The argument that the Bollywood ‘star kids’ are having it easy is back in Indian media, but some prominent film critics see the issue entirely differently.
India’s film industry is once again facing criticism for enabling nepotism as the upcoming teenage-love film, The Archies, released its promo, featuring the children of some of Bollywood's top stars in lead roles.
The debate in India is hot, with critics arguing that the culture of nepotism in Bollywood continues to provide career launchpads to the kids of some of Bollywood’s biggest names.
The Archies is a desi musical adaptation of the famous comic by the same name that revolves around the lives of a group of white teenagers.
The film, which is slated to be released on Netflix next year, is directed by Zoya Akhtar, an acclaimed director who has previously dazzled audiences with blockbuster films like Gully Boy.
The cast includes Suhana Khan, Agastya Nanda and Khushi Kapoor in lead roles — all three making their debut alongside other young actors.
Khan is the daughter of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Nanda’s grandfather is another cinema bigwig, Amitabh Bachchan. Both Shah Rukh and Bachchan are living legends who have scores of blockbusters to their names, including Sholay and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Each one has over 40 million Twitter followers and millions of fans spread across India, Pakistan and other parts of the world.
Kapoor is the daughter of the late actress Sridevi, who ruled the screens throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“It should be called ‘The Multiverse of Nepotism’,” someone tweeted soon after Akhtar shared a teaser of The Archies.
Many people on social media dubbed the cast “nepotism kids,” arguing that the film is being used to introduce blue-eyed actors while thousands of artists with years of theatre experience are still waiting to get a break in Bollywood.
Directors cast big names because they guarantee a good turnout at theatres, says Amborish Roychoudhury, the author of In a Cult of Their Own, a book on famous Bollywood movies.
“I was in my early 20s when the movie Refugee was released. Me, my friends and so many others went in droves to watch it because Abhishek Bachchan was debuting and we were all like ‘Oh that’s Amitabh Bachchan’s son’,” he tells TRT World.
“That’s how the audience perceives star kids. People just want to see them on the screen.”
Every year, Bollywood releases hundreds of films, launching the careers of dozens of artists from all sorts of backgrounds.
But India’s cinema industry — the biggest in the world in terms of the content it produces — remains dominated by artists and directors whose surnames draw reverence even before their kin enter the audition room.
From Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Sanjay Dutt to Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Tiger Shroff, the big-buck actors come from privilege, each having a father or mother who is part of the Bollywood ecosystem.
“Not only actors and directors, but writers, composers, playback singers, stunt directors, art directors and several other functions have helped their children enter the industry with varying degrees of success,” Diptakirti Chaudhuri, who has written a book series on Bollywood, tells TRT World.
One main reason why directors favour so-called “star kids” is that they ensure the financial viability of the project.
An Indian film can cost tens of millions of dollars and not all of them top the chart at the box office.
“Making a movie is a very risky and expensive enterprise,” says Rishi Majumder, a journalist who covers Indian cinema.
“Sometimes it just makes commercial sense to have star kids because it gives the film that much more publicity. In the case of The Archies, it might be negative publicity but at least everyone is talking about it.”
A lot of the film’s budget is spent on marketing and promotion, he says.
“When you have a star kid featuring in a movie so much of the marketing is already taken care of because all the papers will write about it.”
Experts also say accusing artists of nepotism is not fair since they are not elected politicians or government officials who are paid from the public exchequer.
“Film personalities promoting their children’s careers with their personal wealth or goodwill is a private business transaction. It’s just a different type of inheritance,” says Chaudhuri.
This is not the first time hiring practices in Bollywood have come under scrutiny. A few years back, there was an uproar when actress Kangana Ranaut accused star director Karan Johar of demonstrating favouritism.
Even Zoya Akhtar, The Archies’ director, is the daughter of Javed Akhtar, a foremost poet and screenwriter who has written several bestselling songs.
But one incident that really shook fans was the 2020 suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, a young self-made actor. Rajput reportedly suffered from depression because he wasn’t getting the roles he deserved.
Before his death, Rajput had pleaded with his fans on Instagram to watch his movies because otherwise he would be thrown “out of Bollywood."
"I have no Godfather,” he said in one of his last social media posts.
The gatekeepers of the Bollywood establishment might have hindered the careers of outsiders. But it’s the audience that dictates who will rule the cinema screens.
For instance, Rajput’s movie Sonchiriya, which explored the theme of Robin Hood, received positive reviews from film critics but didn’t perform well at the box office.
“It was a rich and tremendous film but many of us haven’t even heard about it. No one watched it,” says Roy Choudhury.
On the other hand, he adds, a Bollywood action film which was trivial and full of fluff did well just because it starred Tiger Shroff, the son of another famous Indian actor.
And it’s not just in Indian cinema where kinship opens the door for actors. Some Hollywood stars have also struggled to shake off allegations that their achievements stem from their family name.
Last year, There’s Something About Mary star Ben Stiller got into a brief Twitter debate over the subject of nepotism. Stiller’s father, Jerry, was a famous actor.
Stiller claimed that entertainment is a tough business and even those with access struggle in their own way to make their place. “Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy,” he said.
Other prominent Hollywood stars with family connections include Michael Douglas and Nicholas Cage.
Michael’s father, Kirk Douglas, was a leading star in the 1950s. Cage was related to Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather and winner of multiple Academy Awards.
But Roy Choudhury says viewers don’t really care about the relationships of Hollywood stars.
“In Hollywood, it doesn’t become part of the narrative. We look at the performances as art. We don't judge Bollywood the same way.”
While it’s true that certain movie dynasties have held sway over Indian cinema for decades, relationships don't always guarantee success.
“For almost every successful star kid, there is a sibling who didn’t succeed,” says Diptakirti Chaudhuri.
“Rishi Kapoor’s brother Rajiv, Aamir Khan’s brother Faisal, Salman Khan’s brothers Arbaaz and Sohail, Sunny Deol’s brother Bobby, Anil Kapoor’s brother Sanjay didn’t get much success.”
In the last two decades, the trend has changed and Bollywood is giving more opportunities to industry outsiders to rise to the top.
Some of the highest-paid actresses in recent years — including Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and Vidya Balan — have no family connections, yet they get spots in big-budget films.
So far in 2022, the three highest-grossing films “feature a non-star cast (The Kashmir Files), a star kid (Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi) and an outsider who married into a film family (Akshay Kumar in Bachchan Paandey),” says Chaudhuri.
“On screen, the audience rewards performance but I am sure we miss out on many talented folks who never manage to get their foot in the door.”