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Famous for being famous

india Updated: Aug 29, 2011 21:37 IST
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Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 by a vengeful Islamist who determined that death was the punishment for making a film critical of the Muslim treatment of women. The year before he had made a film called The Interview which examined the cult of celebrity.

The film features the encounter betw-een a serious political reporter and a celebrity actress whose ego is inflated by fame and whose breasts are inflated by silicon. Laurens Postma, a Dutch-British director friend who has worked in India thought he saw the celebrity cult being replicated in India and wanted to produce an Indian take on The Interview. He asked me to write the screenplay.

Cover Story, our Hindi film, is not an adaptation of The Interview but is a cultural transliteration which follows its basic plotlines. The difference stems from the fact that though celebrity is accompanied by much the same obsession and even hysteria in India as in the US or Europe, there are differences in its function.

The cult of celebrity is the universal villain and its protagonist is intelligence, taste, culture, seriousness and the attention to real achievement. The cult commits the sin, above all, of frivolity.

To enquire into what precisely Hugh Grant hired a prostitute to do to him is to waste the potential possibilities of your existence in masturbatory fantasy. You should instead, it is implied, be reading articles about how the Arab Spring anticipates an Arab winter or how to determine exactly what a Grecian should earn.

The American attack on the cult has a twist. In the culture in which you do unto others as they would do unto you, only try and do it first, celebrity is seen as an illusion on the road to damnation. Elvis gets fat and dopey with drugs, Moham-med Ali's brain is battered into infantilism, Michael Jackson dies of drugs and dementia, accused of paedophilia, JFK's celebrity marriage is exposed as a cruel fraud, Tiger Woods? We all knew what they were like! All epitomise the vanity of American wishes and a modern Juvenal could have predicted their ends.

The British addiction to reading about celebrity is somewhat different. Gossip begins with royalty and the doings and foibles of Princess Diana, the Duchess Fergie and now Wills and Kate Middl-eton and even the size and substance of Kate Middleton's sister's bum.

It is understandable that those who sing or act or play well have some accompanying fame. So do the unabashed wealthy and the powerful. It was ever thus. But TV and the realityshow have brought us those who are famous 'for being famous'.

In India Page 3 means something quite different. Newspapers publish photographs and comments about the famous, the wealthy, the well-connected and anyone in that narrow band of the Indian population who may be considered, in a borrowed argot, a 'celebrity'.

Indian Page 3s combine movie stars and cricketers with the bald and paunchy capitalist and his hard-faced wife or with second rank politicians.

It isn't at all evident that anyone apart from those who appear on Page 3 bothers to turn to it. The aam junta are not in the least interested in whose party was atte-nded by whom. Their interest in capitalists and politicians extends to wanting them exposed for corruption.

Our real celebrities are film and TV stars and our sportsmen and women. Film was India's first modern lingua franca and TV has very neatly assumed part of that function. Sport very early became the field representative of nationalism. As such, both worlds, of the screen and the pitch, are temples and these celebrities have taken the place, not of Amy Winehouse or Lady Gaga, but of the ancient deity. We look up to them and not down in a perusal for feet of clay. If there are scandals about our stars, they fuel disillusion with the public dream. In the US they justify the national moral of the skull beneath the skin. In England gossip about their couplings is a substitute for the veneer of national sterility.

What if one of our cricketers was exposed, as Tiger Woods has been, for serial infidelity? The Indian media wouldn't dare. It hasn't yet made the distinction between admiration, reverence, idolatry and 'celebrity' and so it wouldn't indulge and revel in the exposure-and-fall in the way the US media did for Woods.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London.

The views expressed by the author are personal