Mayank Shekhar: Dehumanising of the celebrity

Mar 13, 2018, 06:26 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Why are we so callous in our opinions and behaviour towards public figures? Because, we simply can't see them like one of us

Spectators showed up wearing face-masks of the New Zealand rugby player Sonny Bill Williams, to taunt the Australian vice-captain David Warner on the field during the Australia-South Africa cricket match in Port Elizabeth. Pic/Twitter
Spectators showed up wearing face-masks of the New Zealand rugby player Sonny Bill Williams, to taunt the Australian vice-captain David Warner on the field during the Australia-South Africa cricket match in Port Elizabeth. Pic/Twitter

Mayank ShekharYash Chopra is up there. Vinod Khanna is up there. Sridevi landed up there, too. What if the sequel to the film Chandni gets announced? Rishi Kapoor is gravely worried!"

That's possibly the most distasteful joke you would've read about a living man, and several who're no more. And, yet, going by the number of times it was forwarded privately over Whatsapp, soon after Sridevi, 54, passed away, only makes you wonder: What is it about public figures/celebrities that has us dehumanise them wholly to the point of even treating their death as salacious gossip, or a puerile joke?

What was it about Sridevi's intensely tragic demise that instead of wallowing in tribute/bereavement as any editor/news-media owner might do - if it concerned a friend/relative/neighbour known to them -they made reporters hold a microphone inside a bathtub to recreate scene-by-scene drama around her death, while Sridevi herself emerged in a computer-generated image floating/ drowning in water? I guess we're just so used to accepting some as unreachable celestial beings that even with their death, one is unable to acknowledge that they're humans, just like us, only more popular - that's all.

A week back, in what would've been a seriously vulnerable moment, actor Irrfan Khan posted on his social media handle that he could be suffering from a "rare", possibly fatal disease, the diagnosis of which one could conclusively confirm after a series of alternative medical opinions. Everyone was clearly shocked. Even his close colleagues were caught unawares. Here's what some of my friends (some of them are even known to Irrfan) called to check: Was this to promote his film, which is titled Blackmail, after all?

I write this while reading a news report from an Australia-South Africa cricket match in Port Elizabeth, where spectators had showed up in the stands wearing face-masks of the New Zealand rugby player Sonny Bill Willaims, to taunt the Australian vice-captain David Warner on the field. Warner's wife, Candice, had reportedly had a sexual encounter with Williams in a hotel loo in 2007. This is much before her relationship with Warner, who she's been married to since 2015. I wonder what Warner might feel about the audience he wants to impress through his sport - seeking fame, riches, acknowledgement and love. Surely it's the same back in India, when cricketers' homes get ransacked, or their girlfriends/wives are dragged into the picture, if they perform badly. Only Sahir's line sums it up best: "Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai (What good is it even if you win this kinda world)!"

I suspect the fact of being wholly defined by your work makes it hard for millions of others to perceive you as a sum of the same parts that we're all made of - a husband/brother/ dad/sister, or even an emotional human being. Even infants aren't spared in this resultant loss of complete empathy.

One could view this as an extreme peril of being famous, the most common consequence of which, of course, is that people (and practically everyone), hardly half as talented as the public figure in the job concerned, gets to severely judge her, and her skills (whether in cricket, or cinema), without any sense of compassion, guilt, or irony. It'd be even more pathetic for the famous, if indifference was the more universal public-response to their work instead.

So fame is a double-edged sword, obviously - something that social media, the great global leveller, skews even more towards the blunt side, with everyone on a smart-phone believing he has access to speak shit to anyone. The actual distance between the celebrity and the follower makes dehumanising the latter easier still.

What follows genuine failure hence is incredible schadenfreude -the usual human trait to seek happiness from others' unhappiness, and vice versa - or a confirmation bias towards greatness being a myth. It helps us live with our own normal selves a whole lot better.

And, which explains the inexplicably crazy gossip you hear about mostly those who're famous. For lack of a neighbour to tattle about (nobody knows the guy next door anyway), we assume doctoral knowledge on personal lives of celebs, as if they were friends, family, or flat mates. The assumptions with immense authority spewed about lives of others would make you believe that fellows in films, for instance, really got to the top, spending all their time snorting coke in an unending orgy.

This sense of complete familiarity with people totally unknown to us simply emanates from the fact that we see them all around. A minor celeb I know was once getting bothered by a stranger in a small town, who kept looking him in the eye, standing by his side at a local multiplex/mall. "Aapko kal hi dekha tha (I just saw you yesterday)," the guy told this film actor, continuing to stare, relentlessly. Impatient beyond a point, the actor explained to him, "Sir, aapne mujhe kal screen par dekha tha. Maine aapko screen se kabhi nahin dekha! (You saw me on the screen, yes. I couldn't have possibly seen you!)."

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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