The thinking actor

Towards the mid and late 1990s, the advent of articulate actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, who was known for his acerbic wit, sent journalists into a tizzy.

Published: 02nd February 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st February 2020 11:56 AM   |  A+A-

Shah Rukh Khan (Earnings: 124.38 crore)

Shah Rukh Khan

Towards the mid and late 1990s, the advent of articulate actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, who was known for his acerbic wit, sent journalists into a tizzy. As someone who made a comparatively engaging copy, interviewing a mainstream Hindi superstar was no longer limited to film journalists. Press club chatter peppered with observations such as, “You know, he actually reads,” and such ensured that the likes of special correspondents, political analysts as well as editors, too, made a beeline for SRK.

In stark contrast, the same lot would react differently to actors like Raveena Tandon, who, for no fault of theirs, invited sneers when they mentioned that they ‘read’ something in the newspaper. It’s not as if Ms Tandon might have been misinformed. On the contrary, her ‘reading’ something as regular as the newspaper was shocking for most non-film journalists. While a few years ago, it would have been challenging to come across a ‘thinking’ actor, today getting an actor to express their opinion on things beyond movies is as easy as flipping a switch. 

For the past few weeks, public and private protests against or in favour of certain sociopolitical developments in India have captured center stage in most television debates and newspaper editorials. In this segment, the ‘thinking’ or the ‘vocal’ celebrity (read film actors) attracts the highest premium because nearly everyone assumes that their mass following translates into some automatic support for the argument.

Today, an actor commenting on an issue is no longer unique or exceptional, and, therefore, to say that it’s a tightrope walk that needs to be either lauded or condemned, too, is pointless. The trouble, at least for the celebrity, is not expressing an opinion but the voice of the once faceless ‘fan’, who might not be as ardent a follower as expected. Take the instance of Deepika Padukone expressing her solidarity with the protesting students. In many ways, the backlash as well as the support that came Deepika Padukone’s way were on expected lines. Some part of the negative feedback could also have to do with the opinion being expressed by a woman as studies show women tend to receive more backlash regardless of the topic.

A few years ago, the star’s presence might not have been reported in the press or at the most would have made it to the city’s new page in the next day’s newspapers. How many even knew about Balraj Sahni’s convocation address to the graduating class of 1972 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which in this day and age is considered to be worth its weight in gold? Watching Ms Padukone’s visit to the same university unfold in real-time where smartphones capture every nuance makes it more immediate. When coupled with the awareness of the average viewer or audience, the reactions can be termed more extreme.

Back in the day, an actor maintained aura and mystique due to the distance with the general public. In the 1950s and 1960s, stars kept away from endorsing products, as they believed such acts would dent their exclusivity. Interestingly enough, Anil Kapoor told Shah Rukh Khan in the early stages of his career to not do so many advertisements because that wasn’t becoming of a star.

Did the distance then translate a star’s silence into intelligence and the silent star into a thinker? The legendary acting coach Stella Adler once famously said of actors that, “the talent is in the choice.” The choice that any actor makes when it comes to expressing an opinion ought to be respected, but at the same time, should the view of the scores of fans and audiences then be treated the same way?

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