Saturday, July 09, 2011

The movie star as platitude-dispenser, and other thoughts on the celebrity circus

[Did this opinion piece for Elle magazine a few months ago, though it came out only in the July issue. In hindsight I wish I had kept clippings of Priyanka Chopra’s HT City columns – could easily do a book-length commentary on them sometime]

One of the highest-profile events at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year was the announcement of the winner of the DSC South Asian Literature Prize. As a crowd of authors, media-persons and book-lovers watched, the chief guest began his speech. “Writers are fountains of ideas,” said Kabir Bedi. A short, ponderous silence. “Their role in our lives is indispensable.”

Now this is a reasonable statement in a school-level sort of way, but consider the context. At one of the world’s largest book events – where far more nuanced thoughts about writers and writing were being expressed in discussions hour upon hour – here was a former movie and television star (and not someone who had occupied the highest rungs of his profession for that matter) as the cynosure of all eyes. Present on the dais was one of India’s best literary critics; in the audience were dozens of well-known writers, including Nobel laureates and Man Booker winners from India and elsewhere. Any of these people would have been a more appropriate choice to make this keynote speech.

To be fair to Bedi, he took the occasion seriously (even quoting Saul Bellow and alluding to Francis Bacon!) and refrained from playing to the gallery. I don’t know if the same can be said for other filmi performers who have been the plat du jour at book events in recent years – Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan at earlier editions of the Jaipur fest, for instance, or Goldie Hawn at the Kitab festival in Delhi a few years ago.

But as we know, movie stars – or movie have-beens – shine ever so brightly even when they are far outside their spheres of expertise. They take centrestage on TV shows that have nothing to do with acting, their sheen drowning out the efforts of “ordinary” people who deserve a brief moment in the spotlight. Thus, Akshay Kumar’s dubious culinary skills take pride of place on what is meant to be a serious cooking show. On song and dance contests, participants spend less time performing and more time gushing about what a privilege it is to meet their idol. Tushhar Kapoor appears on a pet-lovers' show and displays his empathy for other species by wondering aloud if gender differences even apply to animals. “I mean, a dog is a dog, right?”

For the ultimate testimony of our eagerness to cling to Bollywood’s coattails, consider how smoothly movie stars have turned into all-purpose columnists and advice gurus. Having given up on the main sections of newspapers a long time ago, much of my weekly dose of unintended humour in the past year came from a Priyanka Chopra column, full of unselfconscious banalities about “embracing the universe”, "just being yourself" and “going with the flow”. It is both amusing and in poor taste when people who owe a large part of their own fame and fortune to good luck – being in the right place at the right time – narcissistically inform their readers that “you can achieve anything if you seize the moment, like I did”. (News for you, Ms Chopra and others: the vast majority of us will never come close to achieving everything we desire, no matter how lovingly we scrutinise your platitudes.)

Of course, this ranting puts me in a tiny minority: these columns were more than justified by the market for them. They inspired hundreds of thousands of fan letters by devotees asking for advice on relationships or insights into the burning political topics of the days, or perhaps just sharing salacious gossip about a rival actor. Star-worshippers do tend to have a lot of free time on their hands.

Incidentally, one of the star columns I thought had promise was the one by Imran Khan, who – we kept being told – has a wacky sense of humour. Until something strange happened: every time Khan was about to write something even vaguely irreverent, he would preface it with a few lines asking that people shouldn’t get offended. More space was devoted to the pre-emptive apology than to the supposed cheekiness, and this brings us to another point about Bollywood stars: when you have to be constantly mindful about the views you hold on sensitive or potentially controversial subjects, how can you not settle into a bland public face, even if your default mode is to be blasé?

In India, movie stars quickly become spokespersons for safe, middle-of-the-road ideologies. Thus, even if their lifestyles are deemed racy by middle-class standards, they must be seen as upholders of tradition and culture in the areas where it Really Matters. For example, they must be photographed entering temples on special occasions. (In an interview a few years ago, the normally-diplomatic Bachchan was brusque with an interviewer who mentioned that his late father Harivanshrai had been an atheist – the tone of the superstar’s response almost suggested that his dad had been insulted.) When a star bride celebrates her first karva chauth, TV channels must park themselves outside the house for that precious exclusive shot of her sighting the moon from her window.

Frankly, much of this obsessing is unavoidable given the huge hold commercial cinema has on us. In a media-saturated time, you expect these hotties to be all over the place, gazing out of newspapers, wearing their carefully rehearsed “spontaneous” smiles or the tiny frowns that their public relations staff have told them are photogenic. It’s annoying, but one must live with it. Nor am I suggesting that all movie stars are unqualified to hold forth on subjects outside their immediate field – much less that they should be stopped from doing so. However, when disproportionate importance is attached to their views, when their frequently trite views are canonised as inspirational words of wisdom, when they are indiscriminately felicitated as youth icons even though some of them have records of law-breaking and cases pending against them – well, then it may be time to wonder why we are so starved of role models from other walks of life.


  1. I see the "dispensation of platitudes" as a relatively recent trend among celebrities. Practically everyone wants to sound "liberal" while at the same time avoiding "radical" overtones.

    This has probably got to do with the homogenization of mainstream politics across several countries (be it US, UK or India).

    Back in the 40s/50s, you had whole range of political opinions espoused by Hollywood stars/starlets - ranging from conservatives like Stewart to liberals like Peck and even bigots like Mitchum.

    You don't get to see such a range of opinions today, because the political and cultural spectrum is narrower than it used to be.

    As a result, it has become fashionable to mouth platitudes like "We oppose the war in Iraq". Sounding right has gained precedence over independent thinking.

  2. Hi Jai,

    Agree wholeheartedly.By the way, it may amuse you to know that Mr. Bachhan also articulated similar thoughts in his a blog a few months back :-) great minds thinking alike, is it :-)

    Separately, was waiting for your reaction to 'Delhi Belly'.

  3. I think Bollywood stars and all kinds of celebrities started thinking of themselves as wise prophets thanks to the media's dial-a-quote culture. India won the World Cup? Get a celeb quote (even if the celeb in question doesn't give a rat's arse about about cricket). Double murder in Mahim? Get a second-rate B'wood star to talk about public safety. No wonder these guys get swollen heads. I've done the 'get talking heads' business myself, and rarely has anyone said 'sorry, I don't know anything about this and can't comment'.

    Incidentally, am very curious, why *did* they ask Kabir Bedi?

  4. If a serious literary festival asks "Kabir OCTOPUSSY Bedi" to give a speech, the organizers should be sent to Afghanistan to work on rebuilding the BAMIYAN statues as punishment.

    This is the literary equivalent of bombing BAMIYAN statues.

    Einstein said "never underestimate human stupidity".

  5. Here's an interesting clip on Robert Mitchum's views on the Vietnam war from 1966.

    I found this fascinating, because it's the sort of thing that you wouldn't hear from the cliche-ridden celebrities today.

    Obviously Mitchum is making a fool of himself in this video. So be it. He's atleast speaking his mind. In the Hollywood of today, I doubt if he would ever get a chance in a movie after an outburst like this.

    I think that's the key difference between the mainstream show business culture then and now. Back then, celebrities were accepted as flawed individuals with their fair share of foibles. Today, celebrities are expected to perform roles both on and off the screen and be mindful of everything they say. That's what results in the plethora of cliches that you observe.

    The idea that you could be the biggest fan of a celebrity's professional work without necessarily having to make him your "role model" appears to have become passe.

  6. Well, Mahesh Bhatt is an exception. He has an "expert" opinion on everything under the sun except on the relationship between his son and David Headley.

  7. Much of what's written in the post is true. However, we are disappointed that Kabir Bedi was chosen to open this post. We hold him in high regard, for was he not the one who sported a Marlboro on a horse in those 'filmi' magazines that our young aunts read? :-P

  8. indisch: oh, the Jaipur Literature Festival would have been massively better all round if Mr Bedi had made the prize announcement while seated on a horse and flanked by the women from his Sandokan days!

  9. Lol! Just imagining what you've described makes me wild-eyed. :-) That'd be something!

  10. One of your best-written posts. Crisp and incisive!

  11. I agree. Bollywood aka Clone Factory is hyped . The word itself was coined in '90s. I know them very well. Full of nepotism. We shout about Gandhi dynasty but what about Kapoor khandaan? It is a joke. 24x7/365. Bollywood accounts only for 4% of world film revenue though India producers largest numbers of films. NRIs and ethnic Indians account for 40% of Bollywood revenue. They are stars truck. Filmis.

    How to be a great Bollywood scriptwriter.

  12. THE Columns!

  13. Dear Jai,
    Just watched your TEDtalk on how to write for films. I have indulged a bit in it for the film blog Passion For Cinema while it lasted but after listening to your advice I came up with this:
    I suppose you are a busy man but you came across as someone who might like to mentor a film writer. Please do let me know what you think of it if and when you get a chance.
    Needless to say I hold you in high esteem and enjoy your blog very much.
    Warm regards

  14. Kavi: that's a very interesting and well-written personal take on ZMND. I saw the film just yesterday and enjoyed it, but I didn't really think of it in terms of a woman director handling a subject that has traditionally been a male province. (Generallly, I've been a Zoya Akhtar fan since I saw Luck by Chance.) That's definitely a perspective worth considering, and you've articulated it very well.

  15. Priyanka Chopra Hot Images

  16. Thank you so much for taking the time and giving me a feedback, means a lot!! Well I did try and include pointers from your talk on 'how to' too! I saw Nisha Susan's analysis is probably more spot on, better written

    I was just wondering how to work on my piece to take it to the next level....thought?

    much obliged,