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The Aamir Khan Syndrome

Modern society ? the world over ? is obsessed with celebrityhood, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint. | Spl: Dam Row

india Updated: Apr 23, 2006 02:35 IST

In all the fuss over Aamir Khan’s visit to Delhi to meet the Narmada Bachao Andolan protesters, opinions over the role of celebrities in public life have become sharply polarised. On the one hand, there are the views of celebrities themselves. Their position is that celebrities must get involved in matters of national importance and that their intervention always helps.

And then, there is the view of many ordinary people: that celebrities can be a nuisance; that they get involved in things they don’t fully understand; and that often their very motives are suspect. For instance, it has been said — unkindly and unfairly — of Aamir, that his current obsession with the Narmada dam is no more than an extended publicity campaign for Rang De Basanti. Why else, ask the sceptics, did he need to turn up at Jantar Mantar with the whole unit of the film in tow? An individual protest is one thing. But when the cast turns up, then it begins to look suspiciously like a promotional tour.

Both positions have some validity. But the truth — as the cliché goes — seems to me to lie somewhere in between.

Let’s take the basic question of celebrity involvement in causes first. Does it help?

The answer has to be an unequivocal yes.

We live in the age of celebrity. Modern society — the world over — is obsessed with celebrityhood. That’s why marketers spend crores of rupees in getting celebrities to endorse their brands. We may not think that Videocon is the world’s best TV only because Shahrukh Khan endorses it. But we’ll certainly remember the ads because of Shahrukh’s star quality. And, at some subliminal level, there will be positive associations with the brand. So it is with Amitabh Bachchan who turned the fortunes of Cadbury’s around after worms were found in a chocolate bar. And that’s as true

of Aamir and the many products he promotes — from cars to watches to soft drinks to God alone knows what else.

The power of celebrity can also be harnessed for good — and non-commercial — causes. Aishwarya Rai’s involvement gave the eye donation campaign a boost. Sachin Tendulkar has done wonders for innumerable campaigns. Shabana Azmi helped remove the stigma surrounding AIDS victims.

So, to argue that celebrities are a nuisance or that their involvement makes no difference is plain silly. Of course they help any cause (or ad campaign) they choose to be involved with.

The problem, I suspect, is when celebrities leave the commercial (Coke, Pepsi, Toyota etc) area or abandon the all-round good cause space (polio, eye donation, AIDs etc) to lend their names to more controversial causes. That’s when the doubts begin to emerge.

Take Shabana Azmi whose campaigns on behalf of AIDs victims have been universally praised. In the 1980s, Shabana was persuaded that the authorities were wrong to demolish a slum in Bombay’s Nariman Point area. She launched a public fast and sat on a platform on the pavement for several days to oppose the demolition. Her involvement made all the difference. Till then, the authorities had been content to demolish any slum they chose to. But once pictures of a fasting Shabana made the front pages (there were no TV channels in those days), public attention was focused on the case against demolition. The authorities backed down somewhat and a compromise was reached.

These days, we are accustomed to thinking of Shabana as the sort of actress who feels strongly about issues. But in the 1980s, she was a much bigger star and was not, in the public mind, associated with any kind of political

activism. So, not only did her involvement cause some consternation (and she did not just turn up for a photo-op but actually fasted in full public view) but it also divided public opinion. Many people admired her courage but they also felt that she had no understanding of the more complex

issues involved and had misused her celebrity-status. And there were those who felt that Bombay would turn into a giant slum if bleeding-heart celebrities like her got involved in resisting the demolition of encroachments.

So it has been with Richard Gere, Martin Scorsese and all the Hollywood luminaries who have supported the cause of Tibet. Nobody disputes that were it not for the Dalai Lama’s personality and his ability to attract a star following, the Tibet issue would be dead. It is, after all, a small country (or province of China, depending on your perspective) that began its struggle for freedom in the 1950s. By now, it should have been forgotten — just as many struggles dating back to that era have faded from public memory. But it is the celebrity involvement that keeps the issue alive. 

Because this is a controversial issue, Gere and many other Tibet supporters have faced bans and criticisms. Gere is not welcome in China. Disney, the producers of Martin Scorsese’s Kundan, a film about the Dalai Lama’s early life, were banned from engaging in commercial activities on the mainland by the Chinese government. And many people regard Gere and his friends as being  naïve and publicity-hungry.

Nearer home, we have the example of Amitabh Bachchan. When he entered politics in 1984, he was an even bigger star than he is today. And though he won by a landslide from Allahabad, public opinion began building up against him within a year of his entry into Parliament.

He once told me how shaken he was when he had gone to Assam to campaign for the Congress. As he was leaving a public meeting, a fan rushed up and gave him a note. It read (and here I’m quoting from memory): “Sir, we love you very much and are your biggest fans. But please don’t get involved in politics because then we don’t agree with you and have to fight you.”

Bachchan’s political career ended badly and even adversely impacted his film stardom for a few years. And since then, nearly every star who has joined politics (Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna or even Govinda) has either avoided talking about contentious issues or has stuck to looking after his or her constituency. Nor have stars risked entering politics when things are going well for them career-wise. For most of them, politics is a way of cashing in on their celebrity status only when their careers are nearly over. And some, by associating with sleazy politicians and dubious parties, have hurt themselves and their families.

And yet, can we really say that stars should not get involved with controversial or political causes? After all, they are citizens of India and have every right to express their opinions or to take stands.

The problem, I imagine, is that many of us believe that a) they are naïve and are being manipulated by others into lending their celebrity status to causes they don’t fully understand or b) that they are publicity hounds/pom-pous bores in search of new roles for themselves.

I accept the naïvety criticism. Many of them are naïve. And some are mercenary: it is no secret that film stars now take money to campaign for political parties at election time. But, in this respect, they are no different from the rest of society. Which of us is not naïve when it comes to such complex issues as, say, the Sardar Sarovar dam? On that kind of issue, no matter what stand you or I take, there will always be somebody who will accuse us of being naïve or not having fully understood the matter. 

And as for some stars being mercenary, well, fair enough. That’s true of 90 per cent of Indian politicians (or businessmen) as well. So why judge all stars so harshly only because some of them are greedy?

As for the Big Criticism — that they are using causes to repackage themselves — frankly, I think there’s something in that. I don’t mind what people believe in as long as they are sincere. For instance, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Arundhati Roy says or does. But there is not a trace of humbug about her. She lives by certain ideals and values and her whole life is true to those ideals. She subscribes to an integrated worldview and even though I don’t share that view, I respect her integrity and admire her razor-sharp intelligence.

As for Aamir, I do not know him well. But I suspect he is in the process of rediscovering himself. Of late, he has taken to holding forth on the media and the world at large. Judging by an interview he gave to Saubhik Chakrabarti in the Indian

Express last week, he is a man of strong views, serious and ponderous without being — how do I phrase this delicately? — the next Bertrand Russell or even the next Arundhati Roy.

No doubt as the process of rediscovery continues, he will straighten out the contradictions and ironies in his life — from decrying the commercials in the media to serving as a pitch-man for any company that pays him several crores — and will take some real stands.

It’s nice to know that he supports the rehabilitation of the Narmada villagers. But then, have you ever met anyone who says that they should not be rehabilitated? It would be nicer therefore if he actually took a stand: is he for the dam or against it? He has still not told us.

It’s always better to put your mouth where your money is.