No Easy Walk to Stardom

By Pickle  July 20, 2020

Celebrities are hot air balloons, which often reach dizzy height but in a matter of time fall ingloriously into deep abysses of oblivion by Amit Khanna

It’s a magical world. Where you come chasing a dream and then see it come true. You walk in with nothing but guts and grit or a bagful of talent. From anonymity to applause all it takes is one hit. From dingy PG digs to a swanky apartment is a matter of months. From local train to limo the ride is one helluva rollercoaster with more uphill thrills than downhill slides.

This is for the lucky few. The rest wallow in a half-forgotten existence. But these are the rules of fame and you enter knowing the odds. Don’t blame the other players or even the bystanders. When you play this roulette of celebrityhood you know your chances of winning are slim and even if you win one round you may lose the next.

When a million are out competing for the spotlight, a handful will make it eventually. Unlike what some believe and others talk, your dad can get you to sit on this carousel of success but it’s the audience which turns the wheel. The lineage just puts you in the inside lane but in this race it is often the outsider who surprises you with her performance. Gossip columns and sound bites get you a mention or more. It is the ‘public’ which is the arbiter of success at the box office. This makes the journey from the sidewalk to the marquee tough, tiresome and tardy. It’s not for the weak-kneed or fainthearted. Legends are made of those who have travelled this route triumphantly.

Entertainment is as much about art as it is about commerce. As far a studio goes, they are in the business of entertainment and incidentally except for one two or three all, Studio heads today are professionals with no family linkage  

I have spent over five decades in showbiz. My family never had or has any connection with the media. There was no attempt to ever derail my progress nor did any of the so-called Bollywood (incidentally a word coined by me) establishment ever sabotage my career. Many before me and after me have made it not because they inherited fame and success or had the Industry lineage. Like in any field in media and entertainment there are second or third generation (occasionally even fourth) actors, producers, directors, writers, technicians, musicians, singers, journalists, photographers, media owners and others who perhaps follow their parents’ calling. As do politicians, sportspersons, corporates, business heads teachers, scientists, doctors, engineers, architects or even masons, carpenters, tailors and farmers, who enter a vocation because someone in the immediate family did earlier and made it perhaps a little easier for them to follow.

However, for every one such family-driven success there are a dozen who achieved success by themselves. Media and entertainment history of a list of achievers who came from outside and the failures from within the Industry. Almost the entire group of offbeat and middle cinema are and have always been “non-family”. Eighty per cent of directors, composers, writers and singers and 90 per cent of technicians are first-timers who came, struggled and made it on their own. Stardom and failure don’t distinguish between caste or creed, insider or stranger.

I am not saying no one is exploited or abused here. Some are, and one’s heart and goes out to them.

Another myth is Bollywood has camps. What camps? A producer or a director or even a star can surely decide who he or she wants to work with. It’s their project, their money, their convenience. Entertainment is as much about art as it is about commerce. As far a studio goes, they are in the business of entertainment and incidentally except for one two or three all, Studio heads today are professionals with no family linkage.

From dingy PG digs to a swanky apartment is a matter of months. From local train to limo the ride is one helluva rollercoaster with more uphill thrills than downhill slides

Businesses succeed when their product is well made, well marketed and well received and not when they play favorites. I have headed two studios in the past 30 years in which we gave breaks to hundreds of newcomers irrespective of where they came from. I have personally been a bridge for many to several whenever they have encountered storms professionally and to a few in their personal lives as well. A number of people who are big names across ideological and creative divide will vouch for this. A number of past and present colleagues are not only still in touch but are often ready to lend a shoulder to cry in your hours of need. Half-truths, heresay, fact and fiction are interwoven seamlessly into a larger than life tapestry of innuendo, doubt and bias. We forget what we call film industry is an amorphous blend of stars, strugglers, media magnates, indie filmmakers, writers and musicians and a million of others.

Let’s look at the top 50 breakthrough films of the last 20 years and you will find all of them were backed by one studio or another. Obviously, relationships, success and yes talent do queer the pitch for in showbiz but that’s true for any other profession. If you look at any studio’s filmography it will include a variety of artistes and others and different genres and budgeted films. I have headed various Industry organisations for decades and I can say with certainty that working conditions, wages and business is far better today than what it was a generation earlier. There is a certain fraternal feeling which still exists. Even in the present crisis this industry was the first to mobilise resources to help daily wage earners. Sure, not everyone has been taken care of but the intent is there. Today insurance and other benefits are available to a large percentage of people involved in this Industry. Indeed, more still needs to be done.

Show Business is a cruel business. It picks up nobodies and catapults them to the stratosphere. Amidst stars, money, fame, adulation. Then for no reason it just takes it all away. Spits out the very icons it creates. Those who have savoured success for extended periods face the same dilemma of emptiness when their play is over. No more party invites, no more mahurats and premieres. No more call sheets. No more work. Forgotten, forsaken, lonely and lost some break more and quicker. So is the case anywhere else where your fame turns its face away. How many painters, performing artistes, authors and artisans have faced similar crisis?

Eighty per cent of directors, composers, writers and  singers and 90 per cent of technicians are first-timers who came, struggled and made it on their own. Stardom and failure don’t distinguish between caste or creed, insider or stranger  

In the last five decades I have seen the marquee drop names with an alacrity that is ruthless. I have seen the tinsel lose its lustre. Limelight turning a hazy yellow like aging cellophane. Stars turned applause junkies writhing in the pain of withdrawal symptoms. Some fortunate ones change their trajectory and move to the small screen and some find solace on streaming platforms. Some who invested wisely wallow amidst nostalgia in relative comfort. Irrelevance is the most hurtful truth, which afflicts 80 per cent of the film people in the twilight of their lives. Time just makes reining czars disappear in the dark void of failure and oblivion. Heartthrobs and creative artistes face heartbreak and manic depressions. These scene-stealers lie forgotten, sometimes dusted and brought out at obscure award functions and handed trophies as a token gesture. More often lying in the deep abyss of digital archives with their work sprouting sporadically on the vast TV channelscape or Google searches of an eager scholar. It is for them to have an insurance in place emotionally and yes financially always handy.

We are living in a moment economy. Every moment counts. In hyper networked society noise levels are so high that celebrity hunters are going to the extreme to attain their two minutes in sunshine. We always walk the edge. We are easily susceptible to hurt, anxiety, depression, euphoria or even death. No one has yet figured out the safeguards or even the perils of stardom. Celebrities are hot air balloons, which often reach dizzy height but in a matter of time fall ingloriously into deep abysses of oblivion. As writer Michael Humphrey wrote in Forbes magazine a few months ago, Has Generation Famous changed the equation for fame and fandom? If the famous are, usually performing 24×7, the media reporting non-stop turns voyeurs and vultures at will. The hunter and the hunted keep switching places. A thin line differentiates the two. When privacy gives way to isolation, the filament breaks.

As a society, our ‘always on’ online presence is like walking the thin edge. We are easily susceptible to hurt, anxiety, depression, euphoria or even death. No one has yet figured out the safeguards or even the perils of stardom. The performers and their purveyors know the fragility of it all. Let us not keep shifting the blame when the focus shifts. We are all a part of this scenario.

A walk with the stars always ends on Sunset Boulevard my friend.

This column by Amit Khanna was originally published by IANS

Amit Khanna is media guru, poet, lyricist, writer, filmmaker and historian. His latest book Words, Sounds, Images (published by HarperCollins India) is ambitious and encyclopaedic in scope, a first-of-its- kind book that presents the history of media and entertainment in India – from the times of the Indus Valley Civilization right up to the twenty-first century

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