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Star Struck India

Star Struck India

The latest Amitabh Bachchan imbroglio, by which I mean the one he is embroiled in, this month, one about being invited to attend a public function and then derided for being there, speaks loudly about many things. It tells us that the political discourse in our country continues to be focused on people rather than principles. It tells us that we are quick to pronounce guilt by association but are remarkably tardy about bringing the guilty to book in any real sense. Be it the riots of 1984, the people behind the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the Gujarat riots, little real action has taken place on the ground, but the moment an Amitabh Bachchan agrees to turn brand ambassador for the state of Gujarat (and what exactly does that mean in any case?), he is deemed unworthy of any association with any state-sponsored activity. Even his son is removed from posters of an event that has nothing to do with the Congress party.

There are many things wrong with this position. Mr Bachchan is free to choose his political affiliations and even without having to balance his leanings by also promoting the state of Kerala, surely his contribution to cinema and in this case, the city of Mumbai is in no way altered by his agreement to promote tourism in a state of India. Also, as others have pointed out, Mr Modi is not Gujarat, and the ruling party’s position is tantamount to arguing that any person associating with any national cause during the BJP regime (the same one that brought down the Babri Masjid), is now persona non grata. Not only the person himself, but his family too is off bounds! And most importantly, it forgets the fact that Amitabh Bachchan is first and foremost an individual, and only an individual. His opinion is of no specific value; he may have the ability to influence a few people but he is revered as an actor above all- his political views and affiliations are his own business and should not concern us too much one way or the other.

And therein lies the problem. In today’s India, our obsession with celebrities has reached a level where for us to recognize that however incandescent their presence might be, they are of no importance in most areas of our lives, is extremely difficult. The celebrity is now an omniscient arbiter of all questions that face us. She presides over summits and conclaves and sprinkles stardust on award ceremonies of national importance. No event can be held without one and ridiculous awards are invented so that a celebrity of some kind can be lured into making an appearance. Indeed, awards are often conferred only on those who guarantee a personal appearance. Celebrities are part of every talk show on television no matter how serious the subject or removed from their line of work. We fawn over them in every forum, be it the IPL which has been designed as a magnet for all publicity-seeking people with money to burn, or a high-minded summit to discuss emerging global imperatives.

Media has played a key role, for a celebrity is by definition a product of flash bulbs and slow motion. The former puts dazzle around the celebrity while the latter stretches with elastic grace his influence on our minds. Every action of the celebrity become other-worldly and imbued with significance and every word gospel to be heard in hushed silence and played in endless loops on television. The relationship between celebrities and media has reversed. If earlier the dominant need was felt by the star, today the roles have reversed. Media needs the stars to grace its screens, its many award shows, and promotional campaigns. Television in particular needs stars to keep viewers from switching channels and as a result there are few channels free of stars. The interviews are tightly controlled and almost always determined by the celebrity’s need and the manner of interviewing even by top journalists is ingratiating, with few attempts to ask tough questions, and a permanent air of apology hanging over the presumption to ask any questions in the first place. The great desire to be friends with celebrities, to have them on one’s speed dial seems to supercede everything else. No matter what the ideological persuasion of the media house, when it comes to celebrities there are barely any exceptions.

So it is natural that when an Amitabh Bachchan takes an action that is purely in the private domain and something that is his business alone we all have a view. More importantly, the state has a view which it chooses to express in peculiar ways. Similarly, we all have a view on Sania Mirza and who she should get married to for clearly that affects the geopolitics of the region. Or whether Shah Rukh Khan has thrown another strategic missile by defending the presence of Pakistani players in a cricket tournament. By the way, has anyone Priyanka Chopra what she thinks of the loan waiver and its differential impact on crop rotation patterns? What an oversight.