Please read the previous part of this article here.
Manufacturing a star
A film is a cultural product that takes shape through the labours of over 24 departments popularly referred to as the ‘24 crafts’ if not more. All the junior artists, side dancers, lightmen, camera assistants, drivers, sanitation professionals, electricians, cooks and food catering people, spotboys, make up artists, customers, stuntmen, prop assistants, postermen, production assistants form approximately 85 percent of the film crew which invariably has people from Bahujan communities. Often lead actors, directors’ team, writers, cameramen, post-production heads and other key positions in designing costume, choreography, stunts form the 15 percent of the crew who could be from forward castes.
In the industry, the caste lines are very clear and no one dares cross them. People from different forward castes, basically those castes who can dine together, align with each other. Collaborative spirit with a power dynamic oscillates only between these people in key positions. That is how the Kamma-Kapu businessmen bet on their caste men in key positions, like actors and directors and producers, associating with the literary and creative talents of the Brahmin-Savarna castes to produce stars over the last 100 years of Telugu cinema. Between 1980-85, the average number of films Chiranjeevi annually appeared in was roughly 12. Out of these, one or two would be massive successes. But imagine how they must have churned out one film every month.
When everything about a star is about the spotlight, why would any forward caste member give it away to any less-powerful Bahujan? How can one bend to the one from the lower of the caste ladder? I feel this fundamental reflex rooted in caste is the reason why a star should necessarily be ‘manufactured’. That’s how his contemporaries Balakrishna, Venkatesh and Nagarjuna produced from their respective families, who all come from Kamma caste. It’s a parade of their own sheep so that, whoever wins, it’s at the end their own.
While the word nepotism may not even capture the graded inequality that exists across the departments in the film industry, this is how caste has played a major role in giving birth to any star in India. Hierarchies of big stars, small stars, rising stars etc. are formed based on who comes from where, irrespective of talent. Into its fourth generation, the Kamma-Kapu film families have laid a firm foundation for themselves, owning the best of infrastructure and business capital to produce, distribute and exhibit films in the Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana today. If you look into Bollywood, the Khatris, Brahmins and Ashraf Muslims have held onto such a power. And to retain their social position, they constantly need to devise stars from their own galaxies – their castes.
In the process of this manufacturing, the seductively glitchy realities of the star worlds limit their social engagements to grand family functions and business parties. This is where their ‘social distancing’ begins. Operating within what will restore their caste hierarchies and class interests, they invariably live cocooned lives in their luxury homes with infinity pools. Their chase is always for the larger pie than about any equal distribution of the cake. So when it comes to reaching out to the hungry, they can only think in terms of distributing the leftovers, the excesses – or perhaps make a different cake altogether.
Is that where their idea of charity comes from? But charity isn’t love, no? And why would they deny what they see? Couldn’t they at least acknowledge the suffering people, if not reach out? This apathy of the stars in India, rooted in caste and business nexus, extends beyond the film industry and only seeps into national politics. So, maybe it’s impossible to find them reflecting through social justice or love.
RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat at a meeting
with its founder Hedgewar’s image in the background
Aaj ka Goonda Raaj
In the most alarming times of the rise of Hindu nationalism under the Bharatiya Janata Party regime, we have been witnessing some of the most inhuman atrocities on the marginalised. The COVID-19 crisis only unveiled them ten-fold creating an atmosphere of dystopia. And the issue of the migrant labourers is just one of the many other massive failures of our democracy. Had the Modi government acknowledged the migrant crisis and arranged the basic facilities to help them reach their homes safely, the stars would have probably lined up for selfies, holding screenings of their films in open air, in the name of soothing the ‘labour class’ just like they do in their films. Film critics may have curated film-lists exclusively for the stranded migrant workers. Unfortunately, nothing of that sort happened. That is how the larger business nexus functions.
To add to the irony, everyone was seen joining the state-orchestrated ‘thali bajao, diya jalao’ campaigns to gaslight the country in the name of expressing solidarity for the frontline workers. They shared cooking recipes and family selfies from their quarantine comforts and jubilantly echoed “we are all in it together”. 100 years of Indian cinema has been dominated by forward Brahmin-Savarna castes. So, when they say “we are all in it together”, probably they mean that they are together among themselves?
That’s how the story of Chiranjeevi is the story of almost every film celebrity in the country after attaining a certain throne. Perhaps internationally too. The queen of pop Madonna shared a video from her mansion, sitting in a bathtub deluding herself that corona is a social equaliser. While she may be innocently responding from her cocooned life, the caste-business nexus in India deliberately makes every star to stay mute about anything that can go against the government – especially when it runs like a mafia.
The Hindu state did not leave a single opportunity to polarise the Muslim populations and initiate activities to further expand their religious fold. The scandalising of Tablighi Jamaat prayer meetings, the re-telecasting of the TV serial Ramayan on Doordarshan and fanning a jubilation around it, the suggestions to invoke vedic knowledge into killing COVID-19, the religious codes around diyas and shankhas etc. were made to thrive. Coming from the forward Brahmin-Savarna castes, when most of the industry stars align with this religious and caste performances of the BJP regime, it only seems natural for them to not talk about the migrant workers or any other marginalised. They had to enact their concern, just like they do in their films, limited to washing of hands and staying indoors.
Their social imagination cannot go beyond their own mansions? Even during a doomsday like situation of the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t they ask themselves why the poor are made to suffer when it’s the privileged classes like theirs who flew the virus into the country? Can’t they ever think about sanitising the society outside their films – with their conscience, if not with a machine gun? Of all humanity, who are the people who are paying the price for an unjust society?
A walking family during the COVID-19 crisis
Photo courtesy: Jewel Samad via Getty Images
People without Guns
The Bahujans who make up for 85 percent of the population in the country live hand-to-mouth. Their entire struggle in life centers around surviving. These are people without guns – simple people who struggle for a bucket of water – people without infinity pools. Their children would be brought up telling that education will be their most powerful weapon – their gun – their means of survival. People with dreams and full of them – to each their own.
In the film industry most of them would be driven by the fascination for cinema and being part of the industry, you’ll always find them charged with pride. The localities surrounded by Chiranjeevi’s home in Jubilee Hills – Krishna Nagar, Srinagar Colony and Manikonda – is where most of them live. Every film industry in India and the world over has such localities concentrated around stars’ homes. Many want to become actors, otherwise dancers, singers, writers, musicians or want to direct a film themselves. This struggle is often glorified through the desire of ‘making it one day’. Hope fuels their journeys. Hope is all they have.
So, through the course of writing this article, my mind couldn’t resist thinking why the gun in the hands of film heroes became such a recurring prop and how. Was it from superhero comics or graphic novels? Was it the late 60s resistance movements like the Black Panthers’ in America or the Naxalite movement in India. That will make another article so I wouldn’t digress for now. But from where I see, it looks like a forced prop planted by the Brahmin. Because the idea of cleansing society with a gun is a political ideology. Bahujans cannot afford to possess such arms, forget about initiating violence with it. Neither do they keep any to defend themselves.
As we have seen, while Chiranjeevi was ignoring them, none of the Nampally shelter migrant labourers had a gun to question him point-blank how he could simply forget them. When the police were brutally beating them on their way back home, none of them had any guns to defend themselves. When they were made to sit like cattle and sprayed with disinfectant on crossing borders, none of them had the guns to refuse. None of the mothers had any arms to demand any support to carry their children home. Instead they just walked. They kept walking. For days. Until they reached their homes. Dead or alive.
It is these people’s sufferings the stars choose to deny and ignore their existence. And this is happening at a time when a state, with a constructed religious majority, possesses arms, has armies and unleashes violence on the defenseless people during a pandemic. The violence takes uglier form when basic necessities like food, water, shelter and healthcare are denied to them. Almost like ostracising at birth, from the village, for no fault of yours – similar to the core injustice of the caste system.
It was this violence rooted in caste that I felt while watching Chirnajeevi’s infinity pool video. A cold, distant gaze oblivious about the people who may never dine with him. With whom there are no business stakes whatsoever. If that is so, do the stars still deserve our love?
Young Toto in ‘Cinema Paradiso’
as he is lost in wonder looking at the screen
Can you unlove your stars?
As a child, when I imagined the size of the planets and galaxies and located myself so insignificant in the vastness of the universe, it was humbling. However, when the word ‘star’ was attributed to humans like a film actor, I couldn’t process the significance. Nevertheless we all hooted and whistled each time Chiranjeevi’s name appeared as Megastar on screen – in the darkness of the theatre. We all loved him without bothering about any business politics behind the screen.
We still love him. Just look at this video of his 80s reunion with his leading ladies from yesteryears. We all shared this clip on whatsapp with friends and played it repeatedly with our families. With joyous moist eyes we all echoed, “such grace and beauty to our Chiru, there can only be one Megastar”. And you only wish he did not post that Instagram video.
It’s hard to see your childhood ‘hero’ as a villain. Our Chiru has his moral centre right, in place. Being a star, an MLA and MP he knows the gravity of announcing the lockdown with a four-hour notice. He cannot be so distant from social realities surrounded by such human tragedies. Maybe he wasn’t aware of those shelter homes..? Well, a 7-kilometre radius in a city like Hyderabad is your backyard!
I had outgrown the star films much before getting into filmmaking myself, as I got exposed to world cinema. However, the innocence to be lost in wonder, looking at the screen, just like Toto in Cinema Paradiso, kicks in each time I watch any film even today. I suppose that’s how it works for all of us. Doesn’t that then make the stars incidental to the art form? Isn’t it then the magic of cinema, that draws us to fall in love with the characters and the worlds they inhabit? So, when that love is manipulated, isn’t it betrayal? If so, then how could you deal with such a betrayal? Can you look back and unlove or undo all the love in the present? Do they realise how insignificant they are in the magic of the universe? It makes me question love itself.
Can you unlove the fragrance of flowers from your childhood? Can you unlove the streets you played on? Can you unlove the drizzle of the rain that drenched you on your way back from school? Can you unlove your cycle that gave you so many injuries? Can you unlove those winter nights and lazy summers that made you feel closest to existence? Can you unlove the songs that made you realise your first love and those songs that nursed you during your breakups? Can you unlove those characters that made you feel like you could conquer the world?
To the vulnerable Bahujans, as it seems, it’s next to impossible to unlove their stars. Or maybe it’s their ability to let go. However, the inability to unlove only makes the betrayal feel worse, almost amounting to cheating. Will they forgive the stars? Will they ever take to guns? I am not sure about that. Only time should tell.
In an ideal society where arts are celebrated for their immense potential to affect human beings emotionally and empower them, this betrayal may not occur. But in the hands of the Brahmin, when a powerful artform like cinema only gets reduced to a cold and ruthless business proposition, this betrayal only seems consequential. To normalise this corruption, the Brahmin operates through press, film critics, scholars in the garb of dubbing these betrayals as film traditions like ‘mass cinema’, ‘commercial cinema’, ‘art cinema’ etc. This corruption reduces a powerful art form to a regressive tool for control and supremacy. The social capital of the stars rarely gets utilised for any social change. In turn, it dwarfs down and aligns with the state powers. It is this corruption that makes them numb as they stand at their infinity pools and look at the world from their cocooned vantage points. Beyond the story of cinema, this leads to systematic violence in the society that the Rajarams of the real world are compelled to face everyday.
So, it’s all hopeless? Ambedkar says we must annihilate caste to dethrone the Brahmin. So, until caste is not annihilated completely, the Brahmin is going to ruin cinema and society? Hasn’t there been any moment in 100 years of cinema to combat this?
The closing shot from ‘Fandry’
as Jabya, the protagonist, retaliates
A unique opportunity in film history
Until a decade ago, filmmaking was considered as the most expensive art form. However with the proliferation of digital technologies, it has been democratised to a large extent. Using YouTube as the exhibition platform, many Bahujan channels like My Village Show started showcasing varied forms of storytelling and entertainment content from various marginalised communities which were otherwise impossible to encounter. Some made feature length films too. But they still could not break into the movie business. Because the Brahmin had been protecting his turf with the star system and through his control on distribution and exhibition.
With COVID-19, the theatres have been shut indefinitely. The exhibition has moved totally to the web in the form of streaming. Large-scale productions are stalled. The stars are refusing to shoot until a COVID vaccine is discovered. This is going to bring in a paradigm shift in the way films are produced, distributed, exhibited and consumed.
Had a pandemic like this happened 10 years ago, when the internet bandwidths in India were inferior, we would still have been stuck with the theatre exhibition. Now with streaming, the Brahmin’s exhibition hold could fall on the slippery slope. There will be barely any traditional star-produced material for the next two years if not more. Exposure to new content and wider choices places the audience in a position to reject the monotonous commercial cinema. The formula of packing everything for everyone may not work anymore. New forms of storytelling are bound to emerge with new faces and new talents. Having been exposed to the best of world content, people’s tastes are going to change tremendously. It’s going to pose great challenges for the stars to adapt. This could push the star system to the verge of a collapse. Effectively it’s going to make the audience most powerful ever in film history.
While Indian cinema quarantines this way, it has the potential to usher the emergence of what can be called as Bahujan cinema. First time in film history we have the most favorable conditions to liberate cinema from the oppressor. It’s a unique opportunity. This is perhaps true not just for us but for every cinema the world over.
But who can sanitise cinema in India?
A still from the popular YouTube channel, ‘My Village Show’
Our stars from our galaxies
With rich folk cultures and oral traditions the Bahujans have always been empowering themselves with song, dance and theatre. With modernisation and concentration of jobs in the cities, they leave everything behind in the service of the capitalist structures. This is true for any industry perhaps. It is only truer with industrialised artforms like cinema. Additionally the presence of caste in cinema leads to the absence of larger social realities. It causes the erasure of diverse folk cultures from the popular consciousness and pushes them to extinction. Because a storytelling form like film needs to locate its characters in a socio-cultural and political set up to produce conflict and drama. In a caste-driven industry, the leading players in the business are bound to portray only those realities that align with their business interests and only those conflicts that will restore their social supremacy. This leads to the characteristic status quo not just within their films but also outside – as witnessed in the case of Chiranjeevi.
What if the Chiranjeevis of the country don’t acknowledge the Bahujan crises, thousands of Bahujan sisters and brothers have been reporting from the ground with their smartphones which only makes the film stars hide in shame. It is the same spirit that is going to seep into cinema too gradually. The stars’ voice is soon going to be irrelevant, which can already be felt. Folk artists from the deepest corners of the country have been selflessly spreading awareness about COVID-19 through their performances. It tells, clearly, we don’t need any Chiranjeevis anymore!
So, it is now for the Bahujan writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, scholars and critics to make the best use of this moment in history, where a deadly virus causes cinema to sanitise itself from its oppressor, regaining its dream-like quality to liberate humanity. There’s a potential for new cultures to emerge in the air. Cultures that produce, distribute and exhibit their own cinema. Most importantly cultures that celebrate their own cinema.
As the rich Bahujan materials wait to be tapped for their cinematic potential by our sisters and brothers, let our music engulf this planet. Let its sound echo from the new-found stars of our own galaxies. Let that future be as beautiful as this closing sequence from Cinema Paradiso. For the child in us.
Our beautiful universe
PS: Let’s invite Chiranjeevi to come and dance to our music… Let’s capture it from his infinity pool and share on our Instagram. His kids should find him sway like never before… Let them feel that new music… Let it rain with our own rainbows… Getting us all drenched in it equally… As we celebrate nature together… Sanitising all the evils of this Earth… Let’s see what Chiranjeevi has to say this time.
Come, bring our drums out… Bajao bang bang!
Amarnath Sandipamu is an independent filmmaker-writer. He blogs and shares details on his work at amarnathsandipamu.wordpress.com
I would like to thank my friends Pushpendra Johar, Kush Badhwar, Amarbabu Kareddula and Deepu Myneni for their valuable feedback, insights, and language inputs in putting this piece together.