I wanted to talk about this when Farah Khan pulled up celebrities for sharing their workout videos. She said something to the effect of: “I can understand that you all are privileged and you don’t have any other worries in this global pandemic except for looking after your figures.” I was thinking: Sure, Farah! If you don’t want to watch these videos, fine. But if other people are interested in just gawking, or if they are perhaps getting motivated to work out at home, then… But more recently, there’s this video that’s been doing the rounds. Australian comedian Greta Lee Jackson and a bunch of others mock celebrities for putting up what they probably see as tone-deaf posts about their privileged lifestyles. Karan Johar, who’s more privileged than most, immediately put out an apology: “This hit me hard and I have realised many of my posts may have been insensitive to many…I apologise profusely and wish to add none of it was intentional and came from a place of sharing but clearly may have lacked emotional foresight.”
— Greta Lee Jackson (@gretaleejackson) April 24, 2020
Now, I am not denying Farah Khan the right to her opinion, which she clearly feels strongly about. (Why else would someone put something out that could alienate her from colleagues and friends?) And regarding the Greta Lee Jackson video, I do see how ridiculous it seems when Ellen De Generes (net worth $330 million, according to Business Insider) — from her “mansion”, as someone calls it in the video — says, “This is like being in jail.” It’s not, lady! (Also, lady, what they say you did with your staff… if true, so not cool!)
But this is the same Ellen DeGeneres who did more to influence Americans’ attitudes about gay rights than any other celebrity or public figure, as per a 2015 poll by Variety. (Barack Obama came second. Just saying.) Two years ago, I was struck by a story that said Katrina Kaif has been involved with Mount View school in Madurai, which her mother’s charity trust has taken on. This is the same Katrina Kaif who seems to be struggling with washing her dishes, something many of us take for granted in our lives.
My point is not to make you like Katrina Kaif or Ellen DeGeneres, or to say that Greta Lee Jackson is wrong. We all have our opinions. This is hers. But when Farah Khan said what she did, it made me wonder about something bigger about how we “act” in public, and it took me back to the time my grandfather died. Some cousins and I got sick of the people dropping in and the overall air of mourning, and we kids took off for a movie. We got a shelling when we returned. What? How could we watch a movie, of all things? Your father’s father has died! Why are you not sobbing in a corner?
I was sad about my grandfather’s death. Whenever the new Reader’s Digest arrived, he used to sit me down and ask me to play this game, “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power”, where each word came with four options/choices, and you had to guess which one was the right meaning. But that particular afternoon, we wanted to just get away from it all. The movie was probably not that important. Maybe we wouldn’t have been seen as that “insensitive” had we gone to the beach. But that was my first lesson on how what you feel inside is less important than what you show to the world.
And over the years — as I have made my peace with the fact that human beings can be many contradictory things, all at once — this has begun to bother me more and more. And it bothers me even more today, when you are constantly judged on social media, where every random tweet is scrutinised as though it were written after years of academic research and a thorough vetting by 10 thesis advisors.
My point is this. I do feel my privilege. But what do you know about the other things I do, the things I am not putting out in public, like (maybe) the cheques I have been making out, or (maybe) the counselling I have been giving people? I have a friend who works in public health and closely monitors the COVID situation, and I know how hard it is for her. But she’s the same person who comes home and Whatsapps funny stuff to me. Beyond a point, she doesn’t want to think about the pandemic. She has done her bit. Now, she needs to take a break from it all. I know that her work is far more important than mine, and yet, I feel that — as long as you are doing your bit — you should not be judged for your privilege. I can be sad about what’s happening, and yet, laugh about something during a break. And this is where the entertainer comes in.
An entertainer’s job is to entertain, just like a doctor’s job is to cure people. Again, I am only comparing the two, not equating them. The latter is far more important to society. But why do we deny the former the chance to do their job? Had it been normal times, they would have entertained us with a movie or a TV show. Now, they are entertaining us with silly Instagram videos or whatever. Where’s the harm in that? Are they simply uttering platitudes when they say “we are all in this together”? Maybe some of them are. Maybe some genuinely mean it! Does announcing “take care” from a sprawling ranch make the “take care” any less heartfelt?
Now, some will say that this is a flaunting of privilege when the gap between the rich and poor lies exposed more than ever before. How can anyone hear the stories of migrant workers and not feel a twinge about the relative comfort we are in? But that is the world. And we do what we can. Some of us donate money. Some of us volunteer. Some of us take care of the elderly. But even while doing all this, we take the time to laugh at something silly, like those peeks into Karan Johar’s closet, with his cute kids running around and mocking his fashion sense. Again, we have the capacity to be many contradictory things, all at once: the existence of one (frivolous) facet does not negate the existence of another (serious) one.
Is this inequality? But of course! But then, this is also a world where Architectural Digest and Vogue exist when there are people who don’t have homes and who wear rags. But it’s the fantasies that get us through the grim reality of life. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, American audiences flocked theatres to watch Marx Brothers’ comedies like Duck Soup, James Cagney gangster pictures like The Public Enemy, screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, and those glorious Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire musicals. See the clip below (from Flying Down to Rio, Astaire’s first pairing with Ginger Rogers), and see how removed it is from anything concerning reality or realism. But that’s the point. That’s what entertainers are supposed to do. They are supposed to entertain.
Had Twitter existed then, what might we have said? Would we have judged Fred and Ginger for doing something with so little “relevance” to the real world, where many businessmen were committing suicide? In the early days of Star TV, I recall a show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It could just as well have been titled, Look I’m Sorry to Break This to You, But the Closest You’ll Come to a Yacht is Under ‘Y’ in the Dictionary. But that is why the show exists. It’s the television equivalent of the inside of Karan Johar’s closet, of Deepika Padukone’s living room, of Ellen DeGeneres’ “jail”. You don’t have to watch the show, and maybe you didn’t. But there is a huge market for it, a market craving escapism. That’s the market that’s being catered to.
So: Should celebrities be more aware? That’s a question I have no definite answer to, because I don’t believe that anyone should be anything. They shouldn’t be cruel or abusive or any of the things that are clearly wrong, but “appearing to care” is a grey zone. It’s that whole thing about what you show to the world is not necessarily who you are or how you help during a pandemic or what you feel inside. I used to cringe whenever celebrities made a big deal about donating to a charity. (They’d pose with a cheque and later get a PR to announce it.) But now, I see why. Clearly, it’s important not just to do something but to show the world that you’ve done it.
Personally speaking, I watch these Instagram videos (or whatever) not because the people making them are great champions of an equal society. I would love it if they were. That would make me respect them a lot more as a person. But in these videos, I see them in an avatar that’s simply an extension of their work personas. They are entertainers. And as far as the entertainment aspect goes, I watch someone’s “creative” output because I like their work (the films, the music, the books), or because they look gorgeous, or because — for a few minutes — I just want to forget that something might happen to my ageing parents. If a celebrity video is helping me get through just a bit of the day, I say bring it on. Because… kal ho naa ho!