The more you learn about the Bollywood film industry the more you realize how deeply connected and related seemingly everyone in the business is. Some continue to offer denials (“At least my dad was never on Koffee with Karan”) but recently more have turned to spirited defense (“Well, why not? Many things in India work this way.”) While most agree that nepotism is endemic to the industry and say that it is at least somewhat problematic, it can be difficult to fathom exactly how this huge, famous group of friends families actually operate.
However, while binge watching Netflix’s “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” this winter, I felt like I was finally witnessing an aspect of Bollywood celebrity that had eluded me as someone who is not Indian and does not live in any kind of proximity to these stars. There are a couple of instances where I found myself literally saying, “OHHHHH.”
First, if you don’t know, “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” is a reality show in the style of “Real Housewives” that follows the wives and mothers of Bollywood actors, including one woman who was an actor herself. Maheep Kapoor is wife to 90s star Sanjay Kapoor and sister in law/aunt to the mega-star Kapoor clan that includes Anil, Sonam, Arjun, and Janhvi Kapoor. Maheep’s daughter, 21-year old Shanaya, is hoping to “debut” in films soon. Seema Khan is/was the wife of one-third of the super star Khan brothers, Sohail. She is a designer with her own fashion label. Bhavana Panday is wife of 90s star Chunkey Panday and mother to recently debuted Ananya Panday. Bhavana also has a fashion brand. Finally, Neelam Kothari was herself an actress in the eighties and nineties and is now an accomplished jewelry designer. She married TV star Samir Soni in 2011 and they have a small daughter. Unsurprisingly, the show is produced by self-styled King of Bollywood Nepotism Karan Johar. Like many Bollywood fans, I have a like-hate opinion ofKaran Johar, but we will put that to the side.
Over the course of the show I came to genuinely like these women and I could see the difficult balance they try to strike between being matriarchs of B-town and also having identities and achievements of their own. They are proud of their part in the film fraternity but they carry it somewhat uncomfortably. Therefore, they want to highlight their businesses and professions. But this risks making them seem like bad homemakers, so the ladies insist non-stop throughout the show that nothing in the whole galaxy could matter to them more than their children. In the first episode, these declarations escalate from “my children are my world” to “my children are like my internal organs.” (paraphrase)
The four women have the usual reality show manufactured spats, interspersed with glimpses of their homes and families and faaaaab vacations. Maheep and Bhavana try to support their daughters as they debut into society. Seema frets over her university-age son and keeps quite busy with her fashion company. And Neelam ponders re-entering the film industry. Which brings me to my first revelation.
- Why audition when you can be beautiful instead?- This one I actually knew already. But it frustrated me all over again. When discussing a possible return to films with director Ekta Kapoor, Neelam absolutely balks at the idea of having to do an audition. She may have been out of the industry for over twenty years, but directors and producers are supposed to trust her based on her former work. Ok…fine. Established actors do get to sidestep a traditional audition process, especially in B-wood. A couple of episodes later, though, Neelam recounts how she got her first role in the eighties. Director Ramesh Behl saw her at a fellow director’s birthday party and thought that she had the right “look” for his upcoming film. She was 16 years old. Again…fine, I guess. Plenty of famous women in any industry broke in by being “noticed.” But usually that’s the exception. For women, the path into Bollywood goes straight through beauty and connections with nary a stop at talent or language ability. The fact that India has turned out so many great actresses is a testament to their ability to learn on the job and rise to the occasion, not to the quality of the selection process. So, why should 51 year old Neelam audition when sixteen year old Neelam never did? What about the Neelams working at the tea stalls and not partying with directors? Alas, we will never know.
- Not everyone in Hindi films speaks Hindi- I have absolutely no authority or inclination to judge someone on whether or not they speak Hindi or any other Indian language. I will say that I did not realize before watching this show that when Indian friends said to me, “Those stars don’t even speak Hindi” they didn’t mean, “Those stars prefer to speak English.” They meant they don’t speak Hindi. Which you have to admit is a bit odd for people who want to be stars in Hindi films. I think it’s true that most of the Bollywood fraternity can and do speak Hindi, but it is still surprising to hear that some just flat don’t. Shortly into the series, Maheep invites her nephew and movie star Arjun Kapoor over to talk to her teenage son about his desire to be in movies. Arjun tells him he’ll have to learn Hindi, because he hardly speaks a word of it. The boy can hardly say two words in any language and appears uncomfortable on screen, but his opportunity in films is guaranteed, regardless of whether he improves or not. What else could he want to do? What else could he know? In the Kapoor family there is films and there is films. So into films he goes. This alone would not be the most bothersome thing in the world if not for the thousands of young men with acting, dancing, and language chops who will never even make it into the room with a director much less have them on dad’s speed dial. Could they do as good or better in movies? Alas, we will never know.
3. If SRK was not your babysitter, you are already behind. This was the true moment of revelation. In the last episode of the series, the uncontested queen of Bollywood Gauri Khan throws a bash for her friends in the industry. It’s equal parts swanky get-together and family reunion. Something about seeing everyone in the same room, the inner sanctum of the fraternity, finally got it through my head. They run this industry. It is theirs. You may was well try to become one of the Koch brothers. Everything made by those outside this circle is “independent.” This is Bollywood. At the end of the night there is a staged scene in which the King, Shah Rukh Khan, gathers the women of the show around them and holds court. They reminisce about their younger days. It was actually quite sweet. You can see the magnetism SRK has and the way he holds the room. The younger generation (Shanaya Kapoor and Ananya Panday) joins in and remember the trips they took as children with the Khans as far as London. Gauri remembers how they would leave the children with Shah Rukh and how good he was with them. And just like that, I fully understood that if you want to be anyone in Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan himself was not your babysitter, your best friend’s dad, you are already behind.
“Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives” helped me empathize with B-town celebs, particularly those in the show. I genuinely felt for Maheep and Bhavana as they worried about the outright bullying directed at their daughters. We peek into their world and see their reality and understand that they can’t fully see the privilege and nepotism that runs their lives because it is the air they breathe, the water they swim in. Their lives and families are the Hindi film industry. There is no them without it and there is no it without them. All else is “outside.” All others are “outsiders.” It’s not “who do you know,” it’s “who are you.” Others have known this for a long time, but Fabulous Lives, finally gave me a window into the film fraternity and I can only say…it’s worse than I thought.