Real-versus-reel heroes

Real-versus-reel heroes


India’s affair with the celebrity phenomenon has unparalleled scale and dynamics that elevates mere mortals to the stratosphere of divinity. From film actors, sportspersons to politicians, the deification of ‘stars’ have uniquely led to brick-and-mortar temples in their honour. The star-power of these celebrities, spreads beyond the justification of their professional deservedness, assuming proportions of cult-like infallibility. 

This often enables ready access onto the political arena where an invaluable constituency is blindly pre-committed to the said celebrity. The project of becoming a celebrity is not accidental, but a carefully charted course that requires calculated moves, statements and ostensible championing of certain societal causes that blurs the difference between real heroes and reel heroes.

 While invoking ‘star-power’ to espouse and wax eloquence on pressing issues like toilets, hygiene, gender-safety, corruption etc, is unquestionably noble, the timing of championing is eerily coincidental to the release of a movie of the same plot. Rarely is a position assumed on contentious societal issues (a contrarian one, even less so), that could polarise the masses for fear of reprisals and consequences. 

This is in stark contrast to celebrities in Western democracies who hold their own and are more honest in their commitment as opposed to the selectively vocal celebrities in India. The telling silence of social-media-savvy celebrities in shying away from contributing to the flaring discourses is quixotic and unheroic. The fault is not of the celebrities but of the gullible masses who bestow portents of ‘know-all’ wisdom onto these individuals, who are solely driven by their own personal ambitions and fears.

In the West, actor Richard Gere standout, who knowing the status of the second-biggest box-office market in China, still holds on to his personal commitment towards Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The outspoken critic had spoken about China’s ‘horrendous human right situation’ at the Academy Awards in 1993 and has since then acknowledged that ‘There are definitely movies that I can’t be in because the Chinese will say, “Not with him”.’ 

China’s authoritarian regime is paranoid and reactive to any criticism and its hyper-sensitivity results in automatic intimidation. Even countries remain guarded, submissive and wary of naming China to register any legitimate societal concern. From Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, leaders have remained incredulously silent on the Chinese crackdown of its hapless Uighurs. 

This left the space to some admirable celebrities who knowingly risked their personal status to lend their voice for the unspoken. Most recently, Mesut Ozil, the German footballer of Turkish ethnicity, slammed the Chinese regime for its treatment of Uighurs and was paid back in the typical Chinese fashion – he was immediately banned from the Chinese iteration of lucrative Pro Evolution Soccer Mobile and his club Arsenals’ Premier League game was not broadcast in China. 

Expectedly, Arsenal distanced itself from its star player and stated obsequiously, ‘As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics’. Mesut Ozil will live to pay the price, henceforth. 

From the unforgettable spectacle of Tommie Smith and John Carlos doing the ‘Black Power Salute’ in 1968 Mexico Olympics – some celebrities have risked everything for the causes that they believe are important enough to require their public support. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlistment had stripped him of his title and fighting license, but he did not renege.

Indian celebrities have amongst the largest base, most fanatic and impactful following that is reflected in their fan-club membership numbers or social media followings. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the next Top-5 in terms of followers on Twitter are Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and then the sport star, Virat Kohli. 

Propagating causes

They have all used their fame for good causes, and are frequently seen propagating causes that are supposedly close to their hearts. However, it has been the ‘lesser’ celebrities who have braved and posited public positions to the possible detriment of their careers, as it could ‘cost’ them personally. Given that in the Indian context, the curse of trolls, threats and intolerant groups are increasingly gaining currency, it can be argued that the bigger ‘celebrities’ deliberately avoid the pitfall. 

It is also unfair to insist that they necessarily assume a position on any topical or contentious issue. However, their tactical silence rails and militates against the carefully curated perception of ‘concerned citizens’. This also dims their popular perception of ‘superhero’ capabilities that they have knowingly pieced together or allowed towards building their celebrity status. This telling silence raises a question of selective sincerity towards overall societal commitments, as the reel heroes often fail to stand up and be counted when it truly matters. 

The masses need to recognise these celebrities for what they really are — brilliant actors, talented sportspersons or successful politicians, nothing more and just that. The actual larger-than-life heroism ought to accrue to those who defy the winds of time and still state their beliefs, nonetheless. It is also not important for the celebrities to have contrarian views – but, it is the rote spectacle of seeing these celebrities fawning-over and ingratiating themselves to the powers that be, even as the dispensations change from one partisan party to the other.

Seldom has there been the sort of steadfastness, passion and cavalier-attitude that is seen in their display on the screen with much aplomb – as the real-life conduct gets dictated by the opportunistic winds of personal preference. Hollywood or the entertainment industry in general in the United States is arguably the most potent and visible platform of anti-establishment that regularly calls-out the concerns against political dispensations.

The over-heated engine of stardom in India has ensured that its celebrities earn financially and emotionally far in excess of their peers globally, yet contribute rather selectively in paying back the society with their personal conduct. The solution is in recognising mortals as mortals, unless they truly stand up and assume superhero postures in real life, too.

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