Shailesh Kapoor: Time to Redefine ‘Celebrity’?

05 Feb,2021

By Shailesh Kapoor


The events of the last two days have been confounding for many of us. I’m referring to the chain reaction that started off with Rihanna’s and Greta Thunberg’s tweets. Whether the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) needed to respond or not is a topic for those with an expertise in diplomacy to reflect upon. But the part that caught my interest, and saddened me too, is the orchestrated response from top-of-the-line Indian celebrities.

Within hours of the MEA statement, the biggest cricketers and film stars in India were using their social media handles to share their views against ‘false propaganda’. The tweets read like each other (sometimes to the last punctuation mark), and came in a flurry, evidently suggesting the inorganic nature of this celebrity campaign. Ironically, these tweets against an alleged propaganda came across as a propaganda of its own making.

Whether such ‘campaigns’ happen because some phone calls are made from powerful offices in Delhi, or if it is industry’s own way of being in the good books of those powers, I can’t say with certainty. But it is an open secret that almost none of these messages come from a genuine position of awareness or concern, and are merely a way of ensuring good optics.

Celebrities hold an influential place in the society. It can be argued that the rise of social media has weakened both the inspirational and aspirational power of celebrities in India, though South India is less impacted than other parts of the nation. When celebrities take up an ‘issue’, it gets amplified by the media, and has the power of shaping public opinion, much like influencing consumers to buy brands they endorse.

But selling chips and beauty products is one thing, and taking up social, economic and political issues quite another. The latter falls in the realm of public and national (not to be confused with nationalistic) importance, and hence, requires a much higher display of responsibility on the part of the celebrity.

But when one sees the who’s-who of the celebrity world abandon that responsibility and toe a line that’s optically conducive, one is forced to wonder which of the two – opportunism or spinelessness – is the bigger malaise at work.

It’s easy to give the standard argument that it’s a tough life as a celebrity, and you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But for people who enjoy the best of privileges, and have been generously showered with accolades for their great achievements, that argument comes across as spurious.

When celebrities let go of their social currency, they also let go of the notion that they can shape the country’s future. Are we to understand, then, that celebrity culture in India is now only about Instagram posts, gossip articles and paparazzi invasions, and anything even slightly meaningful is too much to expect?

Perhaps yes. Call me old school, but the notion that celebrities will only provide fodder for entertainment and not play a pivotal role in shaping India’s thinking is an unnerving thought.

As it is, popular celebrity line-up in India is now largely homogenous, with film stars, sportspersons and a handful of TV stars dominating the popular list. Professions such as literature, journalism and arts have not built any mainstream traction, and there are no political heroes to look up to either. In such a scenario, film stars and cricketers, it can be argued, have even greater social responsibility. But going by the way things are, that’s a utopian idea in 2021.

Maybe it’s time to reconcile with the new definition of a celebrity, that of a fashion & lifestyle influencer, than an inspirational figure who can shape impressionable minds, especially children and the youth. In times of half-truths and post-truths, that is the real truth about what the notion of a celebrity has come to, in India at least.

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