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In some ways, we are all outsiders. There is always someone somewhere who is just that little bit ahead of us. A little better than us. Many of us spend lifetimes hovering on the outside and it is a very normal human tendency to be envious of those who appear to have ‘made’ it rather than count our blessings and say our thanks that there are people worse off than us. I am an upcoming writer but what about those who have already been published? Of course there are thousands of wannabe writers whose manuscripts are brutally rejected every single day. But I am more worried and feel a sense of inferiority when I mull over the ones who have their names on the cover of a book (even as I privately and self-righteously think and curse that I am so much a better writer). Hopefully, with Star Dust I may feel like I have just crossed that coveted years on the other side. I am sure there will be a few euphoric months before my mind inevitably starts to wander and once again fall into the realm of envy and jealousy when I think of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy and their prestigious Booker prizes and Jhumpa Lahiri and her Pulitzer award. It truly is a vicious cycle.
The outsider/insider syndrome is probably at its most eloquent in the movie industry. Which other place in the world offers the kind of fame, name, money, popularity, notoriety as the movie business? No wonder then that the world of cinema is literally the bowl of soup in which jealousy, anger, envy, spite, manipulation and other such stellar qualities are the key ingredients. And which is also probably why it is the hardest industry in the world to ‘make’ to the inside. The journey often takes long and lonely years and a lot of sacrifices which come at the expense of friends, family and personal relationships. And many a time people are relegated to a life that’s forever on the outside.
When the idea of doing Star Dust was mooted, the basic intention was to portray interesting stories of people who are on the fringes of the mainstream movie industry in India. The idea was to write a non-fiction book very much in the style of fiction. There are many stories in the book. Except they are not just stories. They depict real life. For, each one of the technicians, assistants, fans, dancers, the movie extras-basically the unseen, unknown faces who are somehow lost in the melee that surrounds the big stars-they all exist. Of been a part of this book but it was humanly impossible to include every one of the them. I went looking for ‘interesting’ personalities who had really interesting stories to tell.
I start the book with probably the most important by-product-the subsidiary aspect of cinema which in many ways can make or break a film. The fans. After all, where would cinema be if it did not have its fans to support it? Movies and fans have a very symbiotic relationship and the latter are integral to the success of a film. But somehow, fans, their importance and in many ways their contributions are more or less ignored by the big-ticket players. To the average actor, fans are a necessary evil, and, apart from the occasional and perfunctory ‘thanks yous’ in award speeches, posing with them for photographs, sending them autographed pictures of themselves, stars normally give their fans a wide berth. It is a very rare Shah Rukh Khan who openly admits to loving it when he is ‘harassed’ by his fans when he goes out, and insists that the day his fans don’t stare at him, the day he ‘regains’ his privacy, will probably be the day he will die. Unlike most other actors and actresses. Thus, fans are probably the ultimate outsiders. While there was always the option of profiling individual fans, I thought it would be interesting to look at the fan clubs-organized institutions that in a few cases run like a corporate office. Admittedly, fan clubs as a concept is very popular only in the south. Mumbai has very few fan clubs. It is in Tamil Nadu that the size and sheer magnitude of fan clubs is well and truly breathtaking.
Next come the ‘extras’. I was a little worried that a chapter on ‘extras’ might end up with clichéd (if very heartbreaking) stories of people of all ages and all social strata who leave their houses, villages, towns and cities to try and make it in the movie capitals of India. One keeps hearing about the trials and tribulations of many a down-and-out runaway who gave up everything for that one moment under the spotlight. I wanted to explore beyond that. My long search led me to profile three incredible women-Sulekha, Srimati and Roja patti (grandmother).
The chapter on dancers proved to be one of the most difficult to write. It is a world overflowing with sex (including gays and bisexuals), sleaze, porn and suicides. These dancers live in a world far removed from reality as we know it. They are always on the move, they are always together, they live, eat, travel, change clothes in groups and have no tangible private time to call their own. They deal with filthy comments thrown at them by members of their own film unit and the many spectators who come to watch the shoots. Many of them stand next to superstar heroes and heroines…in fact they spend hours and hours together with them, learning the same intricate steps, injuring the same spot on their ankles, sweating equally under the hot, scorching sun, and freezing to death in Auckland. But seldom can two lives be more different than that of the star and the dancer. Somehow they still manage to come off as a resilient bunch who always find ways to laugh. These days there is a marked rift between the old-school dancers (those who belong to Saroj Khan, Chinnai Prakash and Kala’s troupes) and the new ones (those who hail from Farah Khan their livelihood while the latter are in it for fun. The former are getting increasingly overlooked because they are not as attractive and tend to be flabby while the latter are fit, hip and very fashionable, and are also fairly well-to-do youngsters who become dancers merely to earn more pocket money).
I have also profiled another group of people-those who wish to become directors, cinematographers, art directors the assistants. Some make it after assisting on the movie. Others spend twenty years before they get a chance. Some remain assistants for ever. It is a thankless job that pays out only if you ‘make’ it. Otherwise, look for twenty-four-hour workdays, total dedication, and loyalty to the film-maker.
I have also included a chapter on technicians and this section features some of the most eminent people in their fields. Which prompted my editors to ask: why a chapter on people who ostensibly are very much insiders? Fair enough. On the face of it one can well ask how the likes of say Boney Kapoor, Vashu Bhagnani, Salim-Javed, Ashok Mehta could be considered outsiders.
A film journalist say, ‘Actors…the heroes and the heroines…they are absolutely the only “insiders” in this business. They are the ones who wield the most power. Everybody else associated with the move industry…technicians [comprising anyone and everyone behind the camera including producers, directors, cinematographers, art directors, editors], star families and star siblings, media journalists, fans, those who form the “rest” of a movie-the extras, the dancers…every one of them is an outsiders.’
One of the biggest film producers in south India recalls how even someone in his position had to cast a relatively unknown actor only because the said actor’s brother was a superstar. The deal was simple: cast my brother in this film and I’ll act in your next. An upcoming Hindi film director has this to say about directing a major star in his newest film: ‘This actor is by far among the best of the very best. He’s a good man, a damn good actor and most of all, a very recently experimented a lot with his roles but lately he has been getting a little typecast as an ‘action’ star. And our friend’s film was something the said actor signed before the ‘action’ image stuck. Unlike his other roles where he ‘made’ things happen, in this film he plays the role of a very ‘laidback’ guy to whom things happen. And the same guy who was once very gung-ho about the role and how ‘different’ it was is now worried that this film may be detrimental to his career at this point some 90 per cent into the film, he wants to re-shoot the film! Which calls for revamping the story altogether. And adds to the production cost of the film. Says the director, ‘But there’s not much either the producer or I can do. End of the day, if we antagonize the actor, he may just as well refuse to shoot for the film and my movie will never get made. And re-shooting means I have to wait some more time to be able to get the actor’s dates. The tragedy is that this actor is actually a phenomenal guy. And he’s not asking us to change the story just like that. He feels that if the movie was made as we had conceived it a few years back, the film will crash and burn at the box office anyway. Basically, my producer and I are screwed.’
That is why a Boney Kapoor and a Vashu Bhagnani-despite their big banners and lavish movies-still wait in line and pull their hair in frustration because a Kareena Kapoor does not have dates to finish their films! Ashok Mehta may well be among the highest paid and most respected cameramen in the country with an enviable eye for shots but if the director of his film wants Mehta to use a 40mm (wide angle) lens, he has to. Even if he himself would much rather go closer and maybe use a 75mm or a 100 mm lens. Art directors are periodically asked to create authentic Taj Mahal lookalikes from budgets that won’t suffice to build even a cowshed!.
There is another dimension to the insider/outsider debate. For too long in Indian cinema the mantra has been simple: if you belong to Bollywood i.e. if a movie is in Hindi, you are in. if not, you are out. As simple as that. The glamour of Hindi cinema totally overshadows its counterparts from two of Indian cinema’s other big capitals, Chennai and Hyderabad. The fact that the capital of Hindi cinema is based in Mumbai which also happens to be the economic and glamour capital of the country means that Hindi cinema de facto seems to the represent all of ‘Indian’ cinema. Something the southern film industry and their technicians bitterly resent. Mani ratnam is among the very few who wields a lot of power within the Indian film industry and manages to get power within the Indian film industry and manages to get the crème de la crème from Mumbai to work with him despite functioning out of a very simple office in Kesavaperumalpuram in Chennai. The players in the southern film industry understanding that unlike Hindi, which is spoken all over the country and therefore can reach a wider audience, regional languages are limited in their reach. What bothers them is how the film industry from Mumbai seems to just ignore their very existence. That is the main reason why this book is equally divided with stories from Mumbai and the south. Hopefully, this will be the start of a new trend where film-makers from the south can also feel a sense of being Indian film-makers.
And finally Vikram.
Despite acknowledging the fact that actors and actresses are truly the only insiders in show business I have profiled an actor in the final section of the book. Why is that? Well, one of the main reasons I did an extensive study of Vikram was because, having written about the ordeal of a so many outsiders, I felt that the book needed to end with a bang, with a ‘feel good’ story. A story that would justify why so many people leave everything-family, wealth, privilege-only to follow their dream of making it in tinsel town. I also needed a story that justified such an extensive study. A story which had all the masala that makes for a true Indian blockbuster. We needed the story of an outsider who after years and years of struggle finally managed to become a true showbiz insider.
Originally, I had thought of doing the story on Shah Rukh Khan. But I realized that Shah Rukh being fairly media savvy, the incredible transition from his initial career as a TV actor to one of India’s biggest stars ever has been chronicled by many interviews and profiles over the past decade. As incredible his success and an inspiring his story, there is nothing ‘new’ about it. What about actress Mumtaz, the oomph queen of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Her success was an inspiring outsider-to-insider story. Years and years as an extra, followed by second leads and progressing to heroine roles in B-grade films before finally hitting the big tie as a top heroine. But she belonged to a different era. We needed a story that was ‘today’ and red-hot. What about Sanjay Dutt? Drugs, prison, cancer, success and Munna Bhai…what has he not overcome? But an interesting point came up. As Sunil Dutt and Nargis’s only son, Sanjay was an absolute showbiz insider and the ordeals he faced arose largely out of acts committed by him.