As Indian cinema turns 100 years old, one powerful Bollywood dynasty can trace the roots of their stardom almost right back to the birth of the national film industry.
“We have been there throughout. All the milestones of cinema, there has been some Kapoor or the other,” says 60-year-old Rishi Kapoor, who has notched up nearly 150 Hindi film credits over a four-decade acting career.
It started with grandfather Prithviraj, a silver screen pioneer from the 1920s. Then came his son, the legendary Raj Kapoor, known as “the Showman” and “India’s Charlie Chaplin” for his roles as a loveable tramp.
Raj’s three sons followed him into acting, with Rishi leading the way as his generation’s romantic hero. Now Rishi’s son Ranbir, 30, is touted as “the future of Bollywood” and his niece Kareena is a leading actress.
That’s not to mention the Kapoor spouses, cousins, in-laws and other relatives who have taken a shot at movie stardom with varying degrees of success.
“The audiences have always welcomed us and given an opportunity and we’ve lived up to it,” Rishi tells AFP at his sprawling bungalow in the film capital Mumbai, which he shares with wife Neetu, an actress, and their rising star son.
The three of them will appear together in the film “Besharam” (Shameless), which Rishi is just back from shooting in New Delhi. He jokes that he is done talking in interviews about his son, whose fame is fast eclipsing his own.
“Whenever I talk about Ranbir… whatever I’ve said about him is in the headlines,” he says in theatrical mock anger. “The article’s about me, not my son!” But he is clearly delighted that Ranbir is continuing the family tradition, which he puts down to “our purpose, our resolve, our passion for cinema”.
The lineage keeps producing talent — Ranbir won critical acclaim for his turn as the deaf-and-mute hero of last year’s hit “Barfi!” — but it also shows the power of a surname in an industry still mired in nepotism.
As Indian cinema marks its centenary this week, the main rivals to the title of “Bollywood’s first family” are the Bachchans. Veteran superstar Amitabh Bachchan married actress Jaya Bhaduri and their son Abhishek has followed them into the movies, albeit to much less acclaim, and married model and actress Aishwarya Rai.
Among other famous film families are the Dutts, the Bhatts, the Deols, the Akhtars, the Chopras and the Johars.
“I’m a brand ambassador of nepotism,” admitted director and producer Karan Johar at a recent conference on cinema in Mumbai.
“If my father was not a film producer and he didn’t have that kind of contact with other illustrious filmmakers, I would probably have been a fashion designer, I would have been in the world of advertising.” In showbiz worldwide it helps to have connections, but India is especially fond of its dynasties. In politics, 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi may run to be his family’s fourth-generation prime minister in polls next year.
Johar’s nepotism comments were made at a panel titled “Gatecrashers who made the party: the Out of Towners in Bollywood”, which highlighted a handful who have shown it is possible.
Indian businesses also tend to stay in the family, be they small roadside food stalls or sprawling conglomerates such as consumer goods giant Godrej and the Reliance energy and telecoms empires.
“Networks count for a lot in India. It’s not just merit. If your father’s in the business, he has an established network and that’s very important,” says Dipankar Gupta, a former sociology professor.“Democracy tends to mask in India that the patron-client relationship is essential, it keeps things going at every level.”A few outsiders have managed to break into cinema.
Megastar Shah Rukh Khan, ranked as India’s top celebrity by Forbes, had no starry childhood but a middle-class upbringing in Delhi.
Half-British Katrina Kaif, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actresses, was brought up abroad, not speaking Hindi, and “had an ice cube’s chance in hell of making it”, according to an April edition of Filmfare magazine.
“I think it has become a more accessible space in the last 15 years. The pearly gates to the kingdom have opened up a little bit, especially for filmmakers,” says film critic Anupama Chopra.
She adds however that nepotism remains a “big part” of the industry: “the son of an actor invariably becomes an actor”.
Rishi insists that hard work and talent are crucial to make it to the top — not every Kapoor has hit the big time. But if you are one of the lucky ones, he sees little sense in diverting from the family path.
“It’s plain logic. Why would I want to become a rocket scientist when I’m good as an actor?” he laughs.