“KARAN JOHAR LASHES OUT at Priyanka Chopra”, screamed the headlines on 6 April. It was alarming news, even for those with only a passing interest in Bollywood. Major filmmakers don’t often publically berate top actors—especially when the director and actor alike are known for their politeness and poise. But less surprising, as you read past the headlines, was where the lashing took place: Karan took aim at Priyanka on Twitter.
Journalists who knew the director’s number or whereabouts had been chasing him for days. They wanted a response, any response, to the curious episode that had taken place on the morning of 3 April: an anonymous “friend” of Priyanka Chopra had ranted to the Mumbai Mirror tabloid about the actor’s ostracism by the powerful Bollywood “wives clique”, following rumours that Chopra was having an affair with Shah Rukh Khan. Among Khan’s wife’s loyalists, the friend hinted, was a director who had the power to “make or break careers”—and was intent on breaking Chopra’s, by dropping her from a long-promised film and persuading others not to work with her.
While speculations raged unchecked, Karan Johar kept his counsel—displaying his signature grace. But then, three days later, he erupted on Twitter—complete with a dramatic number of exclamation points: “Using their hired PR machinery and hiding behind so called ‘friends’ to get news into tabloids is nothing but spineless and lame!!!” He didn’t stop at that. “Some people need to wake up and smell the KOFFEE!!! Get a reality check before its too late!!! Grow up!!! and dont mess with goodness…..” read his next tweet.
Neither protagonist spoke to the media about the Twitter incident. Johar stuck with “no comments”, whereas Chopra’s harried spokesperson announced: “Priyanka never discusses personal matters in the media.” In the absence of their reactions, various public figures weighed in, admonishing the two for exposing such enmity. “They should sort it out between themselves rather than going public,” urged advertising executive Prahlad Kakkar. “Such matters are best solved in private,” said famed social-media expert Suhel Seth.
Yet the fact that Karan Johar, who has never uttered a single unflattering statement about “his people” over his 14-year career, vented against his once-favourite colleague in full view of the world should make us wonder: Is Twitter changing values in Bollywood? What is it about the medium that has encouraged India’s sanctimonious celebrities to let themselves go?
Perhaps the aristocrats of the film business, wary of losing their individuality in the face of pressure to meet idealised standards of conduct, have been itching to shake off the pretence. Less charitably, it could be that Twitter, which thrives on a larger desire for free and frank expression, motivates them to appear, on the computer screen, as they actually are. Probably it’s a combination of both.
Twitter is undoubtedly changing how people express themselves across nations and cultures—whether it’s you and me or politicians and pop stars—and modifying, in the process, how we perceive and react to information and events, making us ever more open and opinionated. On the face of it, then, the behaviour of Bollywood celebrities on Twitter is no more bizarre than that of any one of us. But on a deeper level, it’s alarming—it is a reflection of our ethical ambiguities as a cinema-going public. It serves as a reminder of the moral boundaries we have imposed on our celebrities, and reveals their very human desperation to break out of them.
And they’re finally doing just that. Bollywood’s VIPs are turning on each other (Anurag Kashyap, on finding out that his brother Abhinav Kashyap was no longer directing the Dabangg sequel, tweeted: “Salman Khan thinks he made my brother’s life. Hope he does the same for Arbaaz [Salman Khan’s brother] when he does Dabangg 2. All The Best.” Arbaaz Khan growled back: “Instead of GRATTITUDE some people show ATTITUDE. Wah kya zamana aa gaya hai”). They’re taking on the commentators (Puneet Malhotra tweeted—and Sonam Kapoor duly retweeted—about Shobhaa Dé’s mockery of their movie I Hate Love Storys in her Bombay Times column: “Guys pls don’t take Shobhaa De seriously. She’s a fossil who’s getting no action and going through menopause”). They’re tackling the critics (Shahid Kapoor responded to Taran Adarsh’s comment that Mausam, the film he stars in, opened poorly: “So all those trying so hard to scr** ‘Mausam’ can go scr** themselves. Waise bhi aajkal kuchh logon ke adarsh buri tarha gir chuke hain”).
What lies behind this collective outburst? It’s shaped by the trajectory of two factors that together have defined the fate of a Bollywood celebrity—how the media sees them, and how the public sees them.
The second, naturally, follows from the first—but let’s consider it before the other. Till what we could call the Sridevi-Madhuri era, Bollywood stars were people like us, and we liked them that way. They were flawed: they drank and had affairs, had terrible tempers, fought openly, exhibited famous eccentricities and, for the most part, were not the finest human beings. And it didn’t matter. What they did in private and what they did on screen had, for the most part, nothing to do with each other.
But all that began to change in the 1990s—a decade marked by cultural disorientation among Indians. Those years saw the direct exposure to Western popular culture (through everything from MTV and Channel V to newly available VCDs of Hollywood movies), turbulent domestic politics, and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its brand of Hindutva conservatism, whose nationalist rhetoric took hold alongside growing apprehension of Western influences. The cultural politics of the decade led people to search for a new moral direction, for role models among those who represented them—including, and especially, in Bollywood, whose reach and cultural valence among Indians in India and around the world remains unmatched. The industry internalised the BJP’s cultural rhetoric, and perpetuated in India and the world (courtesy the onset of global distribution) an idealised vision of Indian values. (Not surprisingly, the BJP-led NDA government that came to power in 1999 granted Bollywood in 2001 its longstanding demand for industry status.)
To be successful and survive in this sanitised cultural milieu, movie stars had to claim exemplary character. Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit—two actors who arrived at the scene in the 1980s and rose to eternal stardom by the late 1990s—became the flag-bearers of a new culture in Bollywood, in which actors only went to the sets, worked hard, went home and never, never exposed their true selves. On the rare occasion when they had to speak in public or to interviewers, they discussed their movies and their parents. This moral code percolated down to the films of that era: characters were good or bad, seldom nuanced. Not only that, but an actor’s public image dictated his movie role—so Sanjay Dutt, who used drugs and was involved in the Bombay riots, played the bad guy in film after film, and Anil Kapoor, boasting a spotless image, was offered every character film writers could conceive of, at times appearing in more than one movie per month.
If anything, these requirements grew more rigid over time. Perfectly normal people became stereotypes right from their first day on set. Pick up any interview of a freshly-minted star, and it will tell you what you probably already know: they respect their work, respect their co-stars, respect their seniors, respect their audience, respect their exes. It appears the only thing they don’t respect is their fans’ intelligence.
And that takes us back to the first factor: the role played by the media. The film press’s relationship with the industry it covers has gone through more than a few turns—from the launch of the first movie magazines (Filmfare, in English in 1953, and Mayapuri, in Hindi in 1974) to the present day when the film media is an industry in itself, with channels dedicated solely to Bollywood, and ‘entertainment’ designated a coveted beat in the newsroom. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the publications that covered the movies could be counted on the fingers of one hand, actors had personal relationships with journalists—links of trust and friendship—and nobody had heard of anything called “public perception” (stars assessed their popularity by the weight and volume of their “fan mail”). And so a much-married Shatrughan Sinha held forth on his moves with the ladies, Raj Kapoor discussed his preference for big-breasted heroines, and Rekha rhapsodised about her many lovers and mourned her heartbreaks; interviews came out frequently, and stretched to several pages.
And then—from the 1980s onwards—came more magazines, newspaper supplements, cable TV, the Internet and the Mumbai Mirror. We wanted more from Bollywood, and we wanted it fast. Stars felt betrayed by the same journalists who they had once trusted like family, and began to insist on the presence of that dreaded instrument: the dictaphone. Things couldn’t remain the same.
By the turn of the millennium, film insiders had unfair power over the media, which would go any distance for an exclusive story—a desperation that led to that problematic phenomenon of the “plant”, in which celebrities share pre-packaged information about themselves with the press through their representatives. The film media today, therefore, has few options. It can either speculate, without any substance, or it can repeat what it is handed. The continuous stream of Bollywood news that is directed at you through the day falls into two categories: the baseless and the banal. A typical piece can come in one or both of these formats: either a tidbit of gossip that says that Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma avoided each other throughout the shoot of the new Yash Chopra movie in London, or a news item which quotes Anushka saying she enjoyed working with Katrina, whom she respects as a senior and from whom she hopes to learn a whole lot.
On Twitter, meanwhile, things are taking a different course. Both Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu, who socialised with common friends at a recent party, tweeted photographs from the night that either cropped out or blurred the other person—allowing us to infer how little the two contemporaries respect each other.
The incident is only a sneak peek into the increasing allure of Twitter for our movie celebrities. More and more of them are joining the site every day, and pouring out their minds and hearts in 140-character snippets. In some ways, Twitter represents for these celebrities a certain refuge from both the constraints that held them back. It maintains a comfortable distance from the media and its manipulations and, simultaneously, from the diktats of propriety—because, presumably, unless it is said to the press, it is not official. But the truth is that their audience, following their beloved stars in lakhs-strong throngs, is watching them closely and judging them by their tweets.
Some in the industry have already received a few harsh lessons. Several days ago, Chopra retweeted American pop star Rihanna’s tweet, “Fuck I look like ho? I look like yes and ya look like no”, and was scolded within minutes by Amitabh Bachchan (@SrBachchan), one of the earliest stars to join the site, for endorsing the four-letter word: “Arre, retweet bhi padha jaata hai … mujhse poocho, main bhugat chuka hoon!! (Retweets are also read. Ask me, I have already suffered!)”
For the rest of them, it is a pleasure well worth the occasional hazard. Soon, possibly, a Twitter feed will be more important than a spokesperson. And if things keep going in the direction they are going at the moment, we will never look at Bollywood celebrities the same way. And that will be a change for the good.
Snigdha Poonam is Assistant Editor at The Caravan.
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