Has the end of the superstar really arrived?

In all truth, can the OTT guys ever hope to replicate the heady gloss, glitz and glamour associated with mainstream’s Bollywood?

Has the end of the superstar really arrived?

Monojit Lahiri

My agent-provocateur friend struck again! This time, his polite enquiry was about a section of the OTT actors and fans going over the top declaring the end of the era of the Superstar. “Boss, I understand where this buzz is coming from. I appreciate and respect the gifted but neglected and ignored galaxy of actors being yanked out of the woodwork and showcased in these newly popular streaming platforms, with massive reach at home and world-wide. I get the fantastic opportunities they are now offered to demonstrate their skills to audiences who hardly knew of their existence. BUT to predict the end of the superstar is a bit rich, don’t you think? In all truth, can the OTT guys ever hope to replicate the heady gloss, glitz and glamour associated with mainstream’s Bollywood? Poster boys of art house OTT space, Adil Hussain, Pankaj Tripathi and gang are undoubtedly in a class of their own, but can they ever hope to excite the masses as the Khans, Akshay, Ajay, Ranbir or Ranveer do? Konkona Sen Sharma, Radhika Apte, Sahana Goswami and gang are power house actresses, but can they ever hope to match the sex appeal, allure, sizzle or mass appeal of Dipu, Peecee, Kat, Bebo or Alia? OTT invites respect and admiration; Bollywood awe-filled chloroformed look of not fans, but crazed devotees!”

As always, the irritating guy provoked me into pulling back and seeing this issue in perspective. Actually, stars didn’t automatically happen, but were forced to be created by the public. It all started in Hollywood, where the star-system has long been a significant part of the movie production process.

In the early days, incidentally, the names of the movie actors were never publicised. As time went on, it was members of the seduced audience who wrote to the studios for information about their favourite actors. The studios initially turned a blind eye to this demand, fearing that giving in would pump up the actor’s ego and popularity and make them demand bigger fees. Soon however, the Moghuls realised that perhaps advertising the actor’s name would be a good marketing ploy to generate demand and pull towards the movie and the hike in fees was well worth it in the long run.

This is how, from small beginnings a gargantuan system which was to have deep repercussions on the making and presentation of movies and leave its effect on American society happened. Those sharp first generation mavericks’ intuitive move made solid sense. The Star-system they reckoned came with built-in advantages. The Star has tangible features which can be promoted and marketed – a face, body, voice, mannerisms, a certain kind of personality, real or synthetic – as specific types: Macho, Swag, dramatic, sexy, beautiful, innocent, vampish, enigmatic, comic etc.

The system thus provided a ready-made formulae, easy to put a handle on, simple to decode and make the manufacturing process like another business. The use of this formula could also help to preserve and protect the movers & shakers’ lapses of knowing the intangibles, such as storyline or acting. After all, the star-system offered a standardised product, easy to understand, de-code, promote and sell to Insurance companies and financiers promising profits with an identifiable Product range with something for everybody.

A Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis movie or Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Marlyn Monroe ... take your pick. Each Star was a brand and had their own individual USP and captive audience with favourites from every angle, it was in the interest of the Studio executives to power, hype and push the star-system and it was roses, roses, all the way!

Coming to home ground, our very own reputed film critic, Anupama Chopra had once insightfully said that she has always been seduced by the mystique and magic of the stars and despite being a film critic for ages continues to be zonked by their amazing ability to imbue inane scripts with marginal heft, their astonishingly innate talent for fuelling the fantasies of billions and their mesmerising power to always provide a smidgen of hope. Life may be nasty, brutal and short but we can find comfort in the outstretched hands of SRK; in Salman Khan smashing the baddies; in Aamir Khan helping us heal with humour, affection and charm. Stars were and will always remain a source of beauty and joy and always will remain irresistible, come what may. Chopra concluded her star-craze with “I think for us Indians, we enjoy a uniquely reverential, unthreatening but obsessive and cheerfully overblown relationship with our stars.”

She recalled the time when SRK argued with passion and conviction, how our star system has single-handedly saved us from Hollywood demolishing our industry. How a Salman Khan release once (Prem Ratan Dhan Payo) forced even the mighty Bond franchise Spectre to shift its release date in India!

So what gives? Well-known film critic Saibal Chatterjee famously described India as a country “that is film-obsessed but cinema-illiterate!” He nailed it. The two live in different planets and no prizes for guessing which side is winning! It’s simple. For the masses, entertainment means movies; movies mean Bollywood; Bollywood means stars and stars mean gloss, glitz and glamour.

Mainstream cinema is designed for mass consumption. It is not created to challenge the mind or provoke the audience to go nuts over the human condition. It is not cerebral. To the masses, it presents a refreshing escapist fare, a magical trip to the never-never-land-of-happy-ever-after, where stars occupy centre-stage. No matter how cynical and digitally savvy you are, stars will get you, even for a few moments, blank out your focus and sock you to glamour-ville ... hit your suspension of disbelief, with all cylinders firing! How? Why? Because despite your background – family, education, social, intellectual, professional – you are first a human being with feelings and emotions, hidden wants, desires and preferences, unspoken dreams and fantasies. Stars tap into this subliminal area full-on. If most of these hi-fi types dare not admit enjoying Bollywood masala and the gorgeous glam stars, it’s because they are terrified of being ostracised and labelled down-market.

Does that mean that despite their spectacular showing across the last year and a half, now that the big screen is back, OTT actors will once again be shoved into the shadows? Certainly not!

They have made their impact in no uncertain terms BUT one must remember that this issue is not about talent but requirements about specific platforms and expectations of specific audience-base. It’s about brand-fit. Stars, as brands, don’t belong to the small screen, computers or mobiles. They lose their intrinsic larger-than-life aura. Similarly OTT actors are unlikely to provide theatre-audiences the same powerful intimacy they present on the box. Agreed, it also depends on the content and content providers, but no matter how brilliant, the dizzy glamour associated with stars & big screen, can never be replicated or dismissed. So while OTT has definitely introduced quality-content to its followers, the Khans, Akshays, Ajays, Ranveer, Hrithik or Ranbir along with Dipu, Kat, Bebo, Peecee, Alia are the ones who are likely to generate the footfalls when the covid fear subsides.

Sure OTT has served notice about content being king ... but the Superstar - as has been seen in the past - is above it all. Why? Because they symbolise the best of what the masses fantasize about and as the late, great Hollywood Director Billy Wilder once famously said “one of the reasons for the death of Hollywood is that they tried to make everyone look normal. Some of the actresses who are around today look and sound like my darling niece in Iowa. I love my niece a lot, but hey, I wouldn’t pay to see her act!!”


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