• dialogue badge
25 Jul 2017

The Reason Nepotism, Sadly, Isn't Going Anywhere: Economics

We can tweet and rant all we want about Bollywood's lack of justice. Or we can remember that, at the end of the day, it's a for-profit business run by moneymakers, not saints.

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Karan Johar and Saif Ali Khan, the men at the centre of the storm.

It’s become amply clear in recent months that much as we love Bollywood, we love to hate it more. The film industry has become the default punching bag for the self-righteous, sermonising denizens of social media. Every time there's a pressing social issue at hand — from feminism to nepotism — it seems like this bunch wants our stars to lead the way and set a moral example, even while they sit on their asses and watch the drama unfold.

I can't imagine why we’ve set these lofty ideals for an industry that can't be relied upon to churn out three half-decent movies in a year. But in the Republic of Offense, where fury is manufactured with stunning proficiency every breathing minute, I guess it makes for great optics to have a public figure turned into a whipping boy for the 9 o'clock news.

What is distressing though is that the depth and logic employed in these debates is in stark contrast with their amplified decibel levels.

The recent brouhaha over nepotism in the industry is a classic case in point. For a country (and a mediascape) that vicariously feasts on every blurry image of Taimur Ali Khan and Misha Kapoor, it's a bit rich of us to devote an entire week to outraging about star kids being favoured over the offspring of Pappu Patil from Pandharpur.

For producers, it makes business sense to perpetuate dynasty and sell stories with readymade princes and princesses.

The only reason this can happen is because we can’t seem to wrap our heads around the fact that Bollywood is a for-profit business venture run using all the capitalist doctrines other less glamorous enterprises swear by. For film producers (on whom we can't and mustn't impose faux altruistic motives), it simply makes fantastic business sense to perpetuate dynasty and sell stories with readymade princes and princesses.

The logic is quite straightforward. From marketing a movie to creating buzz around it by piggybacking on the fame of star parents, to raising finances, it is a more lucrative deal for a Karan Johar to launch Saif Ali Khan's son over poor Pappu's.

A star kid may have no upper edge in the talent department and it is probably a mere accident of birth that he or she is preferred over our plebeian Pappu junior. But hey, at some level most of us benefit from such matters of chance and fortitude. It is our good fortune that we got an education that enabled us to read and pontificate on such non-issues, and that too in the English language — a marker for social, economic and sadly, cultural success and mobility in this country. For millions of others in this country, the reality is crippling illiteracy.

The same argument can be extended to the debate around gender pay gaps. A star's remuneration is decided by the footfall he or she can pull. And the male stars bring more moolah in than their female counterparts.

There are many reasons for this — more male audiences, more men in financial decision-making capacities, which leads to more male-centric films that relegate the women into the shadows, a cult of hero-worship that doesn't extend to female superstars and so on. But the way to get around these very disturbing socio-cultural barriers cannot be to equalise pay scales. That would kill the business of cinema.

In a free market, you can only insist that Deepika Padukone be paid the same amount as Ranbir Kapoor if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is and share any losses a producer might incur by paying an actress more money than she is capable of recovering from her popularity.

In fact, that this debate is about economics and not misogyny is proved by the fact that several female TV soap stars earn more than the male leads, simply because the audience there is primarily women.

A star's remuneration is decided by the footfall he or she can pull. And male stars bring more moolah in than their female counterparts.

Sadly though, while the armchair magistrates of social media are busy disregarding these basic laws of demand-supply economics, there are politicians out there doing something worse. Subverting them in full public glare and holding one of India's most lucrative industries to ransom in the most shameful manner.

Take the examples of 3 recent films — Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Raees and Dear Zindagi - which starred Pakistani actors. The producers of these films had to publicly apologise and pay Rs 5 crore as ‘prayashchit’ (penance) to the Army welfare fund because they chose to cast talent from across the border, which is not illegal by any account.

The Internet chatterati were predictably outraged by the filmmakers' pragmatic decision to cow down rather than face a stalled film and mounting losses. I guess when you live in the la la land of Twitter & Instagram, where everything is virtual and nothing has consequences, it becomes difficult to get in sync with the issues of the real world.

And that's a problem.

Because while it's great that we've begun a conversation about issues long brushed under the carpet like nepotism and equal pay, quite frankly we are barking up the wrong tree. Every time the debate on nepotism is relegated to Bollywood – where decisions are made keeping business outcomes in mind - we are ignoring how it's staring us in the face in real, consequential terms in our polity, bureaucracy, and public life. Every time we focus on pay gaps only in the context of movie stars, we are ignoring the real debate on why women aren't able to crack the glass ceiling in corporate India despite being on an equal footing with men.

Let's fume and froth occasionally about real things that matter to real people. Let's imagine newer contexts beyond Bollywood to have intelligent debates. Let's leave the stars alone in their own orbit. They aren't worth obsessing about to this degree, because that’s exactly what feeds the cult of nepotism in the first place.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here

Want to read more great essays, poetry and short fiction?

Sign up to receive BuzzFeed Reader's monthly literary magazine!

Newsletter signup form