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A deep dive into nepotism in Bollywood

New York Magazine’s viral essay on Hollywood’s nepo baby boom has generated many thoughts and opinions on actors with famous parents. But there’s another realm of entertainment where nepotism is always at the forefront of conversations.

Nate Jones’ anchor essay on nepo babies sparked conversations about star kids and their many advantages in the entertainment industry.

But this conversation has always been happening in India about the Bollywood industry.

“Many people don’t know that Bollywood is also almost as old as Hollywood,” says Snigdha Sur, founder of South-Asian publication The Juggernaut and self-proclaimed Bollywood encyclopaedia.

Also known as Hindi cinema, Bollywood tends to have what’s called the “founding families of Bollywood”.

After the partition of Greater India, many families moved to Bombay because it felt more of a cosmopolitan city, and many of these families went into the film industry. And because the film industry was seen as salacious and looked down upon, many of these families ended up providing a lot of the talent.

One founding family includes the Kapoor family, with over 93 years in the Hindi film industry and at least four generations currently in the family business.

The patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor had six children, including influential filmmaker and actor Raj Kapoor, who had kids like actor Rishi Kapoor, whose son is currently one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actors, Ranbir Kapoor.

“The Kapoor family is one of the biggest families in Bollywood to this day where you could probably name as many as 10-12 people somehow related to, or married into this family that’s still working in Bollywood as actors, producers, writers, filmmakers,” says Snigdha.

It’s because of families like this that you mainly hear the same names like Kapoor, Khan and Mukherjee.

“That has basically been one of the hallmarks of Bollywood as a film industry,” says Snigdha.

And while the many founding families are thriving in Hindi cinema, some actors are known as the “outsiders” who aren’t descended from founding families but sometimes do make it onto the big screen.

Outsiders include Shah Rukh Khan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Deepika Padukone and her husband, Ranvir Singh. And while these actors are currently some of the biggest names in Hollywood cinema, many have expressed their need to work harder and feel excluded.

“You know what, some of the outsiders are even bigger than that,” says Snigdha.

In the first episode of the seventh season of Indian talk show Koffee With Karan, hosted by filmmaker Yash Johar’s son Karan, Ranvir Singh was a guest with Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter Alia, who is also married to Ranbir Kapoor. The actor made a subtle dig at Karan for having a bias for nepo babies and having to work harder as an outsider after he was seen favouring Aliaa in the show’s game segment.

When she asked Deepika Padukone if she felt the need to work harder as a non-nepo-baby, Snigdha said she said yes. But the actress revealed that she doesn’t let it get to her and just has to accept that she needs to work ten times harder to make it into the industry.

“I think there’s that kind of feeling that you just have to work harder in this industry because no one’s going to give you a break on your own,” says Snigdha. “You just have to be perfect and think about the people who are still lasting, like Shah Rukh Khan or Deepika.

“They had to give multiple, multiple, hits many times over to maintain position as the top stars.”

Not only that, many actors have expressed the struggles of being an outsider and not having many opportunities because of nepotism.

Non-nepo-baby Siddhant Chaturvedi summarised it by saying, “their struggle begins where our dreams are fulfilled”, after shutting down Chunky Panday’s daughter’s rant on being a nepo baby.

Kiriti Sanon and Taapsee Pannu revealed they lost roles due to their lack of credibility and being replaced by a nepo baby “a few times”. Ayushmann Khurrana also mentioned that if he were a star kid, his acting debut would have begun if he was 22 than at 27.

Many outsiders also feel plagued by their title by constantly being reminded of it.

“All the nepo babies are friends and grew up going to the same parties,” says Snigdha. “So maybe they’re dismissive because they frankly aren’t usually open to adding someone outside their usual circle unless they’ve already established themselves.”

And Karan Johar does have a history of favouring nepo babies over their outsider counterparts – especially with those he brings onto his show.

“So much of any creative industry, or the entertainment industry, is too reliant on network in India, as opposed to basically meritocratic channels, says Snigdha. “It feels like it’s much more about the network you have, whether you have a lucky break, whether you somehow know the casting director, whether you somehow had dinner with the right director and the direct connection.

And if an aspiring actor or filmmaker doesn’t have the right connections or the backing of their famous relatives, Snigdha fears they might not even bother with their ambitions.

“I think it’d be really sad if this kind of behaviour leads to people who are professionals, who want to go to drama school, to not even pursue that,” says Snigdha. “I’d really fear of the pathways to star power as a profession decline.

“You don’t want to prevent a future talent who just might be out there, who might be a fantastic actor, who might be a fantastic filmmaker from even trying.”

Many think the exclusion and the favouritism might have caused the death of an outsider actor.

In June 2020, Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, and like any celebrity’s death, conspiracy theories began circulating. Many blamed nepotism and related malpractices in Bollywood for his passing.

A day after the actor’s death, Indian actress and filmmaker Kangana Ranaut blamed the media for writing negative stories about him and the industry for not acknowledging his talents because he was an outsider.

A case was filed against nepo babies Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Salman Khan, Ekta Kapoor and four others by a lawyer, Sudhir Kumar Ojha, alleging that Rajput was denied opportunities because of nepotism, leading to his suicide.

But, while the case was dismissed, it didn’t stop fans of the late actor from bullying Johar and Bhatt on social media, especially when the latter spoke dismissively of Sushant in another episode of Koffee with Karan.

Rumours were also circulating that Sushant was banned by major production houses in Bollywood and his movie, “Paani”, getting shelved because of a fallout with the movie’s filmmaker Aditya Chopra, who was allegedly supported by Karan Johar, which might’ve left the actor alienated in the industry.

“I think nepotism was at the forefront, with him [Sushant Singh Rajput] specifically, because he was definitely one of the bastions of that ‘outsiderism’,” says Snigdha. “He often talked about, very vocally, about feeling like an outsider, by feeling like working harder and things like that.

“He was one of the few people to broach the subject and talk about it.”

But there’s one thing Snigdha says people forget when talking about the actor’s death.

“I don’t think a lot of people in the industry are ready to talk about mental health,” says Snigdha. “In this conversation, we’re missing out on the fact that there were real mental health issues.

“It’s so much easier to just make it about one thing, it’s about many things actually, his death represented many, many things.

“His death got politicised,” she says. “So much of what happened after was that his death became this political stand-in for people to put in the story they wanted to tell.

While we might never truly know what happened to Sushant, it’s important to try to solve the core problems in the industry.

“If the goal is to tell amazing stories and to really reflect the diversity of India, then the goal should really be how to get diverse actors, diverse filmmakers, diverse writers into the industry, and that’s the bigger problem,” says Snigdha. “Just getting angry about his [Sushant’s] death is not going to solve that problem.

“I’d love to see the industry take action on all of those points, which is how we source just more and more diverse viewpoints, and I don’t know if that’s happening rapidly enough.”

While star kids and knowing the right people will “100% will always be prevalent in Bollywood”, some outsiders do become, and still are, some of the biggest names in Bollywood. And Snigdha hopes the industry will be more open to non-nepo-babies.

“I’d love to see more diverse talent out there,” says Snigdha. “We should really do that in Bollywood because we’re a very old industry, and we’re going to have to continue persisting.

“I’d love to see who the future Shah Rukh Khan is.”


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