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So Aamir?s a good guy

I have never joined a march, a morcha, a rally or a sit-in. Which probably makes me a self-centred, obnoxious sort of cowardly character without a moral backbone.
By Indrajit Hazra | None
PUBLISHED ON APR 19, 2006 12:24 AM IST

I have never joined a march, a morcha, a rally or a sit-in. Which probably makes me a self-centred, obnoxious sort of cowardly character without a moral backbone. The closest I come to any kind of activism is when I sign signature campaigns (mostly about coffee machines in the office, treatment of street dogs, and other issues which I don’t really care about but participate in anyway so as to not be seen as a smug anti-social).

This staying away from any mass action could mean that I am socially, morally and ethically impotent. It could also mean that I’m terribly lazy and cynical — a deadly combination that feeds off each other. But the truth is that, once in a while, I do feel strongly about some issues and exercise my armchair rights to hold forth on them in this newspaper. Except, I am keenly aware that nothing happens, barring a few phone calls or e-mails commending or critiquing my views, and mostly not even that. In other words, I

have the distinct feeling that when I do ‘activate’, I am more keen to come across as a thoughtful, nice person rather than a potential world-changer.

But then, I am no Aamir Khan, whose public profile, I believe, is much larger than anything I can muster even on a good day. Unlike myself, Aamir is also more influential. If I say that Coca-Cola means thanda, not many people will be swayed by my argument. If, however, Aamir says Thanda matlab....

So when I read about Aamir Khan hanging out with Narmada Bachao Andolan activists at Jantar Mantar in Delhi last week, not only did I feel a twinge of envy but I also registered a twang of regret. The twinge arose from the fact that even if I was concerned about the plight of those seeking dam rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh, big deal.

The twang, however, came from the fact that Aamir was actually shifting the focus (whatever little focus there was, considering that the rehabilitation campaign has been going on for some time) from the victims to the ‘Cause’. In other words, he had become the latest round of salvo in a panga.

Quite clearly, that was not Aamir’s intention. But then, the best of intentions are not always good enough. Surely enough, a day later, instead of the rehabilitation issue being highlighted, the focus shifted to the battle between a high-profile good soul and those nasties opposed to stalling the Sardar Sarovar dam. Rather naively, Aamir went on record stating how “amazed and shocked” he was by the ‘protests’ against him and his support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. As a sideshow, Narendra Modi went on a crash diet to protest against what he peddled as pressure on the Centre to stop the completion of the dam.

As far as case studies go, crusades can go either way. The victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, who were also at Jantar Mantar, may find a sympathetic ear in Aamir Khan. But all that this results in is that we get to know that Aamir Khan is a good man. If celebrities and film stars could do more than that, then Hollywood’s efforts to turn on the liberal tap and drown the US administration out of Iraq would have done the trick. I don’t know whether the Dalai Lama would agree or not, but after knowing that people like Richard Gere and Steven Segal are serious about their support for the Tibetan cause, what have supporters of the Free Tibet campaign gained? Answer: That Richard Gere and Steven Segal are serious about their support for the Tibetan cause.

Now, it’s a given that I have issues with Arundhati Roy (primarily over her pomp’n’purple prose). But if self-righteousness could somehow be translated into results, perhaps I would look at her (and her nose-pin) in a completely new light. The usual argument given in support of high-profile activists is that they serve as a lightning rod for a cause that would have been otherwise buried in page 5 next to the ‘Service tax returns filed in old format to be rejected’ story.

But the problem is that apart from the already converted, the star appeal works only in the context of the continuing narrative of the star. People came to see their Rang de Basanti hero. And then they moved on. The media too came to see the star-as-activist. The actual cause for activism remained miles away in camera-unfriendly Madhya Pradesh.

The plan is, of course, to muster up the support in numbers. If there are enough people who can be convinced to support a cause — whether it’s the demand for a re-trial in the Jessica Lall murder case, or scrapping a labour law in France, or making sati legal again — chances get better about the cause leading up to an effect.

So what happened after Aamir dropped by at the Jantar Mantar, met the protestors, listened to their issues and demands, and pledged his support? The battlelines just got more deeply entrenched when in reality nothing had changed.

Good on you, I say to Aamir. You are a man with a heart who understands that there is life beyond gravity-stricken halters and banian-wearing stars coming out of jail. (Incidentally, Salman Khan has promised to crusade for better toilets in prisons. Good on you too, Salman!)

But there’s something that tells me that when celebrities turn to activism, it’s not the activism that gets a serious and fresh dekho but the celebrity. If Aamir can actually have a sit-down with the prime minister and convince him — or anyone else whose job is to frankly take care of beleaguered citizens and continue with development —

I will be the first one to land up at Jantar Mantar and champion the cause of celebrity activism.

But then, I have a bad feeling that the media — and the rest of those with eyes, ears and brains following the proceedings — will miss the wood for the trees: the wood being the cause of rehabilitating the dam victims; the trees being the fact that Aamir Khan is no ordinary film star.

Aamir means well. And if hotheads see his visit at the Jantar Mantar as a boost to the demand for dam rehabilitation, there could be the temptation of seeing something good in what he’s done. The problem is that whether Aamir likes it or not, we’ll be seeing him in a new way when we watch Fanaa in the cinema, and not the rehab-development issue. In the meantime, I’ll wait in my armchair hoping to be proved wrong. That’s because basically, I’m also a nice guy.

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