What makes a star? Is it the choice of cinema plus image management? Or can one let one’s work speak for itself in this day and age of social media? In Bollywood, paparazzi are paid to keep certain stars and their offspring in the limelight. Malaika Arora is the perfect example of this, photographed on every occasion, from going to the gym to going on a date with boyfriend Arjun Kapoor to hanging out with her girl posse, which includes the other paparazzi magnet Kareena Kapoor Khan. Publicists are deployed to organise interviews at strategic times, usually just before a big movie release or a major brand association. In the southern film industries, silence and invisibility work as weapons of mass distraction. The less the audience knows about their film hero/heroine’s real life, the more they worship them. As a publicist told me recently, only half in jest, in the south, he is paid to keep the media away from the star, whereas in the north, the more visible a star is, the better it is. Look at the biggest stars, from Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi in the Tamil film industry, to Ram Charan and Jr NTR in the Telugu film industry, to Fahadh Faasil and Dulquer Salmaan in the Malayalam film industry, and now Yash in the Kannada film industry. It’s not merely that they are following in the footsteps of their older, wiser compatriots such as Rajinikanth, Mammootty and Mohanlal, but also that too much visibility can distract from their work. They do the bare minimum expected to draw attention to their movies and then go back into their world again.
The Quiet Star
One actor who follows this philosophy in Mumbai is Ajay Devgn. Son of a well-regarded action choreographer (called fight master in earlier days), married into Bollywood royalty, National Award-winning actor, he doesn’t command the presence he deserves. Seen primarily as an action star, thanks to his association with director Rohit Shetty, he has done a series of pathfinding movies with directors at their peak performance, from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) with Sanjay Leela Bhansali to Company (2002) with Ram Gopal Varma, from Yuva (2004) with Mani Ratnam to Omkara (2006) with Vishal Bhardwaj. When SS Rajamouli wanted a face that “reeked of honesty” he could think only of Devgn. And when Bhansali wanted a cameo with character in Gangubai Kathiawadi, he cast Devgn. Devgn also made a fairly credible debut on streaming with the Indian adaptation of Luther, Rudra: The Edge of Darkness on Disney+Hotstar. What more does an actor need to do to get a higher brand value? Maybe, stop appearing in pan masala advertisements? The actor, who uses social media sparingly, does work that is artistically and commercially viable, but falls short when it comes to the celebrity stakes.
The Rai-ght Choice
One of the joys of watching movies for a living is the joy of discovering new faces and new ways of storytelling. So, it is a joy seeing filmmaker and photographer Avani Rai in Two Sisters and a Husband, Shlok Sharma’s film that will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Rai, daughter of celebrated photographer Raghu Rai, plays sister to another newbie, Manya Grover, a graduate of the London School of Economics. Both are caught in a triangle with Dinker Sharma, last seen in 83 as Kirti Azad and before that as Parichay, Parineeti Chopra’s sleazy boss in Dibakar Banerjee’s Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. Sharma, who has worked extensively with Anurag Kashyap, directed the quirky Haraamkhor (2015) with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Shweta Tripathi.
Time was when seeing a Hindi film actor playing a chef on screen was the height of novelty. Soon heroes, especially in southern languages, started playing pizza delivery boys, Zumba instructors, and wedding planners. Now comes news that the talented Shweta Tripathi will be playing an Urban Company professional whose job is to wipe crime scenes clean. What next?