Bollywood Empires

It was twenty years ago. The setting was the Indian film circuit, which throughout the 80s had been dominated by unwieldy ‘multi-starrers’, poorly executed ‘action’ potboilers, and vanity projects suffocating beneath the weight of their stars’ egos. ‘Parallel’ cinema had seen its heyday come and go, and the Hrishikesh Mukherjee brand of middle-of-the-road cinema had all but been retired. 1988 was turning out to be no different. An artistically comatose Amitabh Bachchan was taking his 80s mardana avatar to new lumbering lows with the likes of Shahenshah and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati; Anil Kapoor was spewing acid in the violent and bitter Tezaab; Rekha was making her comeback in the bloody vengeance tale Khoon Bhari Maang, and there were at least three films released with rather disturbing declarative titles – Paap Ko Jala Kar Raakh Kar Doonga, Zinda Jala Doonga, and Zulm Ko Jala Doonga. Heck, even Yash Chopra chucked the Swiss mountains and the chiffon saris to make the ‘hip’ – and decidedly inept – Vijay. It was amidst all this din of macho posturing that an unheralded little film came along quietly and proceeded to blow all the huffers and puffers clean out of the water: Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.

QSQT, as it came to be called (thereby popularizing the use of acronym substitutes for films with long-winded names – DDLJ, HAHK, K3G, KANK etc.), was a modestly budgeted film from the house of Nasir Husain Productions, an outfit that had in the 60s and 70s specialized in larger-than-life sparkly extravaganzas like Teesri Manzil, Caravan, and Yaadon Ki Baaraat. But they hadn’t had a bona fide hit since 1977’s Hum Kissise Kum Nahin and desperately needed to get back in the game after big-budget flops like the likes of 1981’s Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai. Their prospects did not seem all that bright, after all NHP’s forte was musical romance for which there seemed to be little room in the loud, action-packed 80s. On top of that, QSQT had no name-stars. The lead pair comprised former Miss India and one-flop wonder Juhi Chawla, and Nasir Husain’s 23-year-old nephew whose most high-profile film work till that point had been as the younger version of actor Tariq in Yaadon Ki Baaraat – Aamir Khan. It was safe to say that nobody expected much from this latter-day Romeo & Juliet tragi-love saga. But word began building up soon after the film’s songs started appearing on Doordarshan’s filmi show Chitrahaar (which all 80s children will surely recall with great fondness). The music by newcomers Anand-Milind was fresh and melodious; the visual sensibility was surprisingly polished, and, above all else, the young hero was a standout. And sure enough, when QSQT finally hit theatres, it grew into a monster hit, giving tremendous boosts to the careers of its director Mansoor Khan, the aforementioned composer duo, playback singers Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan, and of course launched Aamir Khan into the stratosphere of Bollywoodland (from where he still rules today). And oh yes, his young version in the film was played by his three-year-old nephew, Imran Khan.

Cut to today and another cinematic dark horse has trampled much more trumpeted astronomical-budget fare in the box-office race. And its leading man has caused the same kind of frenzy seen with QSQT and AK. The film: Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. The leading man? Imran Khan.

Acting dynasties are not new to Bollywood, of course. Like the Nehru-Gandhis in politics, the Hindi film industry has had its own Camelot in the form of the Kapoors. Big Daddy Prithviraj Kapoor begat three sons – Raj, Shammi, and Shashi – all three of whom became big-time filmi players in their own right. In turn, Raj’s three sons – Randhir (aka Dabboo), Rishi, and Rajiv – also delved into the family business. Dabboo was lucky enough to land some of R.D. Burman’s best song scores, like Rampur Ka Laxman and Harjaee, and so did relatively well for a while, despite a less-than-suave personage. Rajiv fumbled about in grandpa Raj’s infamous Ram Teri Ganga Maili, but his strong resemblance to chacha Shammi actually helped do him in as an actor, and he ended up turning director for a while. It was middle child Rishi who proved to be the proverbial lambi race ka ghoda, establishing a solid reputation as an immensely talented and versatile performer who could more than hold his own against such formidable co-stars as Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. Today, his own son Ranbir is ear-marked for stardom, while Dabboo’s daughters, Karisma and especially Kareena, are already counted among Bollywood royalty.

There are other success stories too, the most obvious being that of Hrithik Roshan. Papa Rakesh was never a star, just a marginally talented actor who hung on by the skin of his teeth. So it is perhaps all the sweeter for him that his son is inarguably one of the biggest stars in Hindi filmdom today, and deservedly so. Similarly, actress Tanuja was never an A-list star like elder sister Nutan, but her daughter Kajol has been one of the most popular actresses of her generation. Nutan’s son, Mohnish Behl, on the other hand, never made it beyond villain/side-actor status, despite a pleasant screen presence. Sharmila Tagore’s son Saif Ali Khan paid his dues for years in one B-movie after the other, until finally his effortless comic timing in Dil Chahta Hai made everyone sit up and take notice. Then the image volte-face in films like Ek Hasina Thi and Omkara proved beyond doubt that Saif was one of the most versatile actors working in Bollywood. After Race, he is also one of the most bankable.

Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan’s son Abhishek and Nargis and Sunil Dutt’s son Sunjay, have both had rather interesting career trajectories. Sunjay Dutt arrived big in Rocky (1981), despite being called more wooden than an Ikea factory, then stumbled big time thanks to his heroin-oriented habit. After kicking the monkey off his back and a few tepid hits in the early 90s, like Saajan and Sadak, Sunjay finally came blazing back for good with his searing performance as a good boy gone gangster-bad in the hauntingly visceral Vaastav. The two Munna Bhais further solidified his position, and today he seems to be beyond hits and flops.

To paraphrase, for Abhishek it was the best of starts and the worst of starts. The best because as the scion of the living legend, he had his pick of high-profile projects to debut with as well the kind of recognisability factor that others would kill for. And the worst because, well, how the hell could he possibly live up to his father’s continuing legacy? And Aby Baby, as he is often referred to in filmi rags, certainly had a tough time. His debut film Refugee tanked, as did the dozen or so others that followed. It wasn’t until Mani Ratnam’s Yuva that Abhishek finally clawed his way out of the mire with a powerful performance as an amoral, small-time crook. With the one-two punch of Dhoom and especially Bunty Aur Babli – his all-important first hit as the solo male lead – Bachchan Jr. at last seemed to be rid of the albatross around his neck; he had made his name his own. Since then, the successes have been steady and growing.

For every success story in the Hindi movie familial annals, though, there are several never-beens. Dev Anand’s son Sunil, Raj Kumar’s son Puru, Mala Sinha’s daughter Pratibha, all three of Shashi Kapoor’s kids – none of them could make their mark. Rajendra Kumar’s son Kumar Gaurav seemed set for superstardom after his super-duper hit debut Love Story, but fate, and the Indian film audience, had deemed otherwise: none of his other films ever worked, and he quietly vanished from the scene, resurfacing periodically in supporting roles.

And now there are those on whom the jury is still out. Neil Nitin Mukesh, Sonam Kapoor, Prateik Babbar – all have made promising debuts, but who has staying power remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, rumour has it that Aamir Khan’s son Junaid is being prepped for his filmi foray…

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