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SRK, Salman, Amitabh worship — God is dead but Viral Bhayani will create a new one for you

God created human beings. Human beings created PR agencies. PR agencies created new celebrity gods through the mass production of iconography. This is the philosophical cycle of life.

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If you visit a certain area in Mumbai at any point in the day, you’ll see many people with their heads high, looking for something in the sky. It’s a strange sight, and you wonder if they are amateur theatre actors adapting Rabindranath Tagore’s verse: “Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high.” But no, they aren’t Tagore fans. They are Salman Khan fans. The area is Bandra Bandstand where people stand under Salman’s apartment, waiting for that moment when he would wave at them from his balcony and add some life to their otherwise mundane day.

A decade ago, when I first visited Bandstand, I joined the crowd and held my head high just to understand what it felt like. After gazing for some minutes and sensing no possibility of any special sight, I gave up and walked away. But then I heard loud screams from the crowd. Someone had seemingly appeared in the apartment window, not on the balcony where the crowd wanted. And it wasn’t Salman either, but his loyal bodyguard Shera who was waving. The crowd wasn’t disappointed at all — they were happy that their long wait had been acknowledged.

Little farther away is the home of Shah Rukh Khan where a similar, perhaps bigger, crowd of fans jostles for space. A black plate on the gate of his house reads ‘MANNAT Lands END’, a tourist attraction and a selfie point for visitors. There is a small window near it where many curious visitors ask the guard if SRK is inside. The guard, for some reason, always replies, “Shooting ke liye bahar gaye hain (He is out for shooting).”

These memories of Mumbai remind me of another incident. Puneet Superstar, a working-class former TikToker and absurdist artist, told me that his most famous video was shot at Mannat. When he visited it, the first thing he did was take off his shirt, soak it in water, and clean the dust around the Mannat nameplate. He said he was extremely unhappy that nobody took note of the dust on the nameplate of King Khan. “He gave us so much pleasure, the least we can do is wipe off the dust from his house nameplate,” he said.

A parallel can be drawn to the famous Shrinathji Temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan. It has a unique darshan system where devotees wait for the main door to open to witness the divine. The priest tells them that God is sleeping and then there will be a long wait. When the door finally opens, the crowd rushes forward in ecstasy.

A celebrity cult, worship, and icons 

Can we call the act of visitors thronging the houses of superstars a kind of pilgrimage?

After all, there’s already something called ‘celebrity worship’: A quasi-religious phenomenon born out of consumer culture. It is a desperate escape to ‘spiritual experiences’ by meditating on icons produced through mass media, market forces, and the status quo.

Perhaps this is the philosophical cycle of life: God created human beings. Human beings created PR agencies. PR agencies created new celebrity gods through the mass production of iconography. This mass production of images is a form of ritual from which modern myths are created.

Also read: The India that Vir Das and liberals want – and the one they won’t talk about

South vs North

In South India, the relationship between fans and stars isn’t based on such sensitivities as clearing dust from nameplates. It is much deeper and more intense. When Puneeth Rajkumar died due to a cardiac arrest, at least two of his fans in Karnataka reportedly died of a heart attack upon hearing the news. At auto rickshaw stands, many middle-aged people stood in silence together as tears rolled down their eyes, which wet their large moustaches and beards. Perhaps, unlike people from the North, most in the South don’t consider sadness a secret act of suffering.

Rajkumar is now memorialised in posters, statues, and car stickers that one can find all over Bengaluru. The city seems to be buried under a layer of melancholy — perhaps his iconography makes one hope he still exists among his fans.

According to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), 597 people died of grief when its leader and actress J. Jayalalithaa died.

Such incidents aren’t new in the South. In the North, it isn’t a norm to display your emotions in public — except during road rage.

This is why it would be very rare in the North to hear about a fan with such proximity to a celebrity that the news of their star’s death drives them to their own end. At best, people post an Instagram collage video of the actor with trending music in the background to attract maximum social media engagement. What use is sadness if it can’t be commodified?

But what if the idea of the ‘fan’ in North India isn’t purely based on selfless devotion but rooted in the narcissism of the devotees?

A few days ago, a picture went viral in which a woman is seen touching the feet of Ramayan (1987) fame Arun Govil at an airport. Govil played the character of Rama in the TV show. This imagery doesn’t reflect Govil’s fandom — who is no superstar — but denotes a selfish idea where, by seeking blessings from an actor who played a god, one might invoke divine energy and their wishes may come true. Maybe religion in the Indian middle class is somewhere rooted in this transactional nature, and its spiritual experiences might not be possible without taking care of the materialistic elements.

The same can be said about Sonu Sood who is also termed as ‘God’ by his fans ever since his involvement in Covid-relief campaigns. His godliness doesn’t come from his skill as an actor but from his philanthropic behaviour. People line outside his house not just for his darshan but mostly for the selfish and justified reasons of being saved from the miseries of living in a ‘Third-World’ country.

Also read: How Instagram reels is a mirror to modern casteism in India

Breach of privacy

SRK might be fearful of the narcissism of his fans, and perhaps his 2016 film Fan can be read as a cinematic portrayal of his own subconscious fear of being tormented by them.

Many believe that the Khan trio and Amitabh Bachchan are the last ‘great’ superstars in Bollywood, and there is no other celebrity with a similar aura. But what if ‘aura’ is nothing but less information? Aura, an intrinsic quality of every celebrity, is difficult to maintain in the age of information bombardment where one must always be in the limelight to be relevant. To know about stars, one can log in on Instagram where many actors perform a carefully marketed persona known as “candid and being real”. This also means oversharing much ‘behind the scene’ information. They are also competing with top influencers in the attention economy of Instagram (and other social media platforms). Social media itself has created a list of celebrities who have a huge dedicated following. The celebrity market is now overcrowded.

On Comedy Nights with Kapil, which is India’s top celebrity talk show, many actors pretend very hard to prove that they deal with everyday issues similar to that of ordinary people. Simplicity and humility might be an asset in the South, but in the North, it has an air of defeat around it. Fans crave more information but respect it more when they are bereft of it. They also like their stars to be not like them and yet seek relatability. It’s a strange paradox.

A few days ago, cricketer Virat Kohli, in Australia for the T20 World Cup, got very angry when a fan breached his privacy and recorded a video of his hotel room. Kohli posted the video on Instagram with the caption: “I’m NOT okay with this kind of fanaticism… Please respect people’s privacy and not treat them as a commodity for entertainment.”

Privacy is a tricky subject in an overpopulated country like India where one may feel that they are being perpetually watched. Anonymity is the privilege of the ‘First World’ where any threat to it is a violation of human rights. In India, the list of human rights violations is so long that people consider privacy a minor inconvenience.

This concept becomes trickier in popular culture where ‘celebrityhood’ rests on the commodification of their lives. Fans feel that the return gift for the fame allotted to celebrities is the unfiltered details about their everyday lives. Through these details, fans want to learn how their favourite celebrities behave, live, party or become angry. As if there are noble aspirational goals in invading privacy.

The video of Kohli’s room in which clothes and his luggage are seen to be lying in a mess gives some confidence to bachelors. Or maybe an inferiority complex to married ones — maybe it’s only Virat who can have the exclusive luxury of being messy after marriage. It also broke the first rule of success told by psychologist and motivational speaker Jordan Peterson in his book 12 Rules for Life: “In order to be successful, you first need to clean your room, buddy.”

This relationship between fans and stars can be seen through multiple social, religious, and psychological frames. It is also argued that without celebrity icons, the masses feel they have moved into a cultural orphanage, and this assurance that some icons exist as aspirational figures is necessary for them to continue in this world.

Nietzsche once said: “God is dead and we killed him.” If the German philosopher was alive today, he would have posted on his Instagram story: “God is dead, but don’t worry, Viral Bhayani will create a new one.”

Anurag is a multimedia artist and host of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. He tweets @confusedvichar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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