29 May 2023

Talent gets a professional touch (IANS Column: B-Town)

The star system of the past gave rise to a breed called 'the secretary'. He was described as a star secretary if the actor he represented happened to be a big draw such as Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra or Dharmendra. He would act pricier than his star bosses. The era was such, you needed to humour the secretary more than the star if you expected to come face-to- face with the star at all.

This breed called the secretary was not born to be one. In most cases, he was a close buddy of the star or some freelance journalist or such person who hung around a particular star. Some of them had come to make a career in the film industry; in most cases in acting. Now that a secretary had made a place for himself, his goal in life was to turn a film producer.

Many were successful in achieving that goal and turned to film production. In most cases, the biggest mistake a star secretary would make was to trust the same star to lead his film. The very star you were subservient to! That was a recipe for disaster and I have seen many secretaries thereafter get consigned to oblivion.

The real star secretaries were the ones who handled the work of character artistes. Because, while a producer may have the dates for his star, it was tough to match the availability of a character actor who was busy with dozens of films at a time!

This factor got even more complex when South India filmmakers made films featuring a number of character artistes such as Kader Khan, Shakti Kapoor, Asrani, Amjad Khan, Prem Chopra, Jagdeep, and all such prominent character artistes. Almost the entire gang of character actors available in the Mumbai Hindi film industry were cast in one film!

A secretary often had an uncertain career, especially when it came to female stars. As soon as she was successful, the star sacked her secretary and appointed a member of the family, usually the father, mother or husband. It did not matter that this made it awkward for a producer. A secretary would charged a certain percentage, say 20 per cent, of the star's remuneration. Once the star became successful, greed set in.

That was the era when a star gave out shooting dates in bunches of three-four days, if you were lucky, or, otherwise, by the hour. The myth was that the secretary maintained a star's dates diary. In reality, a secretary's job was to do the dirty work of the star, like cancelling dates, rationing dates and, most of all, collecting payments from the producer; a star couldn't go on asking for his installments (which usually involved cash).

Even in those days, actors were bound by an exclusivity contract by the filmmaker who gave him his first break. Usually, such a contract bound an actor to three films with the same producer. If the star flopped, the producer forgot all about the star and the contract for two more films. Often, a star did the same thing if his debut film became a hit.

There are stories of an actor who signed a three-film exclusive contract with as many as three filmmakers. He went on to become a hugely sought-after star and no producer could dare take any action against him! Contract be damned!

A film star did only films. That was his source of earning livelihood. That is the way a star liked it.

When the corporate culture made its entry into the film industry and more avenues opened, the era of secretaries and booking stars by the hour became the past. The film industry was streamlined in many ways, such as the start-to-finish shooting and release schedule started being planned in advance, and the film being launched with multiple screen releases all over India.

What also changed was the way the careers of stars were handled. There were no secretaries. Talent management companies, as they are called, replaced them. Also, film stars had expanded their horizons. They took to modelling, became brand ambassadors, cut ribbons at functions or store openings, and even danced at weddings for money. Remember the Ambani scion's wedding in Rajasthan when the biggest of stars were made to play hosts!

It was not within a star secretary's range to handle all this.

Stars may have loved all the money they could make, but they were not cut out to be negotiators, least of all discuss money. The kind of money they never imagined they deserved!

After all, a secretary was usually a friend of the star or somebody who stood by him during his days of struggle. He was not equipped to negotiate deals worth crores with ad agencies, event managers and corporate houses.

The secretary system paved the way for what is now called talent management agencies. There are a few such agencies run by individuals known as casting directors or agents. Once the lead pair is signed, they are supposed to help with filling in the supporting cast. Sadly, such individually owned casting agencies have a bad reputation of leading an aspiring talent to the casting couch!

It was time the scene got more professional and it has happened. We have quite a few such organisations that have stars on their rosters. Corporate houses, both foreign and Indian, had helped streamline the way the industry and its auxiliaries work. Cash dealings are now a thing of the past and films are made according to schedules.

But, most of all, the new way of making films also has put paid to the exploitation.

Those who stand to benefit most are the actors and singers. And the professional talent management agencies. When it comes to singers, these agencies have made it possible for them to not only dream of crores, but actually make crores. The same applies to actors who have signed up with professionals.

It is not only about films anymore. The professionals handling their affairs encash a star's potential to the last rupee through everything that turns into money.

The singers also don't need to live with insecurities anymore. They are assured of a regular income every month. According to their status and popularity, an artiste's annual take-home is decided against which s/he will let the talent managers plan ways in which the star's or singer's career can be exploited to get the best out of it; to get assignments befitting the status of the performer.

It works like this: A star or singer gets an assured paycheck, ranging from lakhs to crores, on a regular basis, which is called the Minimum Guarantee (MG). This is the way filmmakers and distributors worked all through decades. After the MG is recouped, the company and the artiste share the rest.

So far, a production house which gave a break to an artist bound him to an exclusive contract whereby the production house handled his affairs and kept a certain percentage of his income. In this system, the production house could make or break an artiste's career. They would not give him any work, nor let him accept outside offers. (It happened with one young actor who is no more now.)

What has happened more recently is that a South-based talent management company has grabbed some of the saleable talent from Mumbai studios. (They also handle careers of celebrities from other fields.)

This company has on its roster celebrities in all fields from the North and South alike: films, music, television, OTT, digital influencers, and other aspects of filmmaking, besides sports. Quite a few Hindi cinema stars who were on contract with some or the other Mumbai production house have shifted their contracts to this South-based agency.

What is interesting about this business is that the acquisition arm of a giant business house, on an aggressive spree of buying companies or stakes in entertainment-related organisations, is said to have show an interest in the talent management company. Now, that would be a deal worth talking about.

Between the era of the secretaries and now, when professional talent agencies are the norm, one thing remains constant. None of the two touch a budding talent or spot talent. They only accept proven talent who have made a mark.