The demise of Sushant Singh Rajput has brought many questions to the forefront — the most taunting one of which is the culture of nepotism. It has a dominant presence in the Bollywood industry, which is and has been detrimental for outsiders who really take acting as a passion and profession. Nepotism is not new. It has thrived in politics, art, culture and academics, to mention a few, and I have seen it everywhere in the 29 years of my existence.
But the death of an actor has made me rethink the Bollywood I grew up with. Bollywood has always been a classist, casteist and racist industry. While people blame nepotism in the industry, they often oversee other toxic behaviour that is regarded as normal in Bollywood and happens not only to regulate and dominate the entire culture, but also dismiss other identities that do not fall within their ‘established standards’.
When I was at school, I had regular chats on Bollywood with my friends — how our former Miss World is so beautiful in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or the former Miss Universe on the silver screen. We were so proud that female Indian actors were gorgeous and well-recognised. We waited anxiously for Refugee to release, for it was the break of two famous star kids and everything was normal in this. I started thinking that Bollywood is for star kids and beautiful women who won beauty pageants. Then came Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta, Dia Mirza — all of whom were stunning. For me, Bollywood meant a place for ‘beautiful’ people.
I had a different conception of beauty, after all. Big eyes, slender waist, fair skin, half-round eyebrows, curly eyelashes were all I assumed qualify a beautiful features. All female Bollywood actors are examples that go on to show this. Look at Sridevi, Rekha, Hema Malini — all were beautiful according to beauty standards. Almost all of these heroines had big eyes and fair skin.
I started having doubts on my own looks. Being from the northeastern part of the country, I have rather small eyes. There was no one in Bollywood from this corner of the country. Slowly, I came to understand that Bollywood is mainstream and meant for a certain section of people who are beautiful. I never understood this exercise of lookism in the industry by picking up actors who look and appeal to their said standards.
Years later, there was news of this Kingfisher calendar supermodel who is almost as tall as Amitabh Bachchan, getting a big break with Shah Rukh Khan. Everyone was waiting anxiously to watch this beautiful supermodel romance Shah Rukh Khan. I went to a cinema hall to watch the movie, and I was in awe. Seeing the tall actress with perfect figure, I came out feeling proud of Bollywood again for taking in shiny actors yet again. The newcomer was good at acting, but what took the limelight from media was that she was almost six feet tall and a supermodel.
Within two years, tall women with a ‘good’ figure became the hallmark of Bollywood actresses. I was glued to the TV whenever Shiela Ki Jawani was played. Models have always been welcomed in Bollywood. Suddenly, stunts became so popular that one had to be fit to dance around and do stunts on screen.
I was too happy looking at these supernatural models with hip-breaking dance moves. My playlist always had the Kamli song. Slowly, I became a part of this system. Katrina Kaif’s dance moves were THE ultimate moves. I started loving her. I tried to become like her but failed, miserably — I could never do those steps even in seven births. But this was the ultimate Bollywood for me, for it was supernatural and beyond human achievement.
Bollywood has set its standards high. Now, being fit and strong became the new trend, and so was hitting the gym. Every actor visits the gym to show their abs-perfect body. The paparazzi can’t get enough of the actors coming out of gyms. After all, they look good, can do almost all impossible dance moves and can perform stunts. What else do we want?
I eventually became a part of this system because of my conditioning, fed in by media and the actors themselves. Certain things were eventually clear in my mind. To be a part of Bollywood, one needs:
While the nepotism debate is still in the air, I have one question — I am short, come from a middle-class family, have a look that people identify as from the Northeast, unfit and plump. Can I ever dream of working in Bollywood?
Disclaimer: The author is in academics and has no dream of going to Bollywood. Their views are personal.