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Famous for being famous

Are you as flummoxed as I am by the faces that constantly crop up these days in our newspapers and on our television screens? Seema Goswami wonders.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2009 18:53 IST
Seema Goswami

Are you as flummoxed as I am by the faces that constantly crop up these days in our newspapers and on our television screens? Like me, do you too scratch your head and wonder who these people are and why we should care about what they wear, where they holiday, what they eat and who they date? Do you also puzzle over the fact that these days it is enough to be famous for being famous, without having done anything in particular to earn that fame in the first place?

I know I do. Every time I leaf through the papers and look at yet another gallery of nonentities partying it up for the benefit of the cameras, I wonder why this cast of unknowns deserves to be featured in full, technicolour glory day in and day out. As I flip through the TV channels to watch another set of nobodies parade by, giving us the benefit of their opinion on everything from Obama’s presidency, Manmohan Singh’s health to the artistic merits of Slumdog Millionaire, I can’t help but marvel at the inexorable rise of the C-grade celebrity in India.

No matter how reclusive you may be, how out of tune with popular culture, you can’t really miss these people. You may not be able to put names to them but there is no getting away from their faces. They are near ubiquitous, as they walk down red carpets at film premieres, perform at dance shows, participate in television discussion programmes and pose prettily for pictures that will grace the pages of magazines and newspapers.

Most of them seem to go by one name – a la Madonna, though that’s about the only thing they have in common with her – which is usually a Westernised variation of their Indian monickers: Tasha, Tanisha, Bobby, Robby, Sasha, Batasha (okay, I made the last one up!). And they are everywhere, complete with toned bodies, the latest designer gear and a dial-a-quote service at the ready.

In fact, wherever you look these days, the C-grade celebrity is alive and well, and living it up in full media glare.
Speaking for myself, I blame it on the rise of reality TV in India. Ever since clones of Celebrity Big Brother cropped up on our TV screens, things have never been quite the same. All the nonentities who feature on these programmes suddenly become familiar faces to us by virtue of their sheer visibility in the media.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t tune into these shows. The news channels will faithfully feature the highlights of the day’s proceedings, stars who have been evicted will do the rounds of talk shows, and the winner will make the headlines in the newspapers.

What’s worse is that even after the reality show in question has folded, these new-fangled celebrities don’t fade away into the woodwork. Not a chance. Instead, their fame takes on a life of its own, being parleyed into work in related fields. Thus winners of reality shows become item girls and vice versa, small-time actors and actresses end up with their own shows, and anchors of one programme shift to becoming judges on another.

The most recent example of this is, of course, Bigg Boss, recently aired on Colors. None of us were even remotely aware of the existence of two small-time players on the fringes of show business, Payal Rohatgi and Sambhavna Seth, before the show began. By the time it ended, after innumerable, too-tedious-to-recount cat-fights, it was impossible not to know every sordid detail of their lives (even if you didn’t want to).

But if you want to contrast old-style fame with new-fangled celebrity, you can’t do better than reflect on the saga of Rahul Mahajan, son of the late BJP leader, Pramod Mahajan. While the father was a leading light of the BJP, a serious strategist, a man who won the party innumerable elections and who would have been a serious Prime Ministerial candidate had he lived, the son proved to be a complete lightweight, a small-time manipulator trading on his father’s name and fame as he played the resident comic in the Bigg Boss house. It’s hard to think of a sadder commentary on the changing face of fame in this country.

That said, Rakhi Sawant comes pretty close as an exemplar. This is a woman who is famous for wearing very little and talking very big. All she has going for her is minimal dancing talent and a knack for controversy. If she loses a competition, she makes such a song and dance about it that she hogs the headlines for an entire week. If her boyfriend leaves her, she goes on every television channel to talk about her heartbreak.

But these two dubious attributes have served her well. On the basis of her skimpy clothes and scathing tongue, Rakhi has launched a career that includes a talk show in which she asks asinine questions of such leading lights of the film industry as Aamir Khan. And news channels think nothing of asking her to comment on such issues as Indo-Pak relations. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

And things are only going to get worse. If you ask me, it’s only a matter of time before these C-grade celebrities create a parallel universe of their own and suck the rest of us into the vortex created by their own vacuousity. Well, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.