They believe in things instant – be it “making-out or breaking-up” – as Bollywood actor Anushka Sharma’s character Akira sums up her generation in Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Yet, the generation admires those with staying power. Bachchan trumps the Khans. Forget Dhoni, Tendulkar still seems to be the man of the moment. Is that a paradox? Not really. For India’s youth, age is just a number, or at least, that’s the case where their icons are concerned.
Consider the HT-MaRS Youth Survey 2013. US President Barack Obama trumps the much younger brigade of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and popstar Justin Beiber as global role model. Among Indian politicians, 62-year-old Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi outshines Congress’s Rahul Gandhi almost 20 years his junior.
“Obama has come up the hard way — from an ordinary household to the first African American President of the most powerful nation. The youth identify with that,” said sociologist Dipankar Gupta. Obama topped the category last year too, with 20.8% votes. This year, he has more than doubled that percentage (42.8%) — his re-election earlier this year strengthening his position — even as other contenders from 2012 — barring former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Zuckerberg — have fallen off the list.
The choice of Modi as political icon is less distinctive, said Gupta. “What works for Modi is that he seems to be a person, who is capable of delivering,” he noted. “Whether he does, or not, is another matter.” The BJP strongman, however, does not cut ice with Bengaluru’s youth where he is the least popular, with only 9% rooting for him.
Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar may have retired from ODIs, but he is still the overriding youth favourite even though there is no dearth of sporting icons. “Sachin is the custodian of cricket,” former Team India skipper Gautam Gambhir said. “He is loved him for his work ethics, humility and what he presents to them as an example.”
At the ripe old age of 70, actor Amitabh Bachchan gets the thumbs-up as film icon, edging out the Khan trio in their 40s — Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman. “Bachchan’s popularity is a lesson for our politicians in their 70s and 80s,” said Anna MM Vetticad, author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. “The fact is, no one will consider you ‘too old’ if, like Bachchan, you are fitness conscious, maintain your relevance, stay in touch with changing technology and don’t appear to be stealing jobs that should go to youngsters.”
The surprise entrant in this category is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, said ad guru Prahlad Kakkar. “I find it remarkable and reassuring that someone who isn’t conventionally glamorous and is a person from a small town is emerging as an icon in such a short time,” he said. In Bengaluru, 19% picked Siddiqui as their icon; only 2% went for Bachchan.
But such are the caprices of the youth that they continue to reinforce stereotyped notions of physical beauty — fair skin, six-pack abs and an hourglass figure — which is apparent in their selection of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as the sexiest man and woman alive, for the second consecutive year. They get their highest votes not from the metros but from Ahmedabad (79%) and Ranchi (72.1%).
“Salman is like the Indian James Dean: macho, a rebel without a cause, a kid who hasn’t grown up,” Kakkar said. “What works for him is that he is accessible. Katrina may not have meaty roles, but is good-looking.”
Rohan D’Souza, assistant professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, worries that the choices for youth icon are driven by aspirations not morality. “Salman has had run-ins with the law, but everyone loves him,” he said. “Obama’s record has not been flattering, what with drone strikes, torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the Edward Snowden episode. Their popularity shows that we are a dysfunctional society.”