The Tribune - Spectrum

, May 26, 2002
Lead Article

Adding celeb spice to mundane lives

Adding celeb spice to mundane lives

No matter how much media critics and the intelligentsia admonish us for voyeuristically lapping up the lives and falls of celebrities, we are still drawn to them. Even as the elite are horrified by growing admiration for media glitz amongst the public, celebrity stories continue to sell newspapers, keep us in front of television screens and provide endless material for conversations, writes Gitanjali Mahajan

I ADMIT IT. I grab a copy of Society from the newspaper stand often while I am traveling, I watch Bollywood News and Simi Grewal's Rendezvous whenever I can, I hadn't heard of Natasha Singh until the fateful day of her tragic death, yet I mourned her and lapped up her "story" as narrativised by the media. I am not one of those dedicated people who stop everything to be in front of their TV to watch their favorite celebrities or those who read every cm of page 3, but I read and watch enough to keep me well informed! And my family makes no bones about the disgust they feel about my "general knowledge".


No matter how much media critics and the intelligentsia admonish us for voyeuristically regarding the lives and falls of celebrities, we are drawn to them. Even as culture elite are horrified by growing admiration for media glitz amongst the public, celebrity stories continue to sell newspapers, keep us in front of television screens and provide endless material for conversations.

Aishwarya RaiFascination with fame is nothing new. It is a curious relationship that we create with the celebrities. We simultaneously venerate and denigrate them. We, as audience, are continuously enmeshed in their construction as well as collapse. We love and idolise the beautiful, the rich and the famous yet, we secretly like nothing more than to see our idols tarnished with sleaze. Gossip and scandal have always been an integral part of "news". But, now more than ever before, celebrity mania is at new heights, amplified as it is by the electronic media. Tabloids and countless television shows focus not only on the appearance, attitude and antics of popular stars, but also on their private lives and shocking secrets.

There has been some attempt to understand this preoccupation with celebrities and their lives. While some dismiss it as plain, morbid curiosity on part of people lacking judgment and good taste. Others say that celebrity culture shows and sells what you want or what you might be. You take vicarious pleasure in the feats of other men and see the reflection of your own aspirations. Also, the star and celebrity can be seen as the modern-day version of the classic hero, whom you worship and admire and in some cases can even identify with.

Shalini, 24, adores Sanjay Dutt not just for his macho and sexy looks. Says she:"He is a real hero. The manner in which he overcame his drug problem and almost reinvented himself is laudable". For Atul, an aspiring sportsperson, not surprisingly, Sachin Tendulkar is the hero.

An important step toward understanding the popular appeal of "sensational" news from the perspective of audience would be to differentiate between hard, terse "news" and "story" news. It is the story dimension of such type of news that sparks the public's imagination. They are "stories", not just news stories, and we all know how important storytelling and listening is for human beings.

Sanjay DuttIn the recent Natasha Singh case, the media narrative was more than just about what police was doing to find out whether it was a murder or suicide, it was also about who she was as a person, her background, her mixed parentage, her allegedly abusive husband belonging to a powerful political family, her friends and her affairs, her interests etc. The whole story was presented in such a manner that it seemed like an ordeal that can happen to anybody. As the events are narrated, they gradually cohere into a story and you kind of get involved as you would in say, a movie. Coupled with this, "the pleasure of uncertainty" makes it the stuff of conversation in the employee lounge, around the T.V set, in the sitting room and chatrooms on the Internet.

The level of interest in a story often depends on how closely the audience can relate the scandalous events to their own lives. People enjoy such stories because they can identify with the people and their plights engage their emotions. People of different ages and backgrounds react to a story differently, but react they do. The audience gets into speculating about how and why such exciting things come to happen.

The most popular stories are those where there is a debate: Who was the victim, Charles or Diana? Who is worse: politician or police? As people try to make sense of the story, they look for answers from within their own experiences and come to terms with their own moral codes and values even as they take relish in the melodramatic excess of it all.

The common people regard celebrities as a privileged class. It is a status which not only grants rewards but also certain responsibilities; if the celebrities ignore such responsibilities and behave immorally, they get scandalous exposure. Prachi, 45,working as a school teacher argues "Once you are a celebrity, you belong to the public. You should not expect privacy and you should certainly live a life that is respectable".

Thus media scandals are often making overarching statements about what is right and wrong. If the stars earn fame and fortune from the power of media, they also suffer at the hands of the same device. Star scandals raise questions about the integrity of individual celebrities and hold them responsible against society's moral expectations. Popular news can thus be pleasurably useful. Sometimes, news acts as a social and political critique that succeeds in unmasking and mocking at the powers through sceptical laughter.

Elizabeth Bird, Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, compares media stories to oral story-telling and folk traditions. Folklore draws from beliefs, concerns, fears and desires they know people already have. The celebrity sagas are often just the retelling of the folk tales that preach the lesson that money and power cannot buy happiness. Like folklore, celebrity narratives serve to educate audiences in the values of culture, validate norms and also allow an outlet for fantasy and wish fulfillment.

With the advent of reality shows, there has been an emergence of a new kind of celebrity. The contestants are ordinary people like you and me, just struggling for the pot of gold at the end, whose lives will change for ever. Harshvardhan Nawathe became an instant celebrity when he won his millions on KBC. One feels the tension and the excitement along with the contestant, usually of modest means, trying to take a decision whether he should risk hundreds of thousands of rupees on his next answer. Any ambitious girl, trying to make it big will not find it too hard to relate to the girls in Channel V's Kiska Band Bajega. The five girls who have won out of nearly 2000 wannabes may not be household names yet but with the best in the industry training them, for the girls it is certainly a "dream come true".

One reason why talk shows are so popular is because they tell us how real people are improving or messing up their lives, how someone has personally achieved something and how you can relate it to your own life.

It is true that Infotainment is increasingly what people like to watch. We love scandal and we enjoy reading useless trivia, we would love to know why Ram Gopal Verma has not cast Urmila in his latest movie or what Aamir Khan wore to the Oscars. But that's not all we care about.

We care about a thousand other things that have nothing to do with celebrities. My own experience tells me that most people do not avoid serious, hard news. They read Outlook and Stardust, they read local newspapers and Business Today and watch House Full on MTV as well as NDTV's Big Fight. Public conversations do not just revolve around issues of scandal and personality, people also discuss issues of political and economic importance. For most people, celebrity culture is just some escapist fun. Tune in, tune out and just get on with life.Frivolous? Perhaps. but surely we can be allowed some harmless pleasures. After all, we are just the commoners!