Our visual reality is shaped by 50 odd celebrities. We see them day and night. Shouldn’t our world be more than the sum total of these done-to-death faces?
WE LIVE in an age of forgetting. Despite the Rs 1 crore ( plus or minus a few lakhs) advance that Ramachandra Guha is alleged to have been paid for a comprehensive biography of Gandhi and a few other sundry books, our sense of history, endemically subservient to our genius for myth, has never been so brittle as now. This is perhaps natural in a nation where nearly 500 million of the one billion-strong population is below 25 years old.
Since most of the mainstream media catering to the urban English Republic of India targets the young as their alpha audience, the act of forgetting—the erasure of events, deletion of solo revolts and elision of pains which are the building blocks of individual lives—buys into the media’s marketing need to create a pleasant, buyer-friendly ecosystem to sell its wares, the advertising space in which products are displayed. A great deal of any market economy rests on internal consumption. Cut the clap trap and call it shopping. We shop because buying is a liberating experience. We splurge at a mall and assert ourselves in terms of cash or card at the counter because each product off the rack carries with it a promise: a better you. We shop because we believe it will help us live better, because we believe deep down that each trolley packed with tetra packs and plastic bags will facilitate the arrival of a new, improved us.
And since perfection is potentially an interminable process, shopping is an eternal search for our true, elusive and beautiful selves hidden away in one of the Fair & Lovely shelves, preserved pristine in the embalmed mall air. If only we shop long enough, we might just achieve immortality. Shopping is a ceaseless quest for the elixir of life in a departmental store.
What are the overwhelming traits of the new, improved us? Youth, beauty, success. Which is more or less what the media, ever friendly to our aspirations, strive to give. And they ensure it by arranging around us an environment of comforting imagery that makes our search for ourselves credible. Ideals of bliss and beauty are possible in the impoverished, industrial ugliness that permeate our urban existence if only we live within sensory burkhas, wear even to bed a commodious niqab of pretty images and meaningless sounds.
The media proffers, certainly tries their damndest, to give us exactly that. For instance, here is Amitabh Bachchan blabbering about his blog, unlikely black wig adorning his head, his mouth haloed by equally unlikely silver hair, on the front page of a Delhi city supplement: “I am duty bound [?!] to my fans and feel like giving back the love they give me.” In other words, Bachchan is saying he started his blog because he loves his fans, not himself. If you believe this, you will believe anything.
In the same report, Bachchan’s son, Abhishek, is reported as expounding on the miracle man that his father is: “Dad is amazing. His commitment to his extended family, which he has named EF, is beyond any physical [!?] or situational limitation.”
We all know by now that Abhishek Bachchan has always been overwhelmed by his dad. He is perpetually in a state of amazement as far as his father is concerned. Indeed, it would be news if he was not amazed, if he did not speak of father Bachchan in superlatives. That would be a new input to our all too mediated reality. But here all he does is to sum up his earlier endorsements of his father, who is, in one word , amazing. He has said it earlier and no doubt he will say it again. And each time he says it, we are supposed to be amazed as well.
The deadening, repetitive quality of the words is central to the mechanised comfort we derive from this report. The only person who could conceivably be as amazed as Abhishek is the reporter himself, who, for all we know, is reeling under the revelations, his mouth agape.
What in any case is the cause of Abhishek’s amazement? A platitude. Bachchan says he will do anything for his fans. Do we believe it? But, of course, it is not important. It is just a transaction of sounds, and those sounds mean nothing. The fact is we don’t particularly care, do we? So long as the celebs keep talking, produce a kind of static, we think we are all right. So long as the familiar faces are there—a stellar presence that could be conjured out of thin air by the magic wand of a rolled-up newspaper any time we want—we feel safe.
What we have come to look for is visual comfort, a sense of assurance from a familiar sight. So when Shah Rukh Khan, another ham actor with an ego the size of a pyramid, refers to himself in third person (“I am Shah Rukh Khan’s employee”—no kidding ), no one so much as breaks wind in joyous relief. No one is cracking up, because a poor poetics of cosmetics has replaced the politics of our memory and meaning and we are not even aware of the censorship.
Our new, glittering, impoverished world then comprises say, 50 images of select Bollywood stars, a few of cricket players and a clutch of political leaders. Our reference to the reality around us is defined by these images. The 50 icons we see hour after hour, day after day, year after year lull us to thinking that all is, if not well, at least normal. In the sustained absence of other reference systems, the more naive amongst us will take these images to the grave.
Our media conditioning is such that if we don’t see them once every few minutes, we are likely to panic: what’s wrong with Aishwarya Rai? We don’t question that feeling. We think it is a genuine, even charitable, feeling, though the truth is likely that we are simulating it. For, in the last count, what is Rai to you and you to Rai that you should weep for her?
The stars especially are as natural to us as the air we breathe. And with what warm generosity we hold them to our heart. They grow old, and our familiarity air brushes their wrinkles away. They grow wigs, and we don’t even bat an eyelid. They cut the throat of a black buck, and we still queue up for their next movie. They make scenes at a party, and we are indulgent. They are ham actors, but we never measure them against the one skill they are supposed to be famous for.
On a rough count, a mainstream English newspaper will feature the photograph of a Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, an Akshay Kumar, a Salman Khan or an Aamir Khan around 20 times a week. The number could go up if one of their movies is being released. Last week, for instance, a city supplement of a major newspaper carried the picture of the Bollywood action hero Akshay Kumar— whose movie 8×10 Tasveer just hit the screen—in seven places within a span of 10 pages, including all the advertisements. Add to this blitz—the carpet bombing of the eye with just one image—magazines, posters, hoardings, TV channels, reality shows, movies and endorsements, and you will have an idea of the radiation levels in our one-dimensional world.
It is just very safe to assume that at least some of us living in big cities—and nearly 50 per cent of the Indian population already do—have seen more of these media icons than of our parents, siblings and friends. That speaks something for the visual ecosystem we live in.
But there was a world before them and there is one beyond them. A much brighter world than we are given to understand. More varied. More rich. More meaningful, even. Perhaps, we must turn deaf to hear new sounds. Close our eyes to see better. Surely, there must be more to life than 50 paling stars?