Actor Arjun Rampal on set.
Actor Arjun Rampal on set.

Covid-19 can end the circus of celebrity, open doors for new talent, writes Anupama Chopra

The Covid-19 pandemic has sent Bollywood A-listers into hibernation, but perhaps it can open doors for new talent once things resume, writes Anupama Chopra.
Hindustan Times | By Anupama Chopra
UPDATED ON JUN 05, 2020 08:06 PM IST

How will Covid-19 change our notions of celebrity? I’ve been pondering this question over the last month, as our standard ideas of fame and stardom have been rendered null and void by the virus.

Our social-media feeds and newspaper supplements are no longer filled with pictures of actors at glamorous events or gyms, or stepping out of restaurants and airports. Newspaper supplements and lifestyle and gossip websites, which used to keep us alerted to every movement of the stars, professional and personal, have taken a hit because there isn’t enough entertainment news, and even less advertorial content (since there are no theatrical releases) or advertising featuring the stars, since most brands have slashed marketing budgets.

Hoardings are blank because there is little to sell and hardly anyone on the roads. Actors, who were omnipresent entities in our lives, are now, like the rest of us, in hibernation. And this scenario is unlikely to change any time soon.

Also read: Vicky Kaushal donates Rs 1 cr to PM-Cares fund, Sara Ali Khan and Alia Bhatt also pledge support against Covid-19

Over the last month, I’ve participated in webinars and conducted interviews with artists, directors and other stakeholders in the film industry. It’s too early for exact figures, but experts estimate that Bollywood will take a hit of 7,000 crore to 10,000 crore this year alone.

Producers are scrambling to find ways to start shooting again — safety guidelines require that crews, which normally ran to 200 people, be pared down to about 50. Stars will necessarily have to cut down on their burgeoning entourages (it had become routine for an A-list actor to enter a set with five or six people, including manager, publicist, stylist, hair and make-up artists and Man Friday).

Some producers have suggested that actors might also need to take a pay cut because budgets will have to be revised, given current market conditions. Whether or not that happens (in the more than two decades that I’ve been a Bollywood reporter, I’ve never seen star salaries fall), this is an opportune moment for the industry to introspect and reboot.

Perhaps it’s time to get rid of wasteful practices that did not contribute to the quality of a film or bring more viewers into theatres. Like the multi-city tours that had become a mandatory marketing strategy (five years ago, a leading director told me that the promotional tours for his film, which featured two A-list actors, cost 3 crore). Or the untenable entourage costs, which routinely included 10,000 per day for the artist’s chauffeur. A leading TV channel paid this for an actor who lives in Juhu to come for an interview to the JW Marriott Hotel, also in Juhu.

Also read: Akshay Kumar’s Covid-19 ad, shot during lockdown, released: Actor encourages people to go to work, be ‘atmanirbhar’

Of course it is a question of supply and demand, and what a market is willing to pay. Brands and producers contributed equally to the excess. But the applecart has been upended and that might be the one silver lining to the current crisis.

As the industry is reconfigured, perhaps some flab can be shed. Actors, who are at the top of the food chain, could take the lead. I am also hopeful that since the circus of celebrity has been so drastically pared down, more genuine talent will emerge. That we will discover and admire actors who have skill over those who just have an outsized Instagram following.

Karan Johar has repeatedly said in interviews that this experience will change everyone. I hope it also changes some fundamentals in Bollywood. After all, if not now, when?

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