Jahnvi's emojis, Malaika at gym, Urfi at airport—Paparazzi's secret handshake with Bollywood – ThePrint

Mumbai: The Mumbai paparazzi’s day starts as early as Taimur Ali Khan’s.
Photographers huddle in raincoats outside Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan’s Bandra condominium, their long, invasive lenses on standby. It’s a tedious wait to catch a glimpse of the Khans’ five-year-old celebrity son. They scroll through Instagram, showing each other memes and celebrity posts.
But Taimur doesn’t arrive. Instead, Kareena’s driver waves at them from an empty car.
“Right now, nothing’s happening. We are outside Kareena’s house only,” one photographer tells someone on the phone with a sigh.
Another checks his watch and quickly mounts his bike. “Come. It’s 11.30. Malaika will be finishing her yoga class.” The next stop on their hunt is the Diva Yoga studio.
This group of photographers is part of the ‘Bandra team’ working for Indian paparazzi moguls Viral Bhayani, Manav Manglani, and Varinder Chawla. Their job is ‘daytime spotting’  — and they do it outside schools, gyms, neighbourhood parks, bars, cafes, and the airport.
They work all day, every day, just to grab a few seconds of superfans’ scrolltime with celebrity reels and candid images. Janhvi Kapoor, Ananya Pandey, and Sara Ali Khan’s gym looks compete with those of Kareena Kapoor Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Hrithik Roshan leaving the airport. Entrances and exits at events like Alia Bhatt’s balcony wedding or Karan Johar’s 50th birthday party are as important as the event itself. There are no unguarded moments in Bollywood.
And Bollywood loves them back too. Alia Bhatt anointed paparazzi as her “number one” at a promotional event for Darlings (2022). Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan argued over who the paparazzi love more on Koffee with Karan, while Sonam Kapoor remarked on the phenomenon of ‘airport looks’. Ranveer Singh even imitated the way Varun Dhawan and Kartik Aaryan act around them. It is a formidable, well-oiled, 24×7 industry in itself — Karan Johar even said that some get photographed outside airports without even having booked flights just to have that ‘airport look’. And the paparazzi say that they show up at the airport so that celebrities aren’t disappointed when their looks go unnoticed.
For most people, their strongest memory of the paparazzi is the chase that led to Princess Diana’s death coverage of Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in a Paris tunnel or the hounding of Britney Spears. But the age of Instagram and instant gratification has birthed a new community within the entertainment industry: One in which the paparazzi and celebrities are partners in crime.
“Stardom is stardom,” said Shobhaa De. “The era changes. The context shifts. If it was about mystique in the past, it is about overexposure today.”
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The paparazzi know everything that’s happening in Bollywood. They know who’s dating who, who lives where, and who’s about to do what. And even if they don’t, they get tip-offs.
India traces its paparazzi culture to the 1990s. With the advent of Yogen Shah, freelance photographers became an integral part of the industry. But the arrival of Viral Bhayani and Manav Manglani created an entirely new, mutually beneficial attention economy. The paparazzi need celebs, and the celebs need them too.
“Viral has changed the concept of ‘celebrity’,” said Shawn, one of Bhayani’s photographers stationed in Bandra. “He’s been covering TV stars and not just Bollywood actors. In fact, TV stars interact more with us and give us interviews; their clips are the ones that go viral.”
But surprisingly, paparazzi in India aren’t just the cogs in the wheels of the influencer market. They have become influencers themselves in their own right.
They have millions of followers on their own social media accounts and have one-on-one relationships with celebrities. The paparazzi are creating the stars and calling the shots.
“Celebrity is driven and controlled by algorithms, not talent or charisma,” said Shobhaa De. She pointed to celebrities like Urfi Javed as a “self-styled phenomenon” as opposed to more traditional stars.
Javed is a paparazzi favourite — and the outsized attention she receives has been questioned and subjected to debate. She shares a very comfortable relationship with the paparazzi and recognises the role they played in propelling her to national prominence.
“Indian paparazzi are very respectful, to be honest,” said Javed. “They refer to us as sir and ma’am, they respond to our requests, they listen when we ask them to maintain distance. It’s not like in the West. These are nice people.”
The point of distinction between Bollywood and Hollywood paparazzi seems to be a ‘culture of respect’. In Mumbai, celebrities and photographers are not at the opposite ends of the spectrum — they interact with each other quite openly and honestly. They tell jokes, scold each other, pay cheesy compliments, quote Urdu couplets and aren’t afraid to ask questions.
“Of course, sometimes they ask questions I’m uncomfortable with, but that’s their job. We’re all working under pressure,” said Javed. “This is a new community. The paparazzi culture is quite new — on both sides.”
And the Indian avatar of the paparazzi is more collegial and less adversarial. At star weddings, they invite ‘paps’ who are on stake-out duty to buffets. Photographers even disagree on which stars were the kindest to them during their wedding – Alia-Ranbir or Sonam-Anand? The broad consensus is that it was the latter.
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Most of the action takes place between Bandra and Andheri, with a little reroute to Film City — it’s where celebrities live, work, and party in Mumbai.
Paparazzi teams are always stationed in Bandra, Andheri, and the airport. Some photographers — or whoever is closest to the venue at the time — are assigned to cover events, usually around Juhu. Whatever photos they take are immediately sent to their bosses at home — Bhayani, Manglani, and Chawla, all working from home and usually stepping out for big events or when they’re personally invited.
Both Manglani and Chawla work with around 15 photographers and videographers on the ground, and the work is nonstop.
“‘Paparazzi’ is the term we’re being referred to as. Earlier we used to be photographers invited to events, now we’re more actively involved. We do a lot of research around the moment to try and extract the news. We know tour dates, shooting schedules, car number plates…but there’s always a line where we stop,” said Manglani.
The relationship between the paparazzi and celebs took some time to hit its stride. And even now, it depends on who you ask.
The bone of contention is what counts as an invasion of privacy: While celebrities have a right to their privacy, the paparazzi believe they’re public figures who can be photographed in public spaces — whether they’re leaving the gym after a workout or their office after a script narration. Part of the renewed excitement follows the long drought of the pandemic when celebrities stayed home and public appearances were only on social media.
It’s also a career path with a lot of exposure, according to Javed. But it’s understandable if celebrities don’t want their children to be photographed or don’t feel presentable on certain days. The fact that there are fewer bad-hair day photos shows how much orchestration goes into planning these not-so-casual encounters.
The degree of fame adds another layer to the issue: Stars like Shah Rukh Khan are almost never left alone in public — someone’s taking selfies and videos even if it’s not the paparazzi.
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At a Netflix event, paparazzi photographer Manoj scrolls through his WhatsApp. He’s just sent a few photos he took of Alia Bhatt to her and her PR team — after first sending them to his boss, Viral Bhayani.
Manoj leans across the table and shows Bhatt’s bodyguard a photo of him. “Take a better one next time,” the bodyguard jokes.
Paparazzi photographers have a great personal rapport with the actors and their teams. After all, they see each other nearly every day. One said that Jahnvi Kapoor replies with emojis when he sends photographs he clicks of her.
In fact, they’re now a part of each other’s routines. In the same way that the paparazzi know what celebrities are up to, celebs are also aware of the paparazzi’s modus operandi.
Shawn recounts a story from the previous day in Bandra when he was getting ready to follow Ranbir Kapoor’s car to get a shot of him. A few metres into the chase, Kapoor’s car pulled over and he rolled down his window. “He was letting me know that he was going to Town, so it would be a long bike ride for me,” said Shawn. “I’m glad he told me, I avoided that long journey.”
And this consideration can easily be revoked, he said. Plenty of rumours suggest that Shah Rukh Khan is unhappy with how the paparazzi covered his son Aryan Khan’s connection to the drugs case. The paparazzi know this — Shah Rukh’s been using an umbrella to cover his face and keep them from taking photos, they said.
But they don’t hold it against him.
And celebrities don’t hold the paparazzi’s transgressions against them either.
One thing is clear — the less famous you are, the more you pay the paparazzi to photograph you.
A-list celebrities don’t need to pay to have their pictures taken, according to photographers. Their schedules are already followed with enough interest. But for lesser-known celebrities who don’t always get mainstream coverage, the paparazzi provide an important platform — for which PR firms are willing to pay.
Industry insiders said that the amount a paid post costs depends on who you’re selling. PR firms pay anywhere between Rs 8,000 to 20,000 for a standalone post, but for lesser-known stars, the numbers can go as high as Rs 50,000.
Package deals are popular to stay relevant, too: One package is to be featured on a page three times a month or 36 total posts in a year. It’s also standard practice now to have the paparazzi on payroll to promote films — whether A-list or not.
“Does the paparazzi complement PR? Yes, it does,” said Mahrukh Inayet, managing partner of Studio Talk. “It makes the work of publicists easier.”
During the run-up to the release of Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 (2022), the number of ‘sightings’ when Kartik Aaryan was ‘made’ to show his signature dance move from the film is proof.
This is something the paparazzi are aware of too, according to Manglani and Chawla. But not all content is paid for or made-to-order. The stalwarts said that they’re more selective about who they feature on their pages.
“Our page has a reputation,” said Chawla. “At the end of the day, it is Bollywood related, and we stick to that because of our audience’s interest.”
Manglani agrees: Things changed the second he took his business to Instagram. “Things were much slower when we initially started out in the early 2000s. The boom happened after 2015, and Instagram’s user interface is a big reason why.”
The paparazzi boom has also threatened traditional entertainment industry reporters in Mumbai. Stars can get more out of a single ‘plandid’ Reel in less time than an hour-long sit-down interview that can include inconvenient questions with a reporter. Unless, of course, the reporter is Anupama Chopra or the show host is Karan Johar.
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The industry is reckoning with a shift from the old to the new. There are newer stars today who are more social-media savvy and understand the role the paparazzi play in boosting their profile. This has also led to access shifting from reporters to the paparazzi themselves. All “scoops” are engineered or manufactured by the PR machinery of individual stars, according to Shobhaa De.
“Mainstream media also needs to rethink how to cover the industry,” said Inayet. “The same boring formula has existed forever — mainstream media is also responsible for the success of the paparazzi.”
In the ’90s, every actor was accessible to reporters, according to veteran entertainment journalist Bharati Dubey. “We used to spend days on sets, and everything was more personal. That’s not the case right now,” she said. “The paparazzi are creating social media stars over anything else.”
“Earlier, gossip was found in interviews,” said Chawla, whose father was one of the pioneering photographers on the paparazzi scene through the late 1980s and ’90s. “Now our photographers are basically reporters, and directly ask questions for reactions. So, the audience’s interest has also increased.”
Celebrities from the older generation are more difficult to work with, whereas younger stars have much more positive equations with the paparazzi, according to him. “We have much more respect now because of social media,” Chawla said. “And the new generation understands this.”
During the pandemic, when the industry was struggling, Manglani was forced to pay his photographers out of his own pocket.
That is, until he got a call from several publicists and actors’ managers. No less than 10 actors were offering to chip in and pay the paparazzi’s salaries.
“They did it to help us. And they were clear they didn’t want publicity over this,” said Manglani. “This is that kind of community too.”
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)
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