I groan inwardly each time I hear somebody quoting Andy Warhol’s famous line about how in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes; not because Warhol was wrong, but because he was absolutely right.
There was a time when you admired the famous. You respected them for the qualities that had earned them their fame. Top sportspersons, international statesmen, big-time movie idols, great artists and creative geniuses. Even the famous people one did not admire – Adolf Hitler or Charles Sobhraj, for instance – served as an object lesson in the negative aspects of the world: the nature of evil, the misuse of power.
These days alas, fame means little. There is so little to admire in so many famous people. And even notoriety is cheaply purchased. About all you can say with a degree of certainty of most of today’s famous people is that within five years most of them will have been forgotten. New instant celebrities will have taken their place – to shine in the spotlight for their own 15 minutes or so.
You can blame society and the communications revolution for the fickleness of today’s fame. But I think that we in the media have to accept our share of the blame. Because we are so celebrity obsessed that we devour and spit out ‘celebrities’ by the week, we create new, undeserving famous people almost on an hourly basis.
To some extent that is inevitable given the demands of today’s media technology and it is not necessarily a bad thing. But what worries me the most is the banality of 21st century fame. We don’t just take minor celebrities and exaggerate their importance. We use entirely new criteria to judge celebrity-hood. We look for vulgarity, for a trashy loudness and for an overwhelming cheapness. All the things that we would consider appalling and revolting in a colleague or a neighbour are the very things that help people to become famous.
Would you want to work in the same office as Dolly Bindra? How would you feel if Rakhi Sawant was your next-door neighbour? Would you allow Maria Susairaj into your home?
No matter how revolting we would find these people if we came across them in our day-to-day lives, we are forced to regard them as celebrities by the media, to follow their antics on our TV screens and to read about their every move in our press.
As far as the media are concerned, the fame game has now become a freak show. The freakier the person, the better the story. The more shameless the person, the more sensational the quotes. And the more horrific the personality, the bigger the spin-off. It is no longer: in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Now it’s simpler and more basic: it’s freaks we seek.
In which world could you have imagined that Dolly Bindra would become a celebrity? Even ten years ago, the media would have ignored her. Once upon a time, Rakhi Sawant would have been recognised for what she is: a two-bit item girl with an unfortunate lip job. Now, TV channels vie to build shows around her and she gives long interviews to famous hosts.
Or take Rahul Mahajan. When his father died and we saw pictures of him at the funeral, we thought of him as no more than a young man whose life had been vitiated by tragedy. Who would have imagined that he would become a bona fide celebrity on the basis of drug-related deaths and a sordid private life played out in public? More worrying is this: as long as he was a subdued tragic figure, the media had no interest in him. But the moment he turned himself into a vulgar, public spectacle, he became a star.
So it is with Maria Susairaj. I won’t get into whether her acquittal on a murder charge was justified. But what kind of society are we if we turn a woman who helped her fiancée chop up her lover’s body and then burn it (she has been convicted on that charge) into a celebrity? Now Ram Gopal Varma wants to cast her in a movie. Reality TV shows vie to win her participation. And her press conferences are turned into bizarre circuses by a rampaging media machine.
Once a society becomes obsessed by the vulgar, the cheaply notorious, the loudly sensationalistic and proudly trashy, it loses its bearings. It forgets all the things that fame should really be about: achievement and excellence. And it abandons the distinctions between right and wrong, between the real and the manufactured, between the substantive and the illusion.
So the next time you see Rakhi Sawant giving an interview or watch a press conference by Maria Susairaj, pause a little and ponder the banality of celebrity-hood today. And remember that when fame becomes a freak show, it is our society that eventually pays the price.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, July 10
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch