As I start writing this I can assure you with a fair amount of certainty that directors Shekhar Kapur and Kunal Kohli both avidly watch the Indian cricket team play. I also know that Amitabh Bachchan’s dog Shanouk, a giant Dane, likes to snuggle with him like a baby, and that Karan Johar’s New Year resolution was to “get rid of all kinds of excess baggage.” What’s more, Bipasha Basu likes to celebrate her birthday month instead of just one day and Lara Dutta likes to have lazy Sundays and enjoys sleeping in. There was a time when stardom thrived on a good dose of mystery, an aura of the unknown and exclusivity about the life of the personality beyond their screen presence. Public access to stars then was limited to occasional appearances at events, in concerts, or through other mediums, the television or print interviews. The important part was the occasional appearance. Star access today has become about information overload, an exposing of the persona to such a degree that we question what makes a star – the tradition of worshipping the star because of their mystery or having an intimate knowledge of them?
Before the advent of social media, fans relied on gossip magazines and rare television or print interviews to construct their impressions of stars such as Rekha, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna. Access was privileged and the most a fan could see and know of their favorite actor was through the characters they played in the films or the shreds of gossip that snuck out of film sets. Who can forget, for example, stories of how Sunil Dutt heroically saved his Mother India co-star Nargis from an on-set fire stunt gone awry? In a classic case of cinematic narratives dissolving into real life, audiences lapped up snippets of these stars’ lives, and the birth of their romance became forever ingrained in film folklore. Today, regular and detailed updates from film sets have become an unofficial requirement of any film’s publicity. Producer’s run production blogs, news crews sneak onto sets to catch the stars in action, and the stars themselves share funny stories or comments about their shoots. The ambiguity of the film set, the process of creating the escapist dramas that will later absorb millions, is quickly diminishing.
The 2000s witnessed a surge of access to our favorite, and not so favorite, stars. Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan interacted one-on-one with the ordinary folk in their respective game shows, and Karan Johar brought his closest (and incidentally most high profile) film friends to saccharinely grill them about their personal lives in his chat show. The tides were quickly changing, we now knew more about our stars than we ever knew before. So when a forum such as Twitter arrived, the entire star system was poised for a monumental shift.
Perhaps the one actor who has embodied the technological transformation the most is Amitabh Bachchan. His career has spanned from the time of knowing very little about him, to gossip mills working overtime over his alleged affairs, to now his very frequent tweets to his fans. Bachchan has embraced the technological necessities of contemporary stardom. While his tweets carry a more formal tone than those of his younger colleagues, Bachchan is consistently sincere and often emotional in the snippets he offers of his life. He, for example, expressed the sadness of dropping off his daughter at the airport after her brief visit, or the comfort of home during his short break from a film shoot. Yet, because of, and perhaps despite, his openness with his followers, the legend of Amitabh Bachchan only becomes stronger. Maybe the definition of ‘legend’ has somewhat altered.
As more intimate ways of access arrived, the branding of stars was forced to change as well. Twitter has become a forum for the likes of Neil Nithin Mukesh, Preity Zinta and Gul Panag to engage in virtual dialogue with their fans, interacting in Q&A sessions or asking their loyal followers for advice and opinions on anything from music and films to recommended restaurants in foreign climes. Celebrity tweets have also ventured into political and socio-economic commentary. Where a Ranvir Shorey exclaimed that “We are a country plagued by lynch mobs,” Anupam Kher stated that a big murder case currently gripping India is “a perfect example of complete system failure.” So does this overt sharing of information and personal opinion make our film stars evermore distant from the images we once held of invincible and glamorously perfect heroes and heroines? Are they now, dare we say, more human?
Whatever these personalities choose to share now becomes archived forever in the annals of virtual history. They have, through Facebook status updates and 140-character tweets, essentially recorded their autobiographies that will be accessible indefinitely. The world will now know, forever, that Vishal Dadlani had communication issues while ordering an egg white omelet for breakfast in Thailand and that Boman Irani was required to give a “ball by ball” recounting to his mother of an awards show where he won a statuette. We will also know that Dino Morea spotted ten cockroaches while waiting in an airport lounge somewhere in Goa. These pieces of information have successfully shattered the mysteriousness of film stars. We will now know more and more about them, whether we like it or not.