Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan’s decision to be Gujarat’s brand ambassador has provoked many to question his political convictions, with some even going to the extent of wondering whether he has any.
‘When Amitabh Bachchan advertises cement or any other commodity, we are expected to buy it because he has endorsed it; yet, when he shakes hands with Narendra Modi, he expects us to read nothing into it,’ write Jatin Gandhi and Hartosh Singh Bal in the latest issue of Open magazine.
‘The question is not whether Modi is better or worse than Rajiv (Gandhi), but whether there are convictions the man or the actor is willing to stand by.’
In her column for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) high profile social activist from Gujarat and noted classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai asked: ‘It has been reported that no direct fee will be paid to you for being my Brand Ambassador. So, with no monetary decision to guide you, how did you decide to say yes? Did you check on the state of the state?’
The overall tone of both these pieces is one of unconcealed derision at Bachchan’s seemingly flexible political convictions and thinly disguised self-serving opportunism. This is the kind of subject where both sides can make their case quite forcefully and yet leave many unconvinced.
There is a third point of view which might explain some of the contradictions. For reasons that are hard to comprehend millions of Indians have accorded Bachchan a seriousness of purpose which he may not fully deserve or even hanker after. People confuse his celluloid persona to arrive at judgements which are far in excess of what he may be as a human being in real life. To that extent Bachchan is tested against benchmarks which are inherently unfair and unrealistic.
Bachchan is an ordinary mortal like the rest of humanity when it comes to impulses such as personal ambition and aggrandisement. His motivations, like the rest, are purely personal and familial first and then perhaps communal, national and global. People react with outrage to Bachchan’s apparent lack of convictions or shifting political loyalties based on personal gain because they have formed a lofty image of his in their minds for no rational reason. And when they discover a chasm between what they perceive him to be or want him to be and what he really is, they feel let down or even betrayed.
What Bachchan really is may not even be that egregiously flawed. However, the people have given him such an exalted position, which he may not have sought himself and may not have done much to challenge either, that a slight lowering in that image causes widespread anger, indignation and disillusionment.
Why raise him on a pedestal and deify him in the first place and then rage against him if he wants to step down from time to time? It is a natural consequence of his chosen profession that he would acquire stature and influence which are often disproportionate to his actual contribution outside that profession. That is why he is able to glibly endorse a whole range of products which he may never have used in the past, nor is likely to in the future.
Because he is Amitabh Bachchan he may enjoy credibility in walks of life where he has absolutely no achievement to speak of. That reputation is as much a creation of the media as it is a product of the guileless millions who have invested unquestioning faith in him. As a purely commercial being he is merely leveraging that faith without making any distinction between endorsing a brand of cement, a bank, a car or even a state. In that sense Bachchan has perfected his personal brand as agnostic to the deeper contradictions of his endorsements.
The moment people start seeing him for what he is — a broadly decent, unquestionably gifted, intelligent albeit occasionally obscurantist, and strongly commercially driven professional — all the indignation, outrage and disillusionment will disappear. That he apparently has no political convictions cannot be extrapolated to mean that he has no scruples. The mercenary instinct is an inherent feature of all super celebrities globally who capitalize on their personal brand equity to sell anything — either a product or a cause.
The only way to rationalise Bachchan’s seeming lack of any permanent political loyalties or convictions is by rubbing out the aura of improbable greatness that people have come to associate with him. Once he is seen like any other hugely successful professional, whose primary motivations are necessarily selfish and feet are made of clay, his apparent lack of convictions and shifting political loyalties will appear far less incongruent, quite like they would in any other mortal extracting the most out of the opportunities that life offers.
(16-02-2010- Mayank Chhaya is the editor of South Asia Daily in the US. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)