Yasser Usman is one of India’s most successful biographers whose honest and well researched unauthorized biographies are unusual in India. When we published his book Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy in 2018, Sanjay Dutt and his legal team took to Twitter to slam the biography and threatened to take legal action. However, Yasser’s books are based on straight facts and intelligent research. Since the book was based on information that is available in the public domain (as were his previous books on the legends Rekha and Rajesh Khanna), Sanjay Dutt and his team did not go ahead with their plans.
Yasser has a rather interesting life story. When he moved from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi to study, his life changed. As the child of a chemistry professor who loved films, Yasser was surrounded by films and music in his childhood. Renting popular magazines for a rupee a day became his favourite thing to do and soon he was as obsessed with film magazines as he was with cricket. Eventually he moved to Delhi to attend college, and on the 3rd day of joining college (Yasser starkly remembers this), he was shocked to discover that there were actual ‘books’ written on cinema in the library! Many of his teachers taunted him for reading film magazines, he hated them but had no other choice but to feign respect. He had a eureka! moment when he stumbled upon film quizzes and their cash prizes. Delhi was truly an eye opener for him. He jumped at the idea of taking part in quizzes with people who are obsessed with films. He really went all out, fed his passion, and won many prizes. During his first professional journalism assignment, he realised that travelling to remote villages from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to shoot reports for the Ministry of Rural Development was not really his thing. A friend pushed him to participate in ‘Bollywood Ka Boss’. Although he didn’t win the show, he did reach the semi finals and won enough money for a huge home theatre system and the realisation that writing and talking about films was his calling all along.
Cut to now (yes, we used this pun), Yasser is an award winning TV journalist and a bestselling author. Yasser’s writing has focussed on the darker side of the film industry, looking at the industry’s sexism while writing about Rekha, and its relationship to drugs and crime while talking about Sanjay Dutt. As more and more questions are being asked about Bollywood today, this week we spoke to him about his take on nepotism in Bollywood, common myths about actors, his writing process and more.
Q: In recent years, and even more so now, Bollywood is synonymous with nepotism. During your research for your various books, what is something interesting that you have found out in this regard? What is your opinion on how nepotism actually works in the industry?
Y: Nepotism is prevalent in every walk of life. Every industry. Every business. It is omnipresent, and it will always remain. A film producer wants his kid to be a film star. And so he is ready to put his own money into producing a film. No one can really stop him from doing so. It could not only be an ethical issue, but also an impractical and too idealistic.
The problem is not nepotism. This word is being used too much without context, I feel. The problem is not nepotism but favouritism and gangism.
For instance- a particular actor is a great performer and is a suitable candidate for a big budget movie. They are about to be signed on when someone powerful from the industry will push for their ‘candidate’- so favouritism. If the same actor then decides to fight back, the group of powerful people (usually filmmakers or film stars) will gang up against them, ignore their talent and won’t work with them. This is worse than nepotism.
Q: You have written about both male and female celebrities. Did you face any challenges while writing about the women? If so, what were they?
Y: The problems I faced are not really specific to the film industry. I would blame it on our society. It’s an anti-women and anti-feminist set up. Women were used as props in hindi films as well as in our society. I came across some shocking stories when I was researching for Rekha and interviewing people who worked with her closely. Most of them were shocked about why I was writing on her. “What has she done to deserve a book?” “Are You going to write about her sex life?”
On record they gave boring, generic bites. It was difficult. Yet there were some excellent people who told me great stories about their experiences of working with her.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about Bollywood and/or celebrities that you have come across? What is an absurd myth around Bollywood that you would like to bust?
Y: That they are super intelligent or charming or extraordinary.
Q: You have often reiterated that Rekha, and even Rajesh Khanna, were very loved but also very lonely at the same time. And we are seeing that that is increasingly the case with many actors these days. Why do you think that is? What does your research suggest?
Y: Perhaps it’s lonely at the top. Insecure too. We have to understand that with successful stars the stakes are really really high. Hundreds of crores in the film, brand endorsements and other things lined up. One flop, one scandal, one new talented kid on the block, and there’s the danger of everything slipping out of their hands.
They can’t trust anybody. There are no friends. It has to be lonely. But the mind and body can take it only upto a point.
Q: This is an open ended question, but what do you think about celebrities’ mental health vis-a-vis how the industry works?
Y: It is still a taboo. No one wants to talk about their mental health. If someone does, it’s mainly to promote a film. The film industry is really traditional and superstitious, and a ‘troubled’ star is always bad news.
Q: Could you please tell one or two of the most amusing incidents that have occurred with you during your research and writing?
Y: I have the most amusing memory of a veteran filmmaker, who directed actor Rekha in four films. When I was in Mumbai for my research to write Rekha, I met up with this filmmaker who was one of the handful of people who had agreed to talk to me about Rekha. He was unsure at first, but I convinced him. I had no idea what was in store for me. I reached his office and was met with the comment – aap toh badey young hain. (You are quite young.) I didn’t think much of this and proceeded to the interview but he stopped me. He had changed his mind. He faked a headache and asked me to meet him at his place the next day at 8.30 am. I was used to these sudden changes by now so I prepared to meet him the next day.
When I went to his house the next morning, he opened the door in a silk lungi and nothing else. It was just him in the house. We sat in his living room and I started the interview. This is how it went.
Me: You’ve made so many films with Rekha ji. What is the most remarkable aspect of her personality?
Him: Bahut saal ho gaye, kuch yaad nahi (It’s been too many years, I don’t remember anything). What’s there to talk anyway?
Me: But why have you called me here if you don’t want to talk?
Him: (Breaks into a song from one of Rekha’s films, tapping his fingernails on the glass table between us.) I gave Rekha this song. Remember how glamorous she looked? Rekha behad khoobsurat hai, aap ki tarah (Rekha was very beautiful, like you).
I was offended and upset with him for being sleazy, stupid, and wasting my time twice in two days. But the situation was also hilarious and I had a hard time keeping a straight face.
Me: (Sternly, this time) Are you interested in talking to me about Rekha or not?
Him: (Smiling) I’m very interested. What do you do in Delhi?
This last bit seemed to work. He finally started answering my questions. But his answers were utterly unhelpful.
Q: What motivated you to embark on your journey of writing ‘unauthorised’ accounts of Bollywood’s celebrities?
Y: When I began reading books on cinema and film personalities, I realised most of them were too sanitised and whitewashed. I had known those intriguing stories of their rise and downfall from the thousands of magazines I’d read in my childhood or during numerous conversations with cinema aficionados I had met during my quizzing days, and from what my father had narrated to me during dinners. These sanitised books were too boring for me. How could a book on the entertainment industry or a film personality be boring? Also, there were almost no books on popular films or popular actors. Popular cinema, which was such an important part of our growing up process was not documented in its pure, filmy form.
I wanted to write their stories in collaboration with them but soon realised they are only interested in a PR format and they wish to only project their whitewashed images.
In the West, unauthorised biographies are a legit and popular format. That was not the case in India and so I decided to give it a chance.