Back in the golden age of Hollywood, stars were made, not born. Actors and actresses were (in most cases) tied to a specific studio, and every facet of their lives, both on- and off-screen was overseen by studio heads who invested sizeable sums to ensure that their leading men and ladies were on the lips of both journalists and the public. And though the men who built Hollywood excelled at launching and maintaining careers, even they would stand in awe were they to look at the way in which the star system works in the Indian film industry.
India has a long cultural and religious tradition of worship and veneration – be it a guru, hero, or idol –and film culture, so important to much of India’s population, is no exception. Like Hollywood, Bollywood also went through a lengthy studio era, and though there were stars who achieved tremendous fame and popularity during those years, it pales in comparison to the current day, when stars have reached almost deity status.
The Bollywood studio system began to collapse in the late 1940s owing to a variety of financial and social factors, and it was quickly replaced by various independent production companies that began churning out formulaic masala films, which contained elements from multiple genres. At the center of all these productions was a star who was promoted and marketed more than the film itself. In the years that followed, star power continued to grow at an exponential rate and by the 1980s the salary of the leading actor or actress accounted for over half of the film’s production budget. However, box office returns were such that this system was economically sustainable and even today there’s no indication that things will ever slow down.
Crisis? What Crisis?Unlike many countries in these lean economic times, India’s national cinema is booming, with each year seeing double-digit percentage growth in ticket sales. Though one could argue that the quality of films has improved, it is the sheer star power of a film’s lead actor and/or actress that repeatedly drives audiences into theaters. In 2007 Hollywood finally took notice of Bollywood’s success, and the result was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, a lavishly produced romance based on a Dostoevsky story which was solely financed by Sony Pictures. Yet even with Sony’s generous marketing budget, it simply could not compete with another film released on the same day, Om Shanti Om, a simple satire which was produced by and starred Shah Rukh Khan, quite possibly the most powerful individual in Bollywood. Much like Hollywood, the presence of an A-list star doesn’t always guarantee that a film will be a commercial success, but American studios seemed to have underestimated just how important a commodity the allure of a particular actor or actress is to Indian audiences. This might explain why some American-financed Bollywood films (Saas Bahu Aur Sensex, Chandni Chowk To China) have failed to find either critical acclaim or audience acceptance.
From Bollywood to Hollywood
Yet the rate at which Bollywood is producing films means that its megastars are booked for years at a time, and producers in recent years have begun casting foreign talent , a move which is not without controversy as audiences might view this as an attempt to usurp the power of Bollywood stars, many of whom have are considered royalty. That Bollywood stars are now being lured to Hollywood only complicates matters that much more. Though it’s the largest national film industry in the world, Bollywood still functions more on trust and personal relationships than it does on contracts, and is more akin to a family business than a corporate megalith. However, with the success of films such as Lagaan and Slumdog Millionaire, the appeal of Bollywood is extending well beyond India’s borders, and there are those who believe that star power alone can no longer be the key factor that drives the industry, and that for every Shar Rukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai, there’s a talented breakout actor or actress just waiting to be discovered.