July 26, 2020
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Reeling Under The Spell Of Star Love

Bollywood affairs have always caught the public’s ­imagination. Now, they have also become a marketable commodity, says Sathya Saran

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Reeling Under The Spell Of  Star Love
Reel Love
Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in the iconic still from Silsila (1981)
Reeling Under The Spell Of Star Love

Love is no longer whispered sweet nothings. It is a package that comes with proclamations on social media, brand endorsements, and image building. Is the Age of Innocence lost forever?

I was a kid when I first watched Madhumati. The magic of the movie sta­yed with me for a long time. Its songs and the misty locales the story was set in carr­ied a strange power. The love story itself, transcending births, imprinted itself on my mind. It was my first brush with romantic love, which though second hand, made me believe that all love was for keeps, and true lovers would be born again and again to reunite through centuries.

Almost as important as the film was the impact of the actors in it. Still hazy about the fact that they were images being projected on a screen, I believed them to be real, present in some inexplicable way in person, in that dark hall where I had watched the forest officer and the village girl live through the tale that was spun out.

Talking about it in school, I heard from a senior that Dilip Kumar and Vyj­a­y­a­n­thimala were indeed in love in real life too. She imparted the information with the air of one who knows much more than others, and when asked how she knew of the goings-on in far away Bombay, living as we did in Guwahati, said she had read it in a film magazine. Her mother subscribed to one; it was printed in Bombay. So there!

I turned the information around in my mind. I remember feeling happy. It had to be so. It was as if Cinderella had found her Prince Charming. Dilip and Vyjaya­n­t­h­i­m­ala were so perfectly suited, and the story I had seen on screen could not be false!

As I grew older and wiser, I realised that film magazines often sent balloons into the sky. Some were filled with the hot air of conjecture. Others based on a stray remark, or hearsay. And though some of them could indeed be based on truth, there was no way of knowing for sure!

Rumours continued to be traded among us, through the school going years. Films had a magnetic pull, and the heroines, beautiful and distant, living through emotions that filled our senses; the heroes, debonair and dashing; peopled the canvas of our imagination as nothing else could do. So we learnt that affairs were part of the world of films.

Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Madhumati

Of course they were! Working together especially in scenic locations like Kashmir and Shimla, far away from the humdrum city; speaking romantic lines, singing songs that swore of never dying love...the setting was perfect. The spark would sometimes combust, at other times smolder quietly. Whatever the case, the smoke would find it way to the fans, eager to know anything about their screen idols.

Distance made it all seem perfectly acceptable. The stars themselves, even for fans living in the same city, were people who shone bright on the screen, but twinkled only momentarily in real life. Fans could catch but glimpses of their idols at public events, and charity shows, or the occasional scene shot on a street, before they withdrew into the mists they had drawn around their lives.

Oh, affairs did happen. Though from a generation that frowned on film stars and thought them immoral. Shobhana Samrath defied tradition further, by moving out of her married home with her daughters, to live with actor Motilal. The liaisons were inevitable, and numerous. Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaywant, Dev Anand and Suraiya, Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, Dilip and Madhubala, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, but only those permitted into the stars’ inner circle could separate the grains of truth about the stories that linked them together from the chaff of conjecture. Sometimes, the fans almost willed the star teams to pair up in real life, creating perfect but imaginary liaisons; at that other times the real life chemistry sizzling on screen gave the secret away. It kept the public’s interest in the stars alive, added a dimension to the films they starred in, created a talking point. Beyond that, well, there was the business of daily life.

In fact, the older school of stars put such emphasis on privacy, that Dilip Kumar, in his recent autobiography, dismissed his rather publicly known involvement with Madhubala as merely professional admiration. Gentlemen after all, did not kiss and tell.

Even affairs as star crossed as the one between Zeenat Aman and an already married Sanjay Khan, which had the film media go ballistic over the very public slap delivered to Zeenat by Sanjay, costing her an eye, created only very contained ripples. And I personally remember one long awkward session at the Femina Miss India where at a preliminary contest Akshay Kumar sat tongue tied, saying little, and the other three judges were as uncomfortable. Not being an avid reader of gossip magazines I had placed

Akshay and his lady loves, past and present, Shilpa Shetty, Pooja Batra and Twinkle, in the same panel! Later, the fact that none of the panelists articulated the discomfort, even privately, made me admire their sangfroid. And as the recen­tly released book on Rekha mentions, while the actress did nothing to hide her feelings for the object of her adoration; he, on his part maintained a stiff upper-lipped silence. And the media as well as the fans are still guessing if it was to B or not to B!

How things have changed! Today, people believe revealing their affairs to the world at large makes things all the more real! Love is no longer a feeling in the heart that makes it go boom-boom at the sight of the beloved; it is a selfie on Facebook, often accompanied by a gushing outpouring of words that leaves nothing to the imagination. If the heart is not exactly worn on the sleeve, it is only because sleeves on clothes went out with the 20th century. In the age of sleeveless tops to facilitate tattooed declarations of love, the beloved’s name on the arm says it all very nicely. And it’s so hip too at the same time! And oh yes, driving it all with unbridled vigour is an unabashed sexual license.

So even as Vyjayanthimala and Rishi Kapoor engage in a slug fest over her den­ial, (in her autobiography titled Bonding), of an affair with Raj Kapoor during the making of Sangam, with the showman’s son insisting it did happen, the today generation of stars is ensuring every beat of the heart is a publicly heard Tweet.

Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Whether the affair did indeed happen, causing Krishna Kapoor to move out of her home into a hotel along with her children, as Rishi avows, or not, the fact remains that it did not make national headlines. The ‘publicity stunt’; if it was only that, must have got notice only from the gossip columnists. And Raj Kapoor, uncanny showman that he was, might indeed have welded fact and fiction to push his film up by a notch by leaking information of an affair, knowing then, as we do now, that there is nothing like bad publicity.

Publicity rules today! And the lines between what’s real and what’s driven by the need to catch eyeballs form a warped skein impossible to untangle. The advertising world, the film and fashion industry, the media, both print and electronic as well as the many social arms that communication has grown, have all jumped into the game. So when Deepika and Ranbir or Kareena and Shahid cuddle, then spat and find new partners to cuddle up with, the air waves across media buzz at every point. The Bipasha-John Abraham pairing, and split; Saif’s wooing of Kareena all the way till their marriage, and even Kareena’s baby bump on display at the Lakme finale show by Sabyasachi are grist for the mill.

Salman’s many loves are as public, it helps his image as the cheerleader of the macho club, and his battering down the door of a sulking Aishwarya Rai is neither hidden nor denied by either. That is the oft-overlooked flip side! When celebrities choose to live out their private lives behind glass windows, they cannot choose what they want to hide, be it good, bad or downright ugly.

Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan are among the few exceptions to the rule, managing their love life as discreetly as is possible despite being in the public gaze.

The media, driven as it is by the need to feed the insatiable appetite for salacious tidbits about celebrities, fixes permanent lenses on celebrity private lives. Magazines that only discuss the rich and famous, (and in India that reads ‘Bollywood’) buy first rights to events. And vie with one another to serve up the first sign of a new liaison or breakup.

Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone

Photograph by Fotocorp

Celebrities, especially in the vulnerable world of films, cash in on this trend: Feeding tidbits to their favorites among journos; ensuring they post their affairs on Instagram and other social media to keep the spotlight on. At times, the information ‘leaked’ is real, the result of a surge of emotion that cannot be contained. More often it is the result of a careful study of the effect it will have on the subject’s marketability.

The ad world is not far behind. With stars ensuring their financial future by becoming brand ambassadors, the crossover is a given. And when the advertising tries to cash in on the private chemistry between two celebrities, the pitch is aimed towards easier conversations.

Not very long ago, Tuffs, the shoes brand, stepped where few had entered, with an ad that showcased the real –life chemistry between two celebrities of the modeling world. Madhu Sapre, a Femina Miss India, delegate to Miss Universe, and Milind Soman, darling of the catwalk, held each other in a close embrace, made clo­ser by the python that coiled around the couple. Their faces were well known, their bodies close to perfect. Sure enough the fact that they only wore shoes of the brand being advertised and nothing else, ensured the ad got noticed. Whether the ad sold more shoes or not is not on record, but it did get the brand due attention, despite the outrage that made it clear that the step had landed the agency, shoes and all, into a swamp.

Today, ads have moved into the sexual arena, setting TV scenes on a permanent sizzle. The film censor board may blip f-words and haze out nudity, but suggestive videos of male deodorant ads that hype the seductive power of a simple antiperspirant to show steamy scenes get aired repeatedly while the critics and agencies debate, before being pulled off air. Ad makers have often crossed the line. In the heat of their affair, an ad had Dino Morea tearing off Bipasha’s underwear with his teeth! It was banned later on.

What celebrities do, the janata does. Even as cinema dictates fashion, it dictates behavior. Heroes from Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor to Joy Mukherjee made eve teasing an acceptable code of conduct for young men in the ‘60s through ‘70s; today, the Instagrammed affairs of the current generation of stars, from the first kiss to the breakup, persuades their fans to create their own films. Public venues are witness to private outpourings. Prenuptial videos, complete with playback songs from films are shot against scenic backdrops, and event management companies happily create short films of declarations of love, or a marriage proposal that can be shown for the price of an adverti­sement on a multiplex screen, during the interval of a film!

The question that comes to the mind in all this­: Is this for real? Do relationships that focus on outward show last? Looks and wealth are shaky foundations for any relationship. And perhaps, seduced by what their idols are doing, when a generation follows in their footsteps, the result can be a disastrous tryst with disillusionment. Or is all this the anxiety of a generation past, which was more attuned to quivering flowers and bird couples as stand-INS for intimacy?

Indeed even as conservatives underline the importance of ‘culture’; ‘tradition’; and other such catchwords, the young Indian, empowered by education and financial self reliance, invests in the philosophy of moving on. Little wonder, the irreverent catch line found itself as part of the watch brand Fastrack’s campaign. Though claiming to espouse confidence and self-expression, the initial ads spoke of moving on beyond emotional breakups and obliterating the past in favour of new link ups. It advocated getting rid of accessories gifted by the old and affecting an image changeover with new buys. It was a message pitched to bolster sales. But in the process it did flag a new approach, very far removed from the conventional, ‘saat janam ka rishta’; concept, and Devdas-like images.

More recently, the brand has twisted the catch line’s meaning to reflect on issues such as homosexuality and live-in relationships. Among its latest ads is one showing a couple inflating a large playhouse which they occupy. The text encourages viewers to “Live in. Move on”. Another in the same series had two girls walking out of a pink closet, one after the other, while settling their clothes. The line that accompanies this is, “Come out of the closet. Move on!”. Whether moving on as an ad concept was derived from the fact that Tinder is one of the most popular sites among the young, looking for dates, (or in a fall-out of the idea, a one-night stand,) or whether the youth found in Tinder a natural extension of the ‘moving on’ catch line, is worth a sociological exploration.

Bipasha Basu and Dino Morea in a 1998 ad

Sex and money. The undeniable chemistry between the two, one could argue, has further spurred advertisers, designers, and individuals to flaunt relationships in public for commercial ends. To a lesser extent, this phenomenon of entangling the real with the life on screen extends to the small screen too. Though lower in the glamour quotient, here identification of audience with the actors is more intense, and has greater impact.

Real time couples walk the ramp, hand in hand, as show stoppers, to oblige a designer friend, or tell the rest of the world, that despite rumors, all is well in their relationship. Mehr Jessia and Arjun Rampal walking hand in hand for Rohit Bal, a blushing, newly wed Esha Deol and her husband, Salman with Katrina in tow, have all been duly recorded and app­lau­ded, and provided enough speculative interest to keep the event and the players on top of the audience’s mind. Co-stars, who are reported to be an item, do so too. Deepika and Ranveer have been on this list, but newcomers who reportedly have fallen in love in their first film together also oblige in similar ways to promote the film they are starring together in. While the flash bulbs pop, and the audience aim their smart phones for exclusives to post online, the producers of the film, and the design house are notching up the numbers the appearance will bring in. Only they, and the actors know the real from the reel. But sometimes, even they can’t tell the difference!

We could call it the new frontier in expression if it were not for the fact that the relationship metre seems to be pulsating the whole time with the breakups of brittle linkups. When it comes to more permanent bonds, the uncertainty of building a life with a partner from the fickle world of glamour is given up for the firm certainty of someone well ensconced in the real world. Mumtaz, Tina, Madhu (of the Roja fame) Juhi, Shilpa Shetty and Madhuri; whether they had filmi liaisons and touted them or not, are among those who put their pasts firmly behind them to choose safe havens. With the uncertainty of the glamor world exchanged for the solid ground of a secure ever after, suddenly, the public is no longer privy to content of their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts which are closed, turn secret, or become just plain bland.

Which brings me to a rather cynical conclusion. That the ‘today’ generation, with celebrities leading the trend, has landed itself in a milieu that traps them into an exploitative web where everything they do must have a positive fallout, by way of economic benefit, or public adulation and approval. Where even love, that once mysterious, ennobling, uplifting emotion that made one oblivious to everything else, is assessed in monetary terms, and becomes a counterfeit emotion that cheats the one professing it, as completely as it does those who believe in the declarations that proclaim it.


Illustration by Sajith Kumar

The Bankable Star

Deepika Padukone is not just India’s top-paid actress, she is also among the top 10 highest-paid actresses in the world, according to Forbes. The actress is the only Indian on the list with earnings of $10 million. The list is led by Jennifer Lawrence, with total earnings of $46 million. The one Bollywood star everyone expected to see on the list was Priyanka Chopra. She is the lead star of ABC’s Quantico and will be soon making her Hollywood debut with Dwayne Johnson-starrer Baywatch. However, Priyanka failed to make it to the top 10.

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