We, in India, are increasingly witnessing a significant trend in our social life. A new genre of activism is found emerging led by people, both from modest and glamour worlds, to force some kind of change in areas which have been otherwise overlooked by the real guardians of the nation, i.e., the law-makers and the administrators. Such activism has not been time-bound nor motivated by selfish interests but a realistic struggle to lock horns with the establishment to strive for a change towards the betterment for all. Creation of a new private space for promoting public cause, one can say.
A new trend
We have already seen the Anna Hazare phenomenon in the country's socio-political life where a septuagenarian is waging a battle with his team to bring into effect an effective anti-corruption law, something which the elected representatives have not been able to do successfully in the last 60-odd years. And now, another crusade has been launched by Bollywood hero Aamir Khan against the myriad social evils through his weekly TV show Satyamev Jayate (SJ), which even stirred up a hornet's nest. Khan also had an audience with a parliamentary panel over issues related with the medical fraternity and FDI in the pharmaceuticals sector. He was invited after one of his episodes revealed medical malpractices in the country.
This is, however, the first time that the actor took up social causes. In the past, he was seen standing by the side of tribals affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam or Hazare during his protest fast in New Delhi. And not to forget about his series of films of late, each of which took up some or the other sensitive social issue.
Why only criticism?
Now, as with the case with Hazare, Khan also has its share of criticism. Cynical quarters review Khan as unbelievably fake and that he is oversimplifying a complex medical issue by speaking in favour of generic medicines. According to some, he treats the sensitive issues with an actor's instinct and prepares a strong emotional punch in his SJ episodes for high public view. It's no big deal for he is a man from the entertainment world. "It is a marketing strategy," say some. But then, he is the only one from his fraternity to have come forward to speak on relevant issues. Why is there no other voice to take forward a silent movement he has started? Don't other stars need a 'marketing strategy' like Aamir to promote their own commercial interests?
Being celebrity not a problem...
Amir Khan's biggest advantage is that he is a celebrity, more so a humanitarian celebrity after all his proactive stand on relevant issues. It is true that successful celebrities, when turn activists, can use their fame to bring any forgotten issue back into focus and attach credibility to any movement which might be already in force to champion its cause. This is the case not in India but across the world. Hollywood star and political activist George Clooney's arrest in March after he protested in front of the Sudanese embassy in the American capital against the human rights abuses in the African nation is a case in point. Clooney, after his release, said nobody was sure if the protest and subsequent arrest helped in accomplishing anything. "We hope it helps," said the actor.
Clooney's ending words are significant. It is that 'hope' that people like him or Khan in India generate in a situation of despair. Celebrities are modern-day gods with the common men following them like diehard disciples. It is their involvement in any given issue which can prove socially decisive. Amir Khan's engagement with social problems is not really the problem. Rather, it is an honest effort.
The problem is...
The real problem lies elsewhere. Celebrities are not public representatives in a true sense. They are individuals without any group identity but with enough time and capital to devote to an issue, which they think is a pressing one. Something which a common man, placed more close to the ground reality, lacks and hence remains incapacitated to fight for.
Now, when a celebrity aligns himself or herself with a particular cause, whether it is pro-justice or anti-war, his external self demands a fusion with his internal being, his personal reputation. He/she can not afford to be careless and complacent on this count or hence would end up looking woefully foolish and a victim of critical assault. In that case, despite the most honest of intentions, the celebrity might end up being a liability for the social cause he is fighting for. Ashton Kutcher, for instance, had made a mess of his anti-child prostitute campaign.
In case of Clooney and the arrest episode that was 'played out', many other non-glamorous Sudanese activists said the celebrity's presence had diverted the media's attention from the actual problem of human rights abuse in Sudan and made the celebrity activism in Washington DC a more sensational news.
Another problem with celebrity activism is that being selective in terms of fighting for causes could prove counter-productive. For, socio-economic or socio-political issues are too complex and most of the times intertwined and just simplistically choosing one conveniently can create paradoxical situation for the celebrity crusader and send wrong signals that he or she is working for a particular group. This is not desirable. Amir Khan made a candid confession that he did not endorse any commercials while preparing the SJ episodes for that could have diluted his commitment towards the latter in the light of commercial ventures. This makes him stand out again.
A third concern for celebrity activism is that it needs to be more uniform and homogenous in its approach. A single celebrity speaking in favour of a particular issue might not be enough to make any mark. And if his views find counter-views among his own peers, then it will defeat the very purpose. A united approach backed by a unison of celebrity voice is important for raising a realistic awareness. This is though a speculation, for the tinsel town is too fragmented to view an issue unitedly. Celebrity or not, man is always a social animal with diverse interests.
Celebrity activism is a more serious topic in the west and more particularly in today's times. From yesterday's Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn to today's Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Andre Agassi, Leonardo Dicaprio, the list is long and there are even celebrities who have witnessed career setback at some parts of their career because of taking up social causes. Is Aamir Khan India's answer to them?
Who should be doing what Amir's doing?
Aamir Khan has made a magnificent initial move and now needs to be backed up. It is no use in accusing him of overstretching issues. We must understand a very basic point. People like Aamir Khan, just like Hazare and his team, are not supposed to sweat it out for the causes of the society or polity for they are not experts on social or legal issues. The duty of curbing social menace like foeticide, child abuse or dowry or medical malpractice does not lie with Khan just like Hazare is not accountable for making an anti-corruption legal provision.
It is that the keepers of the constitution and law are not doing their work towards socio-economic and political emancipation of the country. The opposition is too busy with its inner rift and the media has to be guided with something. In that case, the created vacuum is being filled by people like Hazare and Khan who are just ordinary citizens pained by murders of our social faith and political conscience. Attacking them shamelessly for their honest efforts reflects poorly on unreasonable critics and an escapist state.
The experiment has started, we need to back it
We, in India, were still more accustomed with a glamour king or queen or a sports personality endorsing a consumer product as some example of celebrity activism. Amitabh Bachchan promoting anti-polio drive or Aishwarya Rai speaking in favour of eye donation were perhaps the extent of celebrity-masses interaction in the popular space till Amir Khan presented SJ in a big, comprehensive way.
India is thus not yet a ready audience to such a development and would need more time to gain the maturity to take it in strides. From providing an alternative reality which gave abundant route to escapism to the problem-plagued Indian mind, it is suddenly a turnaround by the stardom to help an average Indian psyche face the dark reality strewn around (not top speak about the sheer revolution it has brought in the country's small-medium itself).
A remarkable experiment has started. We should not judge it by its initial drawbacks but the distant dividend can help us reap. Aamir Khan needs a support and more people from his fraternity must back him. But how many have that thinking hat on?