally got filmed.

Akhtar is a star. So is John Abraham, hero of the super-hit track Tu Mera Hero, though he is hardly an actor. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is probably a better performer than both, will never, in the eyes of Bollywood, be a star.

In strictly business terms, Bollywood defines a star as someone who can ensure millions of bums on seats on the Friday of the film’s release. The star is inevitably male. This could be because the overwhelming majority of audiences in theatres are male, and they project their aspirations primarily on to the movie’s main man. Although top female leads are quite popular as well—they are most searched on Google—I am told they still don’t guarantee an ‘opening’, or footfalls on the first day. They possibly command mobs on streets no less than most male leads.

We throng to gawk at movie stars in real life because they are tourist attractions. Their faces get reproduced on hoardings, television, trailers, magazine covers, newsprint, and films of course. Grabbing a glimpse of them is like finally getting to see the Taj Mahal. That sight of recognition is visibly exciting. Unlike the marvelous Taj, most people who see a movie star, more often than not, are left disappointed. They find them to be pale and puny, for one, which is obvious. The giant screen reduces us to the size of the star’s nostril. They are made to look as larger-than-life as can fit a 70 mm screen. This is part of cinema’s charm. It also makes it easier for us to look up to them. The inherently feudal Indian gene helps too. A nation of over 33 million mythological deities bestows titles like Shehenshah, King, Thalaivar (Boss) etcetera on cinema’s seemingly enormous celestial beings. It’s no different with cricket, where Sachin was God—the rest of the team, presumably, his subjects.

Pedigree often helps justify idol worship. This is why a star’s kid usually gets to take the first shot at stardom. Whether they make it or not is altogether another matter. While looking up for the first time, what the audience instantly wants to know is, “Who is he? Why does he think he’s a star?” That question gets suitably answered. Politics works similarly. Several parties in India are run by second-generation dynasts. The public probably finds it easier to relate to a known surname. The Pathan ‘Khan’ and the Punjabi ‘Kapoor’ are by far the most popular movie-star last names—attaching ‘Kumar’ to hide one’s family name is passé now.

The other thing that connects show-business stardom and politics is they rely heavily on public image, something that must be aggressively pushed by publicists and spin-doctors through social media and the press. It’s a 24/7 job. While many aspects of this are rapidly changing, traditionally, most of Bollywood’s top stars haven’t been known by characters they’ve played in a film. They are major characters by themselves in public life. Their life is the running story. How the masses perceive them counts as much as the pictures they do, and, of course, the two are inter-related.

Initially Shah Rukh Khan was considered a sissy among hardcore male audiences. He had a massive female following— still does—for the soft romantic films he starred in, and a fairly large middle-class fan base for being an inspiringly self-made family man from Delhi, with a tony sea-facing bungalow in Bombay. Him jhaaping director Shirish Kunder at a Juhu bar or getting into a drunken quarrel at Wankhede stadium could have actually earned him new fans from a different set. He also does action films now.

Salman Khan is the frontbencher’s ideal dude: the ‘bhai’. His brashness during public appearances, caddish bachelor lifestyle, and string of hot girlfriends add to his machismo.

Like several journalists, I too was in Vivek Oberoi’s packed drawing room on 1 April 2003, when the actor complained on national television of receiving threats on the phone from Salman. Without quite realising it, Oberoi had played a Fools’ Day joke on himself. His career nosedived thereafter, despite a phenomenal start with Company and Saathiya. Nobody wants to see a whuss for a movie hero. His dad Suresh Oberoi, who was out of town at the time, blasted the hell out of him when he got back home the next day. Oberoi Senior was a much less popular actor. He must have pinned his dreams on his son, which is as essential as encouragement, given that the odds are completely stacked against success.

Maybe it takes two generations to make it—who knows. Amitabh Bachchan’s mother Teji used to be a stage actor, though I am not sure if she considered a career in films. Shah Rukh Khan’s dad Taj Mohammed had auditioned for a part in Mughal-e-Azam. Salman Khan’s father Salim was a failed star, as was Hrithik Roshan’s dad Rakesh. Aamir Khan’s father Tahir Hussain was a relatively unsuccessful producer. This isn’t true for sons of major matinee idols Rajendra Kumar (Kumar Gaurav), Dev Anand (Sunil), Raaj Kumar (Puru), Mithun Chakraborty (Mimoh).

But of course these are just theories. If anyone knew what it takes to be a star, rather than an actor, there wouldn’t be thousands of broad-faced jocks sipping cappuccino all day at Costa Coffee in Lokhandwala, after passing on their portfolio shots at producers’ offices each morning, and dancing like Prabhudheva before a wall full of mirrors at cheap discos in Andheri every night. The passion must be somewhat frustrating though.