Sunday, July 22, 2012
I’m in a distinct minority among my friends and acquaintances in the esteem in which I hold Abhishek Bachchan. To me, he’s one of the few understated actors we have, tapping into some of his father’s brooding iconicity in his dramatic roles, and possessed of a comic mode that, at its best, combines deadpan delivery with a kind of earnestness, a special talent there aren’t very many roles for in the contemporary Hindi film industry. But most people I meet are far more derisive. It isn’t that they disagree with me, and believe that he is a mediocre or poor actor -- that would be unexceptional. No, what is striking to me is the extent to which people will, even if they feel I’m overdoing it when it comes to Abhishek Bachchan, go further than simply saying that he isn’t a good actor, or that he has many flop films. I’ve heard him referred to as “lazy,” “dheela,” “pathetic,” “un-smart,” and even “disgusting,” “dirty,” a parasite off his wife’s celebrity, as the beneficiary of nepotism and connections a sign of everything that is wrong in India, and a source of embarrassment for his parents. Moreover, at least some of the people I’ve met who have expressed these opinions agree that he has performed very well in this or that film, which makes the intensity of the reactions somewhat curious.
There’s more: while I haven’t conducted any survey, in my travels across India it has been my experience that Abhishek is interpreted very differently the farther I go from the upwardly mobile/aspirational cinema-going classes (in India’s major metros, but hardly limited to them), and in the media and blogs that cater to them. In Varanasi, Aurangabad, Jhansi, Bhopal, and even in Mumbai, I’ve come across people from different demographics -- boatmen, auto-rickshaw drivers, college students, lawyers -- with strikingly different views on Abhishek. It isn’t that many of these people have answered “Abhishek” when I’ve asked who their favorite actor is; but Abhishek is strikingly normal in their eyes, and whether they think highly of him or not, there is no special cloud over his legitimacy as compared to other actors (and at least some seem to have a special affection for him because of their regard for Amitabh Bachchan). Certainly nobody has thought of him as unclean, disgraceful, or an embarrassment.
What accounts for this difference? Why is there so much resentment of Abhishek in certain quarters? It can’t be that his films have targeted particular demographics, the traditional audiences that often pass under the term “single screen audiences” in Bollywood parlance -- in fact, very many of his films, from different phases of his career, have been squarely targeted toward multiplex audiences (for instance, Phir Milenge (2004); Bluffmaster! (2005); or Paa (2009)), even as others (such as Run (2004); Bunty aur Babli (2005); and Bol Bachchan (2012)) have had a distinctly “massy” bent; yet others (Dhoom (2004); Sarkar (2005); and Sarkar Raj (2008)) have tried to split the difference. (While neither “single screen” nor “multiplex audience” is an especially rigorous term, they have some value as loose differentiators between more traditional audiences and those with greater investment in a contemporary Bollywood idiom that jettisons the often sprawling narratives of decades past in favor of more streamlined, Hollywood-style narratives, to which the mythic strands and melodrama of the quintessential “masala” film would be anathema. I’ll continue to use the terms here, although they cannot be taken literally -- “multiplex” means something very different in Hyderabad, Patna, and Gurgaon; and then again, in Bombay, there aren’t very many single-screens left, given the rate at which exhibitors and corporates have rushed to take advantage of the tax and other incentives in favor of multiplexes.)
Perhaps the resentment marks the divide between the new India -- lauded all over and committed to individualism and meritocracy -- and the old, where ties of kinship, community, traditional occupation and feudal loyalty trump other considerations? Viewed in this way, perhaps resentment of this ultimate star-son might even be justified, a sign of a welcome change in Indian society. Indeed, very many of the Abhishek-haters bring up the question of genealogy. In their telling, he has had a number of flops -- themselves demonstrating his uselessness -- but continues to get films because he is Amitabh’s son. The complete absence of any evidence to this effect doesn’t give them pause, so obvious do they consider the matter; nor does the long list of prominent directors eager to cast him over the years, ranging from the distinguished (Mani Ratnam; Rakeysh Mehra) to the merely successful (Rohit Shetty). Of course, I haven’t been able to make any headway by pointing out that something like eight of Akshay Kumar’s last ten films prior to Rowdy Rathore (2012) had flopped or performed middlingly at best, or even that Salman Khan himself had far more under-performers than hits for years leading up to Wanted (2008).
The more I spoke to people on the topic, the more I realized that it wasn’t about the facts: people kept returning to the question of genealogy, reacting to the perceived unfairness that Amitabh should somehow be keeping his son going. Pointing out that every second prominent person in Bollywood seemed to be related to an industry bigwig cut no ice: Hrithik is very good looking, an amazing dancer, and has worked so hard on his body, I’d hear; as has Ranbir Kapoor, who also seems to be essaying a variety of film roles; Farhan Akhtar is cool and a great director, bringing a new style to Bollywood. In any event, these gentlemen couldn’t possibly have gotten the advantages Amitabh Bachchan’s son did, even if no-one could deny that all had privileged access to filmmakers and backers. This sort of selective outrage suggested that something other than perceived unfairness was at work. The choice of insults is itself revealing: he is “lazy” because he won’t get into shape the way everyone else has (whether or not this makes for more plausible acting is immaterial: no one seems to wonder whether the Mughal Emperor Akbar, or Vijay Deenanath Chauhan redux, or Omkara’s bahubali would have such incredibly gym-toned bodies -- in contemporary Bollywood, they all do); “dheela” because he eschews both over-acting, as well as the clinical “look at me, I’m playing the role of a lifetime!” hype-machines of many of his peers (that result in roles that are much talked about, and quickly forgotten). He is “un-smart” because his basic hair style remains constant, he often features a stubble, and is about as far from the metrosexual norms of contemporary Bollywood as anyone could be.
Abhsihek is, in essence, an embarrassment, because he won’t get with the program. That is, he represents the old India for very many people, and is perhaps resented all the more because he could be new India, but steadfastly refuses to. His mode of acting -- an amalgam of Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan’s styles (although the question of Amitabh’s style is a tricky one, given how greatly it varied with period and mode) -- is characterized by reserve and understatement, and is precisely the style least likely to appeal to a new India that increasingly prefers its entertainments to enact the pantomime of newness itself. And, by implication, condemns the cinema of the past in monotone hues of melodrama and bad taste.
One sees this move in films as disparate as Luck By Chance (2009), Om Shanti Om (2007) and The Dirty Picture (2011), each of which presents rather pandering presentations of what “old school” cinema was. The new Hindi popular cinema takes its cues not just from Hollywood but also from the strut and swagger of contemporary hip-hop videos (drained of any of the social critique, protest, or even edge for the most part, that characterize that genre at its best) and from modeling, giving us the perhaps unique phenomenon of a cinema that is somewhat uninterested in the cinematic, serving instead as, merely, the country’s most reliable celebrity manufacturing industry. These cues do not just dovetail with the consumerist energies unleashed by India’s 1991 economic liberalization -- they are unimaginable without it, which perhaps explains the intensity of the post-1991 cinema generation’s identification with this mode of Hindi filmmaking. One doesn’t merely watch a film any more, one performs a kind of brand loyalty that in turn re-affirms who one is.
As I’ve argued at length on this and other blogs, I do not mean to suggest that no good films have been enabled by the industry’s paradigm shifts over the last two decades, merely that the shifts have enabled the junking of an earlier, more mythic mode of film-making (which itself, to be fair, was often un-cinematic, often privileging words and theater to images) -- but have not for the most part replaced it with anything cinematic, but instead with the sort of plastic pleasures one can find elsewhere. Stated differently, it isn’t simply the case that Hindi films have lost much of their distinctiveness over the last two decades (that by itself might represent the loss of a certain register, but the impoverishment wouldn’t necessarily mean that the newer paradigm would lead to worse films). It is also the case that Hindi films now increasingly offer pleasures that one might get from other sources -- fashion magazines, music videos, television, and the general spectacle of celebrity culture. In this respect Bollywood has much to learn from Hollywood, which, even if it has meant resorting to the rich (if juvenile) source material of comic books and endless remakes, has never forgotten that its product needs to be unique.
Perversely, the exponential growth in Hindi film receipts demonstrates this to be true: for years preceding 2008, conventional wisdom on the Hindi box office insisted that the reason films made 40, 50, 60, 70 crores was because the box office couldn’t sustain greater receipts absent infrastructure investments, such as more multiplexes; that so-called “single screen” audiences -- understood here to mean audiences that continued to hearken to older cinematic paradigms -- either didn’t exist (i.e. they had “converted”) -- or were dead-enders, irrelevant to the new economic reality of multi-hundred rupee movie tickets. In 2008, however, Aamir Khan’s Ghajini, a retrograde film if there ever were one, conclusively blew this argument to smithereens, outgrossing its 70-crore cousins by well over 50%, demonstrating in the process that “traditional” viewers, whether or not they actually watched films in single screens or plush multiplexes, remained stubbornly relevant. The film was no fluke, as proved by a succession of films over the next four years, many of them, like Ghajini, remakes of Tamil or Telugu blockbusters, and starring the once has-been Salman Khan, now re-born as the new India’s imp, who seemed to embrace all the rules -- the gym-toned body, the wannabe vibe -- while viewing them, in a mode bordering on the contemptuous, askance, appealing to both sorts of viewers in the bargain.
In terms of the larger narrative, however, the Ghajini-wave hasn’t changed the terms of the debate -- it has simply (and this is no small feat) made it impossible for Bollywood’s inheritor generation to plausibly deny that they have a class problem on their hands. Stated differently, while Ghajini hasn’t changed anyone’s mind on what new Hindi popular cinema ought to be, it has severely compromised the bully pulpit of Bollywood’s inheritors, who had grown used to insisting that they spoke for “the public” even as the size of that public kept shrinking to ever more prosperous enclaves, in the major metros, and in NRIstans abroad (hiked-up ticket prices made up for the loss of any numbers, as over the last two decades much of “the public” was increasingly priced out of what had traditionally been one of India’s most democratic entertainments). What once seemed like a question of history, of inevitability -- stubborn holdouts for masala cinema were on their way to extinction, and cooped up in smaller towns that hadn’t gotten with the program yet -- was now revealed as a class issue -- the overlap between the audiences of Singham and Rowdy Rathore on the one hand; and Cocktail on the other, was not very large. But the class issue itself didn’t prick the smugness of the industry’s inheritor generation, much less give it any pause, even if the outsized financial rewards associated with these Tamil/Telugu-remakes -- for which there are simply more viewers than for multiplex films of the sort we’ve been told for years are the future -- has left the newer breed of filmmakers scrambling for justifications other than the populist ones they previously championed. Now it’s about taste, and making classy films.
If “inheritor generation” isn’t the right term for Bollywood’s status quo, it’s because there ought be an “s” after “generation.” One of the notable differences between Hollywood and the Hindi film industry is that the latter is disproportionately dominated by children of industry veterans. Rather than name this or that star, it would be easier to go at it from the other direction: with the exception of Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, virtually every major male lead over the last three decades has an industry connection. (The exceptions prove the rule: Akshay’s lack of any connection to the industry’s power structure surely go some way toward explaining why he was relegated to second-tier films for his first decade as a hero; Shah Rukh Khan got his chance on the basis of two successful TV serials.) Women, once discouraged by conservative industry families from becoming actresses, are also now part of this inheritor generation. And it’s broader than actors: script-writers; music composers; choreographers; and directors are all increasingly the sons, daughters, and cousins of other industry veterans.
The shrinking of the industry’s ambit, its social sweep, has not been costless: whatever one might have said about the Hindi film industry of the 1950s, ‘60s, or 70s, its stalwarts -- ranging from the likes of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Bimal Roy, Gulzar, Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, Nargis, to Yash Chopra, Sharmila Tagore, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Yash Johar, and Hema Malini -- represented a social diversity that is nowhere to be seen in the industry today. The people I have named grew up in Lahore and Bombay; were Bengalis and Pathans; traced family histories to Central India and Peshawar. By contrast, their children -- and all have had at least one prominent actor or director among their offspring -- seem to have grown up within a few miles of each other, in the Bombay suburbs of Juhu or Bandra. Or, more pertinently, the films seem increasingly cosmopolitan as well as insular, more open to the world, but less so to any social class except for the one that makes, stars in, and watches the films. Lifestyle liberalism is common enough -- I welcome the messages of greater tolerance for homosexuality, female independence outside of a family structure, or sexual promiscuity -- but one finds no trace in their films (unless it is by way of an issue-based film) of so many of the problems that roil India today. (Indeed, if you want to see any kind of representation of police brutality, corruption, rural poverty, you’re more likely to find it in escapist fare like Rowdy Rathore than in supposedly more realistic films made by Bollywood scions like Farhan Akhtar.)
Poking holes in the pretensions of “new India” is hardly new, but in the popular media (both domestic and foreign) these critiques are largely statistics-oriented: how can India be “shining” if x% of its citizens are poor/malnourished/illiterate? How “new” is “new India” when its benefits seem to have visibly accrued to so few people? But mounting the critique on the terrain of popular cinema -- a subject that far too many serious Indian writers pay scant attention to, except in so far as they are seeking to make a one-dimensional critique on the representation of minorities or women in Indian cinema -- reveals that the argument is not just about facts and figures, but also about ideologies. It is precisely because Hindi films do not matter (in the sense that no one lives or dies no matter what sorts of films are or are not made), precisely because, when we talk of films we are not necessarily diverted by arguments about facts and things about India at large, that we can see that what matters in the critique belongs to the realm of the purely ideological.
We can glimpse the ideological stakes from the fact that dynastic tropes are not generally resented in India; nor are nepotistic ones (even people who complain about nepotism think nothing about criticizing relatives who have made good and won’t “help” their kin). Even with respect to the film industry, as I’ve mentioned few seem to resent the privileged access that the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan, or indeed so many have received by dint of family connection that it’s almost unfair to name only those three; and in far more momentous fields than cinema, few seem to wonder at the opportunities available to the Ambanis, Godrejs, Wadias; or indeed why so many Indian political parties end up the province of one family. Sure, if you ask them people might have something to say, but I’ve rarely encountered the sort of irritation and anger that Abhishek evokes in many. “Just because he’s Amitabh’s son...” is the sort of thing that could be quite easily applied to Omar Abdullah; Rahul Gandhi (or his father Rajiv Gandhi, for that matter); Uddhav Thackeray; Akhilesh Yadav; and many others -- and yet it is for something that pertains only to cinema that people reserve their bitterest edge. The dynastic reality is so pervasive, so accepted, it simply cannot be the reason for the sort of ire Abhishek seems to provoke.
At first blush, Abhishek Bachchan would seem to be an ideal member of the inheritors’ club: not only is he the son of you-know-who, his mother was also a prominent actress, and he grew up on first-name basis with several people (Karan Johar; Hrithik Roshan; Uday Chopra; Rohan Sippy) who have themselves made careers in the film industry. However, his friendship with his fellow “star sons” notwithstanding, there is a crucial difference between Abhishek and many of his peers: he didn’t hitch his star to “new Bollywood.” During his first few years in the industry, right from his debut in Refugee (2000), through films like Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai (2001), Sharaarat (2002); Om Jai Jagdish (2002), Zameen (2003); Run (2004), or even Dhoom (2004), Abhishek generally chose films one could generalize as “old school.” The quality of these films is not the issue -- they hardly set the box office on fire, like the vast majority of Hindi films -- but what is interesting is that these films were not only not trendy, they self-consciously seemed to be turning their back on both, the Yashraj/Johar romances of the 1990s, as well as the emerging “posh” visual aesthetic of post-Dil Chahta Hai (2001) Bollywood. Dhoom clearly aspired to the trendy, but even here Abhishek’s character was old-school, a straight arrow whose very name (“Jai”) hearkened to the 1970s.
It would be easy to dismiss the films I mention as the commercially ill-considered choices of an inexperienced actor -- certainly films like Tera Jaadoo Chal Gaya (2000) and Haan Maine Bhi Pyar Kiya Hai (2002) were very much part of one of the reigning trends, namely the romances then popular with “family” and NRI-audiences. Moreover, since Abhishek was markedly unsuccessful in his first few years, it’s tempting to dismiss his entire early filmography as determined for him: what choices could a flop actor possibly have? (The contradiction between this view and the notion that as Amitabh’s son he could coast for years is not something that gives many fans or critics pause.)
But no such explanations account for the next phase of Abhishek’s career: beginning with 2004’s Yuva and Dhoom, and cemented by Bunty aur Babli (2005) both critical and commercial success followed. But Abhishek neither chose the traditional route of using the opportunity to forge something akin to brand loyalty by reprising the roles that had made him famous -- i.e. we didn’t see half a dozen films featuring variants of Yuva’s Lallan Singh or Bunty aur Babli’s Bunty -- nor did he use his new-found commercial success to jump onto the bandwagon of “new” Bollywood (which, by the mid-point of the decade, had coalesced into something distinct enough from the Yashraj/Johar-style romances of the preceding decade as to make them seem like “traditional Bollywood,” itself a strange notion to those of us with memories stretching further back than 1995). The new breed of films -- Farhan Akhtar must be considered the patron saint of these, following up his debut in Dil Chahta Hai with the even more frankly Hollywood-style Lakshya (2004); and Don (2006), a bloodless re-make of the 1978 Bachchan classic that made the stakes clear, trying to imagine a masala film without, well, masala (the result was predictably dull) -- were typically characterized by low-key emotional engagement (and characters as likely to be inspired by American sitcoms as by Hollywood buddy movies), crisper editing, teeny bop music, and with the opulence of their Yashraj/Johar forbears updated to a sleeker, more chic (but no less plush) aesthetic.
Abhishek, it soon became clear, wanted no part of them, nor did he seem to have any conviction for the insistently low-brow version of masala that made a comeback with films like Wanted and Ready (although “comeback” is a bit of a stretch -- in these films, the mythos of the older masala epics is always mediated by a kind of tongue-in-cheek spoofery, enabling the films to appeal to at least some of the “new Bollywood” filmgoers, who can consume these “timepass” movies guilt-free, as it were). Stubbornly throwback films continued, ranging from Dus (2005); Umrao Jaan (2006), Laaga Chunri Mein Daag (2007), to Khelen Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010) and even Players (2012) and Bol Bachchan (2012). And even where he embraced newer modes of filmmaking, these were confined to middle-brow cinema, the impetus for which was either independent of “new Bollywood,” or at least implicitly critiqued much of its smug navel-gazing. (For instance, Mani Ratnam, who worked with Abhishek Bachchan in three films over the last decade, had been updating conventions of popular cinema when Akhtar was a teenager; and Ram Gopal Verma, much of whose filmography might be understood as a reaction to the Barjatya/Yashraj/Johar saccharine school of filmmaking, himself never ended up as much more than a niche taste for a certain section of young males. The Verma of films like Naach (2004); Sarkar (2005); Nishabd (2007); and Sarkar Raj (2008) was at once too dark to find wide acceptance with the multiplex audience, and too stylishly empty to avoid being overtaken by harder-edged proteges like Anurag Kashyap.)
Certainly, commercial pressures dictated nods to the mainstream, but even these are telling: Yashraj’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007), for instance (the studio’s most expensive film at the time), was certainly a NRI-romance -- except that Abhishek’s Rikki was no NRI gazillionaire or impossibly wealthy software engineer in a plush flat, but a small-time huckster and inveterate liar, almost as if director Shaad Ali wanted us in on the con at the heart of so many dreams Bollywood had been selling; Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) certainly had Abhishek ensconced in the sort of wonderland splendor we’d come to associate with Johar’s work, except that the director was branching out, with Abhishek’s Rishi at the heart of a failing marriage, with by far the most dignified performance in a mess of a film. And then there was Dostana (2008), which acknowledged Abhishek’s symbolic position in the new order: in a Bollywood dominated by metrosexuals, waxed chests, sculpted abs and calves no matter the role being essayed, there was no-one more queer than the straight guy. Dhoom 2 (2006) was pure mainstream, absolutely contemporary in how plastic it was, its embarrassingly aspirational vibe, and its fake tans, and at least where Abhishek was concerned, it showed -- with no nod or wink about it, and with Yashraj deciding to try and make the first film’s Jai a bit more obviously trendy, he was a complete misfit -- as he was in Drona (2008), a super-hero film featuring the most reluctant costumed adventurer in history.
It would be a mistake to read too much of a critique into the sorts of roles I’ve mentioned above, but a contrast with those essayed by his peers is instructive: time and again, Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and even Salman Khan, have essayed roles that not only do not disturb multiplex audiences in the slightest, but in fact legitimize their aspirations. [I should add that I do not consider this illegitimate by any means; that is, my aim is to understand why Abhishek is resented, not to criticize his contemporaries for not going down his path; indeed, the far greater success that the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik have enjoyed self-evidently justifies their logic.] Ultimately triumphant lovers; army-officers; super-heros; wealthy playboys; globe-trotting executives -- they served as the audience’s alter egos, and didn’t venture anywhere near the edge of its prickly sensitivities.
Abhishek’s big commercial ventures that I’ve discussed might seem tame, but in more than one instance they touched enough of a nerve that violent reactions followed the release of films seen to be vulnerable at the box office from the first day: vituperation such as that elicited by Jhoom Barabar Jhoom continues to astound me, and is wholly out of proportion to the reality of the film. Whether you like it or not, it’s a rather slight film -- but you wouldn’t know it from reading the reviews, many of which reacted as if a crime had been committed. The same went for Dhoom 2, where the film was a huge success, but Abhishek was excoriated for being low-key, laid back, and flat, for letting the team down. In each instance there was the sense of something pent-up, that had just been waiting for release.
And rightly so: because Abhishek has been letting the team down. From the multiplex audience’s perspective, he has never embraced “new” Bollywood -- and, by implication, the “new India” of economic liberalization -- in either its “little film” avatar, addicted to romantic comedies or coming-of-age films where self-realization is itself a marker of social privilege (such as in Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara (2011)); or in its blockbuster variant, where the audience’s aspirations for Indian films vis-a-vis Hollywood -- and, by extension, for India vis-a-vis America and other established powers -- are harnessed to genres that wouldn’t seem to naturally lend themselves to Bollywood-style film-making. Each such film (Lakshya (2004); Krrish (2006); Don (2006); and Ra-One (2012), among others) is not just treated as a commercially successful or unsuccessful film, but is talked up in the film media as a national milestone and point-of-pride, a “we can make this sort of film too” moment. Abhishek is nowhere to be found on this terrain, almost as if he has seceded from this space. That he should do so as the son of the man who is today, above all others, identified with the sign called “Bollywood” (even if Amitabh was hardly a pillar of the bourgeoisie in his pomp), must make the betrayal cut all the deeper.
Moreover, the big commercial ventures are not even half the story where Abhishek is concerned. That is, his persona doesn’t simply evoke resentment by being reticent in participating in the general enthusiasm (whether by persisting with throwback films, or by pooping the party when he is cast in a film that belongs properly to “new” Bollywood) -- in a number of films, his characters seem to go out of their way to prick the audience’s complacency. In Yuva (the name means “youth”), for instance, Mani Ratnam used Abhishek’s Lallan to remind us that Vivek’s upper-middle-class Arjun was not the only face of contemporary Indian youth. Indeed, as Lallan’s last image in the film underscores, our violent ugliness, inscribed in an order where the poor must fight for scraps, might be even more important for our future than the sunshine Arjun looks forward to. Guru (2007) at first blush might have been a game-changer, given the extent to which the film white-washed the career of the late Dhirubhai Ambani (one of contemporary India’s most valorized industrialists). Even here, though, Ratnam left enough moral ambiguity (admittedly more by way of a crusading journalist, Madhavan’s Shyam Saxena, than by way of the lead protagonist) to problematize the extent to which Gurukant Desai could be swallowed as hero-material. Raavan (2010) had Abhishek purportedly playing the villain, although the game was thoroughly rigged in favor of the baddie (loosely modeled on leaders of India’s multiple Maoist insurgencies) rather than the police. The film was greeted with howls of derision, and the intensity of the reactions (remember, we are talking of reviewers who think nothing of praising Hrithik’s turn in Krrish in terms one would hesitate to use for Smita Patil) make it difficult for me to believe that the film’s humanization of a class of people the news media prefers to sweep under the (patronizing or threatening) terms of “tribal” or “Maoist,” had nothing to do with the matter.
The critique implicit in the persona Abhishek has -- wittingly or unwittingly -- cultivated over the years is not limited to his roles in Mani Ratnam’s films. It is easily discernible in even the multiplex films he does do, such as Delhi-6 (2009): here Abhishek is at director Rakeysh Mehra’s service in scraping away “new” India’s smug complacency about its pluralism and tolerance of diversity. While several films have touched upon Hindu-Muslim conflict, Delhi-6 is one of the very few to locate this conflict in society and local communities -- rather than in high politics. The message is clear: the imagined “we” of the audience cannot absolve ourselves by laying the blame for communal conflict (that we enthusiastically participate in) on politicians that we ourselves have enabled. [Perversely, in his own production Paa (2009), Abhishek turned decades of film convention on its head by playing the role of an upstanding politician, practically an oxymoron where the Indian haute-bourgeoisie is concerned.] And Dum Maaro Dum (2011), one of three films Abhishek has made with Rohan Sippy (another inheritor who swims against the current), represented the most un-compromising Abhishek intervention yet, as Sippy’s eye transformed Goa, the ultimate Indian holiday destination, into the seedy heart of new India’s darkness, with Aditya Pancholi’s Lorsa Biscuita and Abhishek’s ACP Vishnu Kamath its presiding deities (even if this Vishnu is not much of a preserver (or can preserve the Lorrys and Jokis of the world only by sacrificing himself), and is himself oriented toward death).
The resentment I’ve been referring to is not, thus, irrational. Rather, it reflects the fact that the multiplex audience correctly intuits that Abhishek is -- if not in intention, then in effect -- the site of some resistance to a program that is not just about cinema; more precisely, that is manifested in purely ideological terms in cinema. If Abhishek isn’t on board with the paradigms of “new” Bollywood, or if “new” Bollywood directors cast him to raise questions about what “new India” does or does not mean, what else does he have reservations about?
A star is a bit like a politician: unless he has a niche audience (Sean Penn; Anurag Kashyap; Raj Thackeray; Prakash Karat) (s)he specializes in the vaguest generalities, because anything too particular risks alienating sections of the target audience (it is this caution, and not necessarily any lack of intelligence or insight, that explains the vapidity of most celebrity interviews). The most skilled can nevertheless signal coded messages that privileged constituencies within the wider audience can pick up on -- thus Raj Thackeray can profess adherence to secularism and other constitutional norms, without ever compromising his standing among urban Maharastrian xenophobes; or Shah Rukh Khan can speak of his deep respect for Bal Thackeray, even though no-one really believes in any ties binding the two; or why Mani Ratnam doesn’t need to say that his politics left-of-center. The very biggest stars -- Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar -- hardly send even coded messages, and are thus permanently available to any agenda, or no agenda at all (in this they go beyond politicians, who cannot beyond a point avoid sending messages, lest they compromise their ability to differentiate themselves from their opponents). Viewed in this manner -- very different from the prism through which the Hindi film media and many fans purport to view their stars -- resentment of Abhishek comes into clearer focus, especially because his messages (perhaps because some of them have likely been inadvertent and not carefully thought through) aren’t especially coded. In essence, when we say that the actor should not be confused with his roles, we are in fact lying -- to ourselves. Because the mind cannot separate the actor from his roles -- or certainly not where the star is concerned. (It is a different case with the actor who lacks an aura, and can hence essay a variety of roles with equal plausibility, such as a Farooq Sheikh; while admirable in its versatility, the greater the extent to which an actor is able to do this, the less likely that (s)he can stand for or point to anything in particular.)
To be blunt, on this terrain, Abhishek -- by any reasonable measure the most prominent of Bollywood’s princes and princesses -- acquires the contours of a class traitor. That is, had Abhishek embraced his position in the inheritors’ club, he would have been less resented. Because the Indian audience does not resent privilege so much as the privilege of being able to renounce, even partially, privilege. The latter calls into question one’s own ethical choices, one’s own privilege, however feeble this might seem to be with respect to the advantages Abhishek has enjoyed. I attribute a large part of the obsessive focus on those advantages among many fans and bloggers to this sort of displacement: by focusing on, and even exaggerating, those advantages, our own privileges dwindle to nothing -- and hence we cannot be questioned for them. In short, so wedded are we to the fiction of the self-made man that Abhishek serves as convenient foil -- compared to him, we’re all self-made! -- and we can afford to ignore the myriad ways in which we are privileged.
Why should any of this matter, beyond the confines of film- and celebrity-junkies? Because it points to the larger blind spots that sully the polity, whether the question is of discrimination, caste-based reservations, or the displacement of adivasis for the benefit of others. In each case, urban, bourgeois opinion routinely denies the existence of any privilege accruing to the bourgeoisie at all, while displacing all such privilege only on particular personifications of it -- such as Abhishek Bachchan. But it isn’t “the dynastic” that is problematic in itself; rather, the problem arises because the dynastic element is simply one way in which privilege operates in India, one way in which access to resources, jobs, careers, and wealth are unfairly distributed. As the ugly vitriol of so much discourse on reservations makes clear, large segments of the Indian bourgeoisie are completely blind to this wider question of privileged access, preferring to pretend that the latter is the preserve only of the Abhisheks of the world. And where the dynasts pander to our views, we find it all too easy to lay our resentment aside -- those inheritors have proven themselves worthy, and may be forgiven their privilege (contrast popular denunciations of Nehru’s elitism, versus that of his daughter Indira Gandhi, who the middle class imagines shared many of their values). More accurately, their privilege, like ours, can be re-imagined as a kind of self-fashioning (Indira proved herself worthy, goddammit!), a narrative that becomes less plausible where a dynast like Abhishek abjures at least some of those advantages by using his hereditary prominence to bring our own complacency into clearer focus. Unfortunately for Abhishek, that has proven unforgivable. And while lucidity on this score cannot negate those dynastic advantages, it can at least open our eyes to the fact that such opportunistic resentment cannot pass for a commitment to meritocracy.