What i learnt after spending five decades in showbiz

Before we do a comparative study on the popularity of film stars, let’s take a look at the whole psychology of stardom. From the beginning of history, humans have sought role models and idols. Our mythology is full of stories of valour, unrivalled skill, talent, looks and achievements.

In the beginning, kings and other powerful people commissioned balladeers and chroniclers to record their extraordinariness. These records many a times were far removed from the ground reality. Monuments and statues are testimony to the creation of many such legends.

Court musicians, dancers, writers and brave soldiers were the first popular heroes (and heroines) well into the nineteenth century.

Then folk singers, dancers stage performers and courtesan became stars. By 1920, cinema had become critical in many countries, including India. The silent films produced the first film stars such as Sulochana Latkar (Ruby Myers), Patience Cooper, Fatima Begum, Zubeida, E and D Billimoria, Baburao Datar, Raja Sandow and others. The magic of moving images on a large screen in a darkened space created the first modern myth making machine and the first celebrities.

By the time talkies arrived in 1931, regular cinegoers who would flock many of the newly constructed cinema theatres all over the country. The fame of the firs stars spread word of mouth. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was a common practice for studios in Hollywood to sign exclusive contracts with actors, writers and directors though sometimes there would be occasions when deals were struck between studios over stars.

By the mid 1930s, the studio system was also established in India with companies like New Theatres, Bombay Talkies, Sagar Movietone, Prabhat, Ranjit, AVM, Krishna, Durga Cinetone and a dozen others. Most of these studios followed the model set by Hollywood in the 1920s/30s and hired talent.

Fans especially in towns and large cities started following fashion and style set by their favourite actors. Cinema was the only mass entertainment well into the forties besides folk theatre, circus and carnivals. Except for a few non-film singers and a select band of cricketers such as Vijay Merchant, CK Naidu, Vijay Hazare, Mushtaq Ali and the top politicians like Jawahar Lal Nehru, Subhash Chndra Bose, and Sardar Patel, film stars were the only popular pan-India public figures.

The film industry was as insular then as now. Living in a make-believe world, some of these stars were reckless in their professional and personal lives. Romances and extra-marital relationships were more common then as there was less media scrutiny though the society was still conservative.

Except for a few, most film people were not well educated. Yet their clout in society was strong. Many moved around in elite circles, including royal families. There was very little media exposure in those days and myths were built around films and stars word of mouth or box-office response.

Yet, film stars had a massive fan following and were trendsetters in many ways. Of course, there were scandals too and occasionally the media would highlight these. Celebrities are usually borne out of images marketed, sold, and disseminated through media but fame is ephemeral. The journey from fame to oblivion is short. So was it then and so is it now.

Indian films crossed international boundaries. Cinema was now the dominant popular entertainment. While Hindi cinema took centre-stage, regional films developed their own identity. Directors such as V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Yash Chopra and many others made some memorable films.

Down south, we had MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, NT Rama Rao, A Nageswara Rao, Rajkumar and Prem Nazir. Uttam Kumar reigned supreme in the east. Female actors such as Suraiya, Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjantimala, Suchitra Sen, Madhabi Mukherjee, Saroja Devi and others who mesmerised generations of Indians.

Film music became a national obsession and singers, music directors and lyricists became stars in their own right – Jaikishan had a huge female following, Sahir Ludhianvi was a craze all over the Indian sub continent. Raj Kapoor too had a huge fan following.

In the 1960s came coloured foreign locations, mega sets. Big budget films like Mughal-e-Azam, Gunga Jumna, Navrang, Sangam, Guide, Waqt, Teesri Manzil, set new standards even as they competed with Pyasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Bandini, Teesri Kasam. Even in the heady days of 1960s, Indian films were star dominated.

My professional association with showbiz started in 1969 while I was still in college. I have had the chance to experience the stardom of four generations – whether it was women of all ages across Indians swooning over Dev Anand or young men aping his fashion style.

I’ve witnessed girls coming from small towns and villages only for a glimpse of their stars. Again I have had the privilege of seeing grown up men fall all over Dilip Kumar in various functions. Once in Chennai (then Madras), I had the chance to meet the great MGR and even in a controlled environment of his office, I could see how he was venerated like god.

So many times I watched the beauty of Waheeda Rehman overwhelm crowds. I have seen Sadhana cast her spell and Hema Malini get mobbed. Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Jeetendra had such a loyal following that one would just gape at how people would jostle to merely touch them.

Then, of course, there was Rajesh Khanna, the superstar. He would just appear in a party and suddenly there was an aura of existential disbelief. Girls wrote to him letters in blood and waited for hours just to see him once. What does one say about Amitabh Bachchan? I have seen him evolve from a gawky struggling actor to this god who has walked on earth.

Stories of his stardom are a part of contemporary folklore. There have been other stars such as Kishore Kumar, Mehmood, Pran, Amjad Khan, singers Lata Mangeshkar, Mohamed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, even writers Salim-Javed, who have become legends in their lifetime.

Many of them have vices some not so trivial. They have insecurities, complexes and fears. They have friends and families, who mean more than the fame and power they project. They are gluttons or anorexic, angry or frustrated, petty or selfish. They all have their fads and foibles. Their dimples and warts. All this goes beyond their charisma and remains the unseen reel of stardom.

Being worshipped in your lifetime is heady no doubt .The power to sway people is immense power. To be destiny’s favoured child is a privilege. Yet having spent five decades in showbiz, I have seen the serpent of time dance gleefully as it stings another star into comatose oblivion.

While the awards lie on dusty shelves, TV shows reruns, books are written about them, they all walk down the lonely boulevard where the sun sets, where applause is a distant echo in memory and someone else has snatched the baton away in this relentlessness relay of fame.