Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Ban The 'R' Word !" Can Star-Power Change Public Mindset ?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri Examines The Clout of Stars in Issues that are Non-Starry

Very recently, an interesting thing happened. Action-star Akshay Kumar, a huge presence in B-town, blew the whistle on the ‘R’ word and said that he would go out of his way to plead, request, warn, threaten (with words!) people to not use the word ‘retard’, because it is humiliating, demoralising and insulting to the children of a lesser god. “I am sure Jennifer Aniston did not mean to use it – when she alluded to the term while describing herself in a recent interview – in a derogatory manner. But of course, on cue, it was blown out of proportion. It just shows how unaware we are and how frivolously we tend to use this word. One can never even begin to understand the depth of hurt it can cause and how demeaning it is to people disadvantaged and striving harder to live a life of decency and normalcy,” said Akshay Kumar then.

Coming from Khiladi No.1 (whose image of a rough-tough macho star or a smooth comic hero doesn’t quite fit the ‘causes and concern’ slot) the concern is as surprising as it is wonderful! Whether this is to reinforce his image as the face of Special Olympics – held for mentally challenged people – is not the issue. He needn’t have done it and he could have well gone about enjoying his exalted position. The fact that he chose to, is the point – and he appears dead serious. “The industry has been totally supportive. Be it Mr. Bachchan, Salman, Farah, Katrina – they’ve all pledged to show respect to those who have special needs,” he says. Great start; but does his speak matter? Does having AK as the spokesperson result in kids en masse promising to be less flippant, casual or bindaas about the ‘R’ word?

Which brings us to the real issue – is this championing of causes and concerns by glam celebs taken seriously by the constituency targeted, or even by the celebs themselves? Living in a shamelessly, blatant, consumer-driven, Friday-crazed, TRP-ridden, image-specific setting, are these great expansive acts simply brand-building gimmicks, or should we for once set aside cynicism and skepticism and remember that stars are human too with eyes to see and hearts to feel and give them the benefits of doubt? Should we really believe that Hollywood actress Charlize Theron, who reportedly has taken up the cause of African apes, will really pay her suffrage in malaria infested jungles to prove her point? Or should we simply roll over and guffaw away in sidesplitting laughter at this misplaced altruism?

Celeb-tracker Meenu Tandon believes that all this is nothing but dramabazi in action, a smart way of brand-building. “These mega-stars are masters in the art of marketing, both their films and themselves, as well as cleverly manipulating the media. What better way to position oneself as a caring, concerned and sensitive soul, protecting and championing the cause of the disenfranchised of the world than making a hue n’ cry about something that is certainly not all that critical! A star-crazed, sensation hungry media is always there at hand to do the rest,” Tandon tells 4Ps B&M. But film critic Rauf Ahmed begs to differ. He believes that a section of society continues to be too harsh and critical – come what may – at these guys as he tells 4Ps B&M, “Never mind everything else, shouldn’t any person’s individual act of courage, sensitivity and concern for a disadvantaged section of society, be recognised and lauded instead of being put under the scanner? I am convinced that frequently, the baby is being flung out with the bath-water! Admittedly, image-building exercises by stars do happen, but the fact is that fans aren’t fools to immediately fall for it. Grant them some intelligence please, and the stars some sensitivity!”

Hard core celeb watchers insist that this brand of celebrity diplomacy definitely works within established political frameworks to advocate, agitate, and even assist change. Also, it has been known to neutralise rumour, scandal and generally foster goodwill. Dozens of sports stars and celebrities remain classic examples. Social commentator Arvind Pathak agrees. While celebrity activism does indeed draw much-needed attention and funds to worthy causes, he believes that it also promotes a specific type of activism that is individualised, commodified and de-politicised. It is too soft, too pat and convenient. Send a text; bid on an item; appear on a public platform; call into a telethon... and you are done!

“It obscures the complexity of humanitarianism and development. It’s like ownership of brands that are dying or are under-siege... and championing them to look good and feel great,” says Pathak. Also, most of these issue are about, or the product of grinding poverty, social abuse relating to the doomed, disenfranchised of the world, whereas celebrities (ironically) are the visible, dazzling and glamorous embodiment of wealth, fame and success – aka U2’s Bono for Africa. This can make the relationship lopsided, unreal, agenda-driven and suspect.

So, coming back to the subject – can star-power alter public views, mindset or perspective; can it refresh parts of the mind and heart that conventional messaging simply cannot reach? While Aamir Khan – perhaps because of his persona – is taken seriously every time he lends his name to social causes, one can’t simply refuse to acknowledge the power that Salman Khan’s ‘being human’ tagline propagates. At the same time, while Celina Jaitley’s irascible presence on the pink platform might not have changed your outlook to the gay community, Amitabh Bachchan’s contribution to the national polio campaign, albeit only as a celebrity face and voice, would have surely. Clearly, the answer to our call totally depends on what is the issue, who is the star representing its public face, who is the targeted group and how it is being presented. This is an extremely tricky, dedicated and dangerous terrain because the value proportion from the celeb going out is going to be scrutinised against his star-persona, very closely. Ask yourself, would you have been flamed into action if any of these stars had supported a sterilization campaign? Touché!


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