Dream merchants

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Amitabh Bachchan playing KBC with a journalist during the announcement of the seventh edition of the "Kaun Banega Crorepati" show in Mumbai on August 29. TV profitably expanded Bachchan's persona. Photo: Shirish Shete/PTI

Aamir Khan in one of his campaigns for Coca-Cola.

"Koffee with Karan", a chat show hosted by Karan Johar, was planned specifically around stars and film personalities.

Salman Khan, one of the five film stars to have hosted the reality TV show "Bigg Boss". Reality TV has emerged as one of the most popular televisual forms since 2000. A 2010 photograph. Photo: Vishal Kelkar/PTI

The convergence of brand culture, television and stardom has forever changed the profile of the Indian film star, generating new sites for the production of value.
100 years of Indian Cinema

INDIAN film stars have historically functioned within a charged public sphere of linguistic, religious, class and caste diversity. The adulation for south Indian stars like M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth and Jayalalitha (now Jayalalithaa) translated into a dynamic relationship between film and politics. Jayalalitha, the once reigning star of Tamil cinema, is currently the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Amitabh Bachchan ruled the rest of the country as a rebel Bombay film hero for more than a decade. Created as the “angry young man” by the writer duo of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, Bachchan’s rebel persona acquired the status of a modern myth whose memory continues to wield considerable clout even today. Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi acquired positions that had rarely been possible for the female stars before them. Stardom in India has always been about larger-than-life characters whose performances were watched by cheering crowds in large single-screen theatres. These were stars known primarily through their films.

The nature of stardom has, however, fundamentally changed. Today, stardom is allied closely with advertising campaigns for commercial products, something that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. Leading stars in India operate today as “brand ambassadors” for various products, and these endorsements circulate widely on television. A natural outcome of this drive for endorsements has been an explosion of entertainment programming sponsored by leading brands. As private channels expanded after globalisation to accommodate new kinds of entertainment, they set the stage for the entry of stars on television not as actors but as hosts, judges and guests. The Indian film star’s entry into television is perhaps one of the most significant developments of the past two decades.

There was once a saying in Mumbai that only unemployed actors would endorse products such as toothpaste. In contrast, today all the leading stars routinely endorse a wide range of products—soap, toothpaste, hair oil, laptops, cell phones, cars, refrigerators, lotions, paint and more. There were stars who appeared in some advertisements in the past, but these were generally limited to print and were not very common. A successful Pepsi commercial for television with the actor Aamir Khan in the early 1990s tipped the scales in favour of endorsements. The entry of multinational companies has meant more revenue from endorsements, particularly if the star becomes a brand ambassador. In 1995, Bachchan received a fee of Rs.8 crore for a television endorsement campaign for British Physical Laboratories, now BPL. The campaign innovatively drew on Bachchan’s performances in his best known “angry young man” movies of the 1970s and 1980s and combined this with his present look; there was a very successful tagline that proclaimed “Believe in the Best”. The commercials were aired on television just before Bachchan’s return to acting in 1997 and created a significant impact. The BPL campaign made one thing clear: that the actor was still relevant despite his break from acting and that celebrity endorsements would play a huge role in redefining the terms of film stardom in the years to come.

Endorsement campaigns operate across television, radio, print, and live events. While print remains the most critical in terms of revenue, the centrepiece of this assemblage is television because of its role in creating visibility and brand value. Almost 40 per cent of advertising on television relies on celebrities. While Bollywood actors have dominated the endorsement scene as pan-Indian ambassadors, the trend has now changed, with regional stars endorsing products along with their Mumbai counterparts.

Endorsement campaigns can also become the platform to showcase acting skills. This is particularly so in the case of Aamir Khan, who charges the highest fee but is always selective about the products he endorses. In an award-winning campaign for Coca-Cola, Khan generated a range of television commercials to showcase his performance in different guises. He appeared as a Bihari official, a non-resident Indian, a Bombay tapori, a Punjabi peasant and several comic characters. As the campaign unfolded over a few weeks, viewers were introduced to the different personas. This campaign drew a lot of attention as Khan began to use the endorsement platform to get mileage with his audiences. However, endorsements can also court controversy. This is something that was amply demonstrated when Bachchan became the brand ambassador for the State of Gujarat and appeared in a major campaign to promote local tourism. The campaign clearly made a difference in attracting tourists to the State, but Bachchan faced severe criticism from many quarters for lending his name to the State ruled by Narendra Modi. Bachchan claimed he was performing a “service” for the government and did not receive any remuneration for his role. Despite this transaction of “unpaid service”, the significant increase in the tourism revenue of the State enhanced Bachchan’s brand value.

Stardom today has to be viewed through the transactions between television, endorsement culture and cinema. Bachchan’s television debut in 2000 to host season one of Kaun Banega Crorepati ( KBC), based on the United Kingdom show Who wants to be a Millionaire, is a significant story to recount. Many had advised Bachchan that a move into television would destroy his career. Television, in fact, profitably expanded Bachchan’s persona. Today, KBC’s success has been noted by its producers, and they have now created several language versions—Bengali, Bhojpuri, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada—that are hosted by popular regional stars. The KBC experiment made stars gravitate to the small screen to host, judge or just appear as guests. The presence of stars attracted advertising and sponsorships, which worked well for television. At the same time, stars could parade a side of themselves through these shows, which was considered good for their brand value. Other game shows, such as Dus Ka Dum (power of 10) with the popular actor Salman Khan as the host, followed. Like KBC, Dus Ka Dum also invited celebrity contestants. Game shows in general are popular and not all of them have star hosts, but they do make appearances. KBC and Dus ka Dum are examples of shows where the star host has carried the programme.

Chat shows

If the game show with contestants is one format, the chat show with film stars has been one of the significant features of contemporary television. The chat show in its current form first came into existence with a popular series titled Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, produced and hosted by the former actress Simi Garewal. Although Rendezvous was not just with film personalities, they dominated the overall series. The chat show with film personalities has a history in India before the arrival of cable television. A very popular show known as Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan hosted by the lively actress Tabassum for Bombay Doordarshan started in 1972 and continued its run until 1993. In this longest-running television show, several film personalities were brought to the studio for a candid conversation with Tabassum, an insider to the film industry. Unlike Phool Khile Hain, which was conducted in Hindi, Rendezvous was an English language show, shot in a studio set draped in white to exude an upper-class ambience. The guests on the show were royalty, industrialists, stars, film-makers, producers and many other celebrities.

It was the success and popularity of such an English language show in India that made someone like Karan Johar, an established film-maker and producer, come to television as the host for Koffee with Karan, which started in 2004. The show was an instant success. Unlike Rendezvous, Koffee with Karan was planned specifically around stars and film personalities. Johar maintained a witty and humorous tone, often creating provocative encounters with other figures interviewed outside the show but whose interviews were aired during the session. As a friend of the stars, Johar managed to create a sense of ease that allowed the stars to talk freely about themselves. This was particularly striking in an episode with Shahrukh Khan where the actor confessed that he did not know how to retain his friendships. Conversations like this acquire a confessional form, where the star guest ostensibly opens out to the host as a friend and confidant. Koffee with Karan in a sense follows the approach of magazines such as Filmfare and Stardust to provoke minor scandals and controversies in the public domain.

The third season of Koffee with Karan opened with Shahrukh Khan congratulating the director on his return to television. He also apologised for not being present at the launch of the third season. The first episode of the season had Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai as the guests. In the video segment of Khan wishing his friend luck, we see a huge poster of the film My Name is Khan translated in Italian as Il mio nome e Khan. It is obvious that he is in Italy; the poster demonstrates and establishes a link between film and television since Johar is the director of My Name is Khan. The poster shows Khan praying, his religious identity as a Muslim made quite obvious. Here the image is potent; its seemingly innocuous presence next to Khan while he wishes his friend and the director of the film success appears to be like an in-house arrangement harking back to a few months earlier when Khan locked horns with the right-wing Shiv Sena over his alleged support to Pakistani cricket players. The presence of the poster behind him also connects the expanding global audience and festival circuit for Bollywood with television.

Reality TV has emerged as one of the most popular televisual forms since 2000. The overwhelming success of Big Brother in the U.K. triggered a chain reaction, and very soon the genre became popular on television everywhere in the world. India was no different and has several such shows, including Indian Idol. These reality shows are conducted primarily in Hindi and therefore address a much wider audience than the English language chat shows. Of these reality shows, Bigg Boss, inspired by Big Brother, is perhaps the most hyped with its star celebrity presence and following. Five different film stars have hosted the show—Arshad Warsi, Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt and Shilpa Shetty. In each episode of Bigg Boss, a new house is built and all the celebrity contestants live together under the same roof. Without access to any communication gadgets, the contestants are overseen by a voice. There is a confession room where contestants can speak to the Bigg Boss voice and discuss the nominations. Three contestants are selected by Bigg Boss, and then there is public voting to select the winner. Like many reality TV shows, surveillance techniques play an extremely important role in the show, adding to its popularity. There are also dance shows such as Jhalak Dikhla Ja and Naach Baliye, where stars appear as judges, contestants or guest dancers. The most recent season of Jhalak Dikhla Ja was opened by Madhuri Dixit. Film stars now appear on these shows regularly to promote their films.

The leading scholar of stardom Richard Dyer has famously argued that film stars are personas constituted by on-screen and off-screen narratives. This duality of the image is dependent on a balance between the space of screen performance and what lies outside it—a combination of public and private identities that brings together the glamour associated with film, the ordinary world of domestic life and work, and the scandalous world of affairs and other controversies. The contrast between these worlds is made available in sources outside of film as in newspapers, film magazines, in conversations between fans and television and now increasingly via the Internet. Audiences recognise star personas and expect their circulation across a whole range of films. The resultant bond between the audience and the cinema determines the choices made by stars in the selection of the roles they play.

While this can still be the case, the convergence of brand culture, television and stardom has forever changed the profile of the Indian film star, generating new sites for the production of value. No longer only addressing that wide audience that marked the fan base of popular Indian cinema, the star now needs all the requisite features suitable for branding to be able to make a place for himself/herself. This changing dimension of contemporary mass culture in India is dependent on television and can no longer be seen as external to cinema but as central to an extended loop that has fundamentally reconstituted the place of stardom and cinema.

Ranjani Mazumdar teaches Cinema Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the author of Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and co-author of The Indian Film Industry (Forthcoming).

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