Daniel Bornstein, the American historian, once defined a celebrity as “someone famous for being famous”. The subtle tone of the definition emphasises something about the complexity of stars and fame. Why is it that some stars fade like fireflies and others move like comets? What accounts for survival? One asks these questions as one looks at iconicity in Bollywood.
Filmdom is the home of myth and myth resists everydayness. If one summons everydayness, then it must be archetypal, evoking womanhood or loyalty in a legendary way. Hollywood has been the home of icons and what one senses about them is a mystique, a symbolism, a halo that goes beyond mere autobiography.
Marlon Brando was thus a protean figure in On the Waterfront, yet transforming himself to play Godfather and dance The Last Tango in Paris.
The star as a star has to be capable of continuous transformation and survival. He can fade away but gossip must capture the perpetual potential of the man, the incandescence of his youth, and the mystique of his attitude. One thinks of a James Dean who died young or an Elvis Presley creating an industry of mimicking fans. For every star who is unique, there must be a million anonymous imitators.
The stories about him must be both endlessly new and endlessly repeatable. Rajnikanth had that quality. His performance touched the heavens but his persona was earthly. He was magical but he remained a miracle sensitive to the everydayness of his fans. They live and dream him in a way even the Gods feel left out.
The icon as star has to be an article of faith, larger than life size and yet deeply, intensely human. His every breath must be seen as a blessing, his death, the end of a world, even the end of a cosmos.
Iconicity demands polysemy. No one explanation or even a hundred discourses should explain away a star. Mystique is mystique because one cannot wish it away. It has aura, the sense of a sensorium which cannot be analysed. India’s most perennial icon is Amitabh Bachchan.
Nothing in his personal biography or even in his cinematic beginnings explain his image. He was a collective Rorschach of the violence and helplessness of a society facing rottenness and corruption, desperate in its understanding that ordinary goodness was no match for villainy and evil.
Enter the hero. Amitabh becomes on behalf of all of us the angry man. It is liberation of the self and the body to indulge in the sheer catharsis of violence. It has a poetic power of cleansing. In many a film, he dies heroically so we can relive his heroism.
The angry young man was singular as an invention yet collective as a need. He enacted out the collective will of our deepest desires. There was little about him that was middle class and banal. He became the cinematic future as the first urban hero. Between violence and his sense of the tragic, we created a new hero.
To be that hero, he had to erase the earlier history of heroism. Suddenly Rajesh Khanna or Dharmendra seemed lesser creatures.
An icon must be capable of transformations. Trickster-like, it must become something new, create new grammars.
Amitabh becomes this in Kaun Banega Crorepati. He is a new mutation, mellow in the dignity of information now that violence is ineffectual. Violence cannot match the brutal power of information. The quiz is the new gladiatorial fight and all of India is caught in a new frenzy of quizzes and the information revolution.
An icon must always create epidemics of frenzy, of hysteria. It demands the perpetual hyperbole.
Often icons fade away in real life as they become entropic. A dead icon is like a black hole. Not even nostalgia can save it. An icon cannot age or dim in splendour because it smells of ordinary flesh.
Stars like Rajkumar, Dharmendra became wax dolls while only Amitabh discovered the secret of perpetual youth by learning to age. He reveals iconicity by becoming the exemplar of ritual cycles blossoming from the angry young man to the mellow mentor to playing old age with a chutzpah not even Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood can match.
As the perennial icon of Hindi film, he seduces old age, acting effortlessly with Hema Malini and Tabu, revealing that an icon transcends generations.
To be an image, one must have the magic of the day. To be an icon, one must create a Kaleidoscope of miracles, be one and all to everyone.
Amitabh woos every strata of society and each feels special in their own way. His advertisements revealed he could be a brand name for the state of Gujarat, cement, foot cream, hair oil, fountain pens and chocolates. He becomes a supermarket of images under one brand name – his own. Yet a botanical listing of all his roles and achievements defies classification. Surprise and transformation still wait around the corner.
Amitabh’s life is a salute to iconicity and its polysemic and protean power. In this, he represents the world of images, where everything is restless and myths need to come alive every day. By being that polyphonic power, Amitabh becomes the icon par excellence.
This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times Brunch Bollywood Special Collector's Edition, Summer 2013
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