Has the television-propagated “cult of celebrity” finally become passé?

Sometimes, everyday banalities on television news can trigger a rush of memories. I was watching news channels discuss the strong possibility of the Prime Minister keeping the Finance portfolio to himself as Pranab-da heads for Rashtrapati Bhawan. The channels followed it up with the usual ritual of some film stars promoting their movie (Abhishek Bachchan and Ajay Devgn doing it for their next release Bol Bachchan) on primetime news. The latter is the fixed complimentary that you are assured with your news diet these days.

(Six years ago Jerry Pinto had dwelt on this “news coup” in his incisive piece in Outlook ). I changed the channels as soon as celebrities were too willing to give their darshan on news channels and invited us to theatres to have their maha darshan in their forthcoming flicks. It is interesting, because I remembered that television viewers didn’t have these spells of “celebrity fatigue” when we watched Doordarshan in default mode, and somehow the Prime Minister might be responsible for thinning out the appeal of “celebrity darshan”. Dr Manmohan Singh started his ministerial innings with the Finance portfolio in 1991 with a reformist agenda that was driven by Victor Hugo’s words (which he quoted in his maiden budget speech) – “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

Perhaps the time for unravelling the celebrity mystique had also arrived. At a time when celebrities were rare in their appearance on small screen, the script for their bombardment on our TV screens was also being written somewhere in Lutyen’s Delhi. With the waning of Doordarshan’s monopoly, liberalisation of airwaves and proliferation of satellite television channels, celebrities were never the same again (the web transformed the scene for them altogether, but that’s a different story).

As a child growing up in the Eighties and early Nineties, I think this is well-illustrated by something that had contrasting appeal in two different eras of television viewership in India. I am talking about how a celebrity-laden video, with the clichéd nationalist theme of “unity in diversity”, was received in the late Eighties and what fate it met with when its sequel was released almost two decades later. And you might have got it right if you thought that I am referring to the iconic Mile Sur Mera Tumhara and its sequel, Phir Mile Sur. Apart from the changing contours of celebrity-visibility on television, the 20 years separating these videos is also important for the changing nature of nationalist imageries in public imagination.  And something more.

Far from being a cloying nostalgic trip, it unwittingly offers a cathartic moment, a moment to confront some blurred imageries on the fringes of our visual memory. The nostalgia gives way to poignant hindsight.

We do remember images littered on our memory lane as signposts which Doordarshan posted in its nationalistic overdrive, revelling in its monopoly as the prized possession of middle-class homes. To give the devil its due, it gave a generation some shared visual experiences to relate to. “It is the Calcutta Metro (Kolkata was still a misnomer in those politically incorrect times)”, informed a family elder to children, as a smiling Arun Lal and Mrinal Sen were shown alighting from a swanky rail coach.

The Metro rail brings up a point that I can’t miss telling here before usual celebrities are talked about. For children growing up in rural India and small towns, the Metro was also a “celebrity” of a different kind. The collective imagination of an altered urban landscape with state-of art transport which the image evoked during our childhood has failed the test of 20 years. The debris of imagined structures have to be somewhere tucked away as the children of the Eighties board the Metro of their times, Delhi Metro – one of the many dehumanising shared experiences that public space has to offer in urban India. The problem with the Delhi Metro is that it has acquired the bathos of senility without seeing the animate innocence of childhood. The monstrosity gives you a feeling of insignificance, part-anomie and part-alienation.

For the celebrity-starved viewers of the small screen, Doordarshan sprinkled Mile Sur with the popular icons of the day – film stars from all parts of India including Bollywood stars, singers and instrumentalists of light as well as classical music, sports icons, etc. It ensured that its homilies about India’s unifying mosaic held us children in awe. Along with its variegated musical ambience, its high celebrity quotient became its “pull” factor. It somehow also engaged children who usually had an aversion to the pedantic narratives on nationalist identity which Doordarshan somehow relished. In face of the battle-hardened nation state’s brush with insurgencies in Punjab and Assam, the public broadcaster never missed an opportunity to give a crash course on national integration. We children found them as compulsory starters before the main course of our sports and entertainment diet which Doordarshan was almost patronising in offering. But even within this nationalist narrative, Mile Sur, was watched by audiences for its assortment of popular icons who were so rare on the TV screen.

Two decades later, the landscape of Indian television has changed drastically and it’s so densely populated by celebrities that you bump into them anytime on numerous channels. The 2010 Mile Sur sequel didn’t cause any ripple and almost came and went unnoticed. Though it was heavier on its celebrity quotient, the viewers cold-shouldered the video. The video was devoid of its original “pull” factor, because now the images of celebrities are as ubiquitous as cola bottles. In our drawing rooms and living rooms we are invaded with celebrities jostling for our mindspace. For the children of the Eighties, this demystification of the cult of celebrity unwittingly instigates the repulsion towards the insidious “look-at-me”, syndrome.

There is one more dimension to the audience reception and changing texture of public message broadcasting in the post-Doordarshan monopoly era. It can now be observed that national integration can no longer be the only cornerstone of conducting political discourse in visual media today as multiple media platforms are addressing various issues of society, polity and economy and identity politics from the standpoint of non-state actors in television. And currents of sub-nationalist (if not seditionist) thought can also find space in the grammar of non-state visual media. However, state projects on “nationalism” also have the approval of the national elite, and ultimately nationalism is an elitist project, and celebrities still have the task of branding it. And the national elite are calling for fresh recruitment and now many probationers are from the middle-class “jai ho”…“ab India ki baari”…“rising power” jingoists whose national pride is hurt at the drop of a hat.

The changing dynamics of visual mass media is continuously defining how we engage with faces that we find too frequently on our television screen. Fatigue may just be one of the responses to people who are famous for being famous (that’s how celebrities are cynically defined), or maybe that adulation has found new forms. Even Western societies having a paparazzi culture of celebrity-craze are witnessing fatigue and a sort of disillusionment with the bombardment of celebrity images and celeb talk (An article in The New York Times on this issue was nostalgically titled “When stars were not like you and me”). Or can you view it as a reality-check or even a democratic test of celebrityhood with more and more accessibility? It could be, but with those faces always on your television screen, be sure that someone is laughing all the way to the bank.






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