Why everyone loves a dead celebrity

Updated: 06 May, 2020 07:06 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Explaining mass hysteria over the death of a man you never knew, and would've never met

Actors Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan
Actors Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan

Mayank ShekharAll celebrity deaths aren't the same. Some are more equal than others. A chosen few are fine career moves; many more, simply indelible stamps to seal fading public memories. Even while so much of journalism involves telling readers that dear Ramesh is dead, when nobody knew dear Ramesh was alive.

Who's a celebrity, anyway? A neighbour we never had, in the form of an acquaintance we all do. We know them through their work (in varied fields), and therefore their passing on offers us a moment to collectively acknowledge/grieve the idea of death itself: "Oho he died is it? Sad." In the same way that we casually respond to vague, distant relatives passing away.

Ideally, I'd continue to believe the person is alive. It's not like I would've met them often, if at all, in any case. And they live on through our knowledge of their contributions. But that's an entry-level celebrity.

The expert level consists of what's called stardom, that mainly emanates from popular culture, involving entertainers and artistes, whose works and general personae draw us closer and closer, almost akin to owning them in a way that we do immediate family. Or more so school/college friends, since stars that appear closest are ones saved as childhood memories first.

There's also that sexual rite of passage that we attribute, in particular, to hot movie/rock-stars of our teens — a phenomenon that acceptably continues well into old age. No wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend ever felt jealous about their significant other, openly, obsessively lusting/thirsting for a famous actor/musician in general chit-chat. It's passed off as 'celebrity pass' (try going like that about your neighbour!). Maybe it's a necessary valve for sexual expression in a society that can be deeply prudish on such matters otherwise.

Where do these stars come to us from? Mainly, the screen. The fame which has been the monopoly of films and television (including live sports) — at least since the '70s and '80s, and up until user-generated social-media, spawning self-styled and home-made influencers.

Can't speak for the latter, but a deeply-felt obituary, more so mass-hysteria surrounding deaths of these stars from another sky, would please the recipients no end. It's the ultimate validation that artistes seek from the same humans who, through their art, they often pretend to hate!

And it is this final prize that masses feel naturally compelled to collectively award to an individual they feel deserves it, after all — not for something they did yesterday, day-before or even recently. They could be 'has-beens'. Which is, equally, to suggest that they 'have been'. The community outpouring is to acknowledge just that, for others to aspire for it as well.

The tragedy with such warm tributes is that they are delivered posthumously, having altogether lost value for the actual/ideal addressee. Sportspeople probably get the worst end of this stick. They peak before most careers formally begin. And from that point onwards, it's professional-fame only going downhill towards complete ignominy, until their death resurrects them into public imagination, while they aren't around to experience any of this lovely, concluding chapter of their own life!

This mass appreciation, of course, takes on a whole new meaning in the context of mainstream stars of Indian cinema. They're not just actors, who by my definition are professionals paid to exhibit temporary conditions of 'controlled insanity' — behaving like strange people, in stranger circumstances — and repeatedly returning to who they are.

But in doing so as lead actors, they become the all-purpose face of everything that we have loved about a film — its script/story and songs, choreography and musical compositions, genre and direction, cinematography, production design and editing… Not just the whole point, but the entire space a picture occupies in our collective nostalgia.

Every other artiste — musician, writer, painter — pretty much gains credit only for their own work. That's not true for a desi mainstream actor, on whose rockstar face has traditionally rested the full weight of India's popular culture. It's a huge burden to carry. Which explains the release that follows.

The image sometimes even dictates their whole life, while some spend a fair portion protecting it. No wonder, say a Suchitra Sen never stepped out of home at old age. Raj Kapoor, having learnt of his massive appeal in China only much later, chose never to visit, assuming he might disappoint fans who remembered him as the young man from Awaara or Shri 420.

Likewise, actor Amrish Puri, 72, told no one (in the public domain) that he was suffering from a rare form of blood cancer. I know this because he told me he was fine, killing off rumours to the contrary. His sudden death messed with nobody's memory of Mogambo.

The unparalleled public grief surrounding deaths of the new-age Irrfan, 53, and the old-world Rishi Kapoor, 67, in quick succession, while they had been ailing for a couple of years, has little do with any of what I've mentioned above.

It's do with a kite cut off, mid-flight — a great film stopped short of its crucial climax. Rishi Kapoor 2.0, as both actor and media presence, seemed dramatically more relevant than Rishi Kapoor 1.0. Irrfan was at the cusp of Hollywood royalty! Hurts more — especially once you imagine either as virtual family.

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

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 06 May, 2020 06:59 IST

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