Stardust’s bold covers live in memes. ’90s Bollywood go-to gossip magazine is now digital

New Delhi: India is obsessed with Bollywood, and anything to do with it, especially when it comes to the ‘stars’. The constant bird-watching of their lives might be our highlight of the day, thanks to social media, especially Instagram, but the lure of ‘gossip’ and ‘scoops’ is not new. And that’s exactly why no Bollywood story can ever be complete without Stardust, the magazine started by Nari Hira in 1971.

Published by Mumbai-based Magna Publishing Co. Ltd., Stardust has an allure for both English and Hindi audiences. But it reached the pinnacle of popularity under noted columnist and author Shobhaa De who was appointed its editor in 1995. No one can lay claim to Hinglish more than her — an avant-garde move that quickly caught on among those who loved Bollywood trivia and gossip.

Today, FilmfareCine Blitz and Stardust are the major English language magazines devoted solely to Bollywood. But in the 1990s, their quirky covers and exclusive ‘behind the scene’ photographs became our only entry into the intimate lives of the silver screen superstars. The fact that they have survived the onslaught of Internet and social media bulldozing, speaks volumes about their legacy and what they continue to mean.


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Hollywood-inspired desi ‘gupshup’

Bollywood has often looked to Hollywood for ‘inspiration’, but for Stardust, Nari Hira didn’t just want a recreation, he wanted a desi twist. “His vision was based on the popular Hollywood fanzines of the time, like Photoplay, which ran pictorial, ‘gossipy’ stories on the stars,” says Shobhaa De. “He wanted to create a new kind of film magazine that was a mix of masala gossip and exclusive interviews.”

The monthly magazine was a first-of-its-kind and a mega-hit from the launch issue itself with Rajesh Khanna gracing its cover. The biggest question about Bollywood’s ‘original superstar’, as he delivered one successful movie after another in the ’70s, was the infamous ‘shaadi’ one. “Is Rajesh Khanna Married?” asked Stardust and, unlike claims of many primetime anchors, the nation really wanted to know. Getting an exclusive Rajesh Khanna interview might not have been possible back in 1971, so Stardust added the iconic “?” and arrived, literally and figuratively, on stands and in Indian film journalism.

Be it gossip or interview, affairs or mudslinging, Stardust did it all. From the iconic moment of the first issue reveal that has now become the Internet’s source of memes, Stardust has not been without its competition. Stardust also had its own award show that started in 2004 and ran for 13 years straight.

The magazine, priced at Re 1 back then, is available for a yearly subscription of Rs 900.


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Meme-worthy tribute

‘Yesterday’s art is today’s meme’ — this is the reality of social media at the moment. From medieval art to SpongeBob SquarePants, memes pervade every aspect of yesteryear’s iconic moments in culture and entertainment. This has been especially true of Stardust covers. Be it Rekha in a burlesque do with a black cat to boot or Zeenat Aman-Rajesh Khanna wearing matching T-shirts that declare their ‘love’ for each other, Stardust is a meme-makers’ paradise.

“I see that (memes) as a tribute to an iconic brand,” says Shobhaa De. In a way, memes are a way of acknowledging the enduring popularity of a magazine that once used to be the only gateway into the lives of Bollywood celebs, beyond films. Memes, then, take a look back at what was a prime source of entertainment for most households in India.


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What’s in a Stardust cover?

Meme-worthy or not, the covers themselves were hard work. While we do have elaborate photospreads even now, with a gamut of teams constantly working together to produce iconic magazine moments, in its heyday Stardust took itself very seriously. Except that the results, when one looks back, might appear more ludicrous than funny.

“Initially, the stars picked their own clothes and had their make up done by their own ‘dadas’ (make-up men). Later, we would source outfits from local boutiques and shoot at locations of our choice. Most early covers were portraits/close-ups. The subsequent covers featuring multiple stars came later after we experimented with the original format,” says Shobhaa.

Were there terrible fashion choices involved? A look at some of the covers might give the answer.

From polythenes to aluminium foils, costumes may have created a ‘splash’ when a particular issue of an entertainment magazine was out at the time, but now, they are share-worthy memes that resurface every now and then.

It is, however, unfair to comment merely on how garish they may look. Bollywood’s own fashion evolution has been slow, and the idea of stylists taking care of every single look of a star is a newer import.

Shobhaa De in an interview talks about the photoshoots: “We got top stars to pose for daring shots that had the potential to shatter their carefully constructed ‘wholesome’ image. But, they gamely went along with our out-of-the-box ideas because they realised the publicity value of those pioneering shoots.”

It is, after all, first the Internet, and now, social media, that has made the glare on stars even harsher than it already was. ‘Airport looks’ were not a ‘thing’ before, nor were ‘gym looks’. But now, everything is a ‘look’, and the stars have upped their game to meet this demand.

Before, red carpets and magazine shoots were the events that stars really prepared for. The Indian fashion industry also stabilised itself only in the 21st century. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that while magazine shoots were serious about fashion, serious fashion was still at its nascent stage in India. Stardust was bold and ambitious and the covers were more about the story than the picture.

While many stories remained iconic — the ‘Sexy Sanyasi’ tag given to Vinod Khanna after he joined the Osho Ashram to a feature on Dharmendra’s many flings to one that Shobhaa De says has never died out: ‘Whether or not Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan were ever in a relationship’. Other curiosities included the identity of certain ‘star kids’.

Despite the flood of entertainment magazines in the market, Stardust held its own and is now fully digitised. The iconic covers and magazines might not grace the drawing rooms of Indian households anymore, but they’re a glimpse of the ‘golden’ days of pre-Internet paparazzi, and ‘scoops’ that brought some chatpata talking points to our bland, daily grind.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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