By Sanjay Jha
( The fact that we need an education from a Bollywood actor being paid an astronomical sum to understand our social woes is as much a commentary on the star as it is on ourselves).
Finding a celebrity with a social orientation is as easy as finding a crowd disembarking from a local train in Mumbai. Bad boy Salman Khan after insouciantly driving over pavement dwellers in an inebriated condition and hunting down a black buck runs a charitable entity called Being Human. These days celebrities exploit every available tool under the painstaking tutelage of their brand advisors for image enhancement. The impact can be exponential, humongous rise in dollar sum as endorsement fee and for advertising appearances. Everything is calculatedly commercial. ROI is staggeringly high. It is business.
Bollywood actor Aamir Khan is uber media savvy, possessing just the right ersatz tear for every conceivable human anguish. On his just launched Sunday program it was obvious he has mastered the art of ruse, as billions with a penchant for reality-TV fell hook, line and sinker for those lachrymose tear-ducts. The IPL cheerleaders are replaced by a grave-looking Tear Leader. Its vicarious entertainment all the way. The subject becomes less relevant, but the superstar is not. He hogs center-stage by divine right. It is show time, folks !
Honestly, celebrities are free to leverage their fan quotient, that insane public adulation. They get access to powerful decision-makers pronto, as everyone gets a photo-op. But visiting CM Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan by Aamir is believing that one swallow makes a summer. Female foeticide is a serious pan-India problem and healthcare is a state subject. India has a shortage of 100,000 doctors, and the perpetrators of these heartless crimes are interspersed in big cities and 600,000 villages of India. It is not an issue you play ducks and drakes with. Like Cindy Crawford who famously said: “I had rather go naked than wear fur”, while associating with People for Ethical Treatment for Animals; then promptly went commercial promoting fur. It beggars belief but is true. We are living in a fool’s paradise if we think an electronic awareness program will alter that. Worse, we trivialize the hard work being done by many unsung social workers and journalists. Khan has hijacked the issue lock, stock and barrel in 90 minutes of calibrated packaging.
Khan’s principal panacea seems to be blaming the state apparatchiks ( for shoddy oversight) and medical professionals ( for collusion), but the brass-tacks is attitudinal transformation which given our rigid social mind-set is a mammoth task. The women are sad victims, the men vile culprits. Khan’s treatment of this sensitive subject is superficial. India does not need sermon-masters, it requires a committed executioner. Invariably good intentions hits a cul-de-sac somewhere. But Khan has a convenient caveat: we cannot change anything. No promises. It is a manifestation of our times that we need a Bollywood superstar to educate/inform/entertain us on foetal feticide. There is substantive documented research material, and India’s media has regularly exposed rampant abuse of PCPNDT Act, and why the Indian Penal Code has rarely been enforced. Convictions are rare. But we chose to ignore the elephant in the room; of course, Aamir Khan in our drawing rooms is irresistible.
Attacking a social menace is our collective responsibility; we need greater awareness/education, ruthless punishment, monitor dubious health-care centres and regulate registration/ equipment distribution. The state governments , healthcare industry, law enforcement agencies and NGOs alongwith other voluntary support groups need to work in tandem. It won’t be easy, it is the snob- class, highly educated and up on the affluence curve who are equally guilty. There is no single-bullet magic prescription for our tragic predilections , it requires a combination of harsh regulatory environment and quiet personal introspection. Sure Khan’s effort helps somewhat, but its aggressive positioning and promotion is insufferably self-righteous . It is cringe-inducing, exhibitionistic. Why haven’t the cash-rich corporate sponsors and Khan run a CSR campaign instead discreetly without the commercial razzmatazz? Does India seriously believe that its 13 Amazonian problems can be addressed by 90 minute studio chats and Powerpoint presentations over 13 weeks??
Celebrity cause-marketing is du jour , the zeitgeist of our times. Unfortunately, cynicism is inevitable given their overt synthetic treatment of human issues. Even amidst Bollywood many veterans vanish, poor, broken and homeless , and no one cares a damn. Then they appear on TV to mourn the “legendary great whose loss is irreparable”. It is repugnant. Khan should start with first helping Bollywood, charity begins at home.
The final coup de grace in Aamir’s program is that omnipresent SMS trick , one that gets the popular telecom operator full subsidy for sponsorship fee. It is blatantly stupid to indulge in such conventional theatrics. Either Star Plus-Khan are hubris-stoned or we are dumb asses to fall for such silly subterfuge in money-making.
To be fair to Khan he does his best to give it that tear-inducing oomph. There is nothing worse than faking sincerity, especially when you are dealing with a social issue that demands no-nonsense, deadly earnestness. Female foeticide is a national shame, and yet a brutal reality. The owners of Star ( Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp ) are embroiled in a shameful scam with their erstwhile News of the World accused of hacking voice mails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler , one that instigated world-wide public outrage. We hope that helping the Indian girl child is not a PR exercise in the world’s second most populous nation for the brutally scarred media behemoth, to make reputational capital. Cynical? Don’t be too sure!
This article is not an attempt to belittle Khan , but his past track-record is a trifle patchy. Aamir is unanimously considered a media manipulator; that perfectly timed philosophical expression at Ram Lila on the celebrated fast’s last day ( just like Chetan Bhagat’s book Five Point Someone he had obviously not read the Lok Pal Bill either ) or the astonishment expressed at the drinking age of 25 in Maharashtra before the release of Delhi Belly. Sure a PIL followed, but who cares? I am still left discombobulated by the man’s chutzpah. Charisma unfortunately cannot replace credibility. That Khan’s production firm is privately profiteering from this social agenda is blasphemous. Ideally, there should be no quid pro quo.
Khan can take a leaf from George Clooney who hit the dirt track during the Darfur Conflict in Sudan, and Bob Geldof for African famine. Even the long-legged Anjelina Jolie who carries a caravan of kids through Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, the appropriate fountainhead of celebrity activism is the U2 superstar Bono whose work on African aids eradication remains unparalleled. Maybe Khan can do his social awareness campaign pro-bono. Arresting those glycerin tears next , of course, would be a cakewalk for the consummate actor. There is hope. Don’t we all live on it?
Sanjay Jha can be followed on Twitter@JhaSanjay