By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl brings a valuable Indian perspective to issues of humanist concern. In this article, he draws attention to Indian celebrities who boost the popularity of gurus and cult figures, as well as promoting unhealthy consumer products. A movie buff himself, Karl writes that we should not worship other human beings as if they are gods and goddesses.
Indians have a long history of following cult figures and gurus who promote pseudo-science, often becoming mired in allegations of fraud, criminality, and tax evasion. Unfortunately, celebrity endorsement of such figures only serves to increase their status and popularity. An example of such a figure is Jaggi Vasudev, known as Sadhguru by his followers, who runs the Isha Foundation. Vasudev has a reputation for promoting pseudo-science and he has been accused of tax evasion and illegal destruction of forest habitats with political connivance (source reports are listed at the end of this article). His Isha Foundation puts on an extravagant programme to celebrate the Hindu festival known as Maha Shivaratri in honour of the god Shiva. Ticket prices range from free of charge to 50,000 Indian rupees (more than £500). Many celebrities in awe of Vasudev are invited to take part. Celebrity interviews with him increase his popularity and status as a guru.
Humanist voices against the worship of gurus
Cult following dates back to the last century when people were in awe of Mahatma Gandhi. Anyone who disrespected or disagreed with Gandhi was considered to be a traitor. Two humanist and rationalist freedom fighters who opposed Gandhi’s views were criticized at the time. The Marxist and anarchist revolutionary Bhagat Singh claimed in his essay Why I Am An Atheist (1930) that ‘Everyone including Gandhi must be subjected to criticism’. BR Ambedkar (1891 – 1956), the first Law and Justice Minister of India after independence, also warned that ‘hero worship is a sure road to degradation and eventually dictatorship’.
New stars every decade
In the 1950s, movie stars like MGR (M. G. Ramachandran, 1917- 1987), NTR (Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao 1923-1996), Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001), and Rajkumar (1926-1996) were worshipped like gods. Their portrayals of characters and social issues brought them closer to the masses. The cult status of MGR and NTR facilitated their entry into the political arena and promotion to become chief ministers of state. Their responsibilities included welfare and relief of poverty but their authoritarianism and mishandling of some issues attracted controversy.
As the decades passed, new film actors emerged. When India was suffering from unemployment and inflation in 1975, actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Chiranjeevi portrayed rebels against society. In the 1990s, when Indians were migrating to the West, actors like Sharukh Khan, Salman Khan and Amir Khan were seen as romantic heroes with a new style and body language. After the 2000s, people with good looks, good dance moves and muscular bodies became screen heroes. As the decades passed by, hero worship remained the same but went into different channels such as social media.
An atheist and humanist hero, a legend of Indian cinema called Kamal Haasan, took responsibility and converted his fan clubs to NGOs. He persuaded all of his fans to sign up for organ donation. But out of many popular actors, this is just one good example. Others have simply taken advantage of their money and fame.
The social responsibility of Indian celebrities
During the Nazi period, Charlie Chaplin directed and acted in the satirical movie The Great Dictator (1940). The powerful final speech of the movie hails the greatness of democracy and criticizes fascism and tyranny. Today, there are some actors and actresses such as Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Bono who speak out on social issues. But in India, only a few celebrities do so. The rest behave like slaves to the right-wing government of India. Many Indian celebrities fail to speak out against Dalit killings, unemployment, casteism, and other domestic abuses though they may speak out against terrorist attacks in Paris, the killing of George Floyd, and floods in Brazil. Everyone has the right to express their grief or opinion about incidents in other parts of the world but, as we all belong to one Earth and since these celebrities belong to India and earn their income from Indian audiences, they should not turn a blind eye to issues in their home country.
Tamil and Malayalam film industry celebrities do speak out about ongoing issues. For instance, up to 750 farmers died during the farm law protests in 2020-2021. Farm laws were corporate-friendly and lacked a price guarantee for farmers. Many farmers protested in a peaceful way despite the cold weather in the Delhi region. Singer Rihanna, former porn star Mia Khalifa, and Greta Thunberg condemned these laws and ignited the spark of protest. Eventually, countries such as Canada, the USA, and the UK, and organizations including the UN and Human Rights Watch, warned against the Indian Government’s stand. All of a sudden, spineless Indian celebrities, actors and sportsmen, joined together and started to share the same Twitter hashtag such as #Indiaagainstpropaganda. Sadly, a few celebrities claimed that the farmers were terrorists.
"My straight question for celebrities is this: ‘Do you consume the products which you endorse?’ If not, why are you influencing consumers to buy unhealthy products?"
Promoting harmful products
Sportsmen and women, and actors who are physically fit, follow a strict diet and exercise regime. But sadly, many celebrities promote gambling apps, fraudulent multilevel or pyramid marketing organizations, and unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food. Celebrity branding is an effective marketing strategy and it has a deep impact on many consumers. Celebrities who are adored and admired by millions of followers should behave responsibly towards consumers. My straight question for celebrities is this: ‘Do you consume the products which you endorse?’ If not, why are you influencing consumers to buy unhealthy products?
Promoting toxic behaviour
Indian society is culturally conservative. According to Pew Research, four in ten Indians agree that traditional gender roles must be maintained and, according to the Indian financial paper The Economic Times, 48 per cent of Indian youth believe in conservative values. Many Indian film directors project violence, sexism, and racism. In most Indian films, they display discrimination against women, for example when the hero of a film stalks the heroine, abuses her and tries to seduce her without consent. Women are the target of moral policing, for instance when men insist they wear the traditional saree dress, and avoid jeans or shorts. LGBTQ characters are portrayed as comedians, villains or pimps in films and gay men are falsely portrayed as forcing themselves on other men.
Toxic masculinity, in the form of ‘alpha males’ and ‘sigma males’ (also known as ‘lone wolves’) is propagated aggressively. Body shaming is also endemic, for example when an obese person appears on the screen as a comic character with an elephant trumpet sound for extra comic effect. Racist stereotypes are employed, for example South Indians being known for dark skin are seen as ugly, or as having the ugliest accent, and Chinese people being stereotyped as wearing robes. Racist stereotypes like this should be a thing of the past. Movies are socially influential. They should be more humanistic in nature, and champion anti-racism and anti-misogyny. Thankfully, there is now a ray of hope as some new and upcoming film directors are reforming attitudes.
Those most affected by the power of Indian film celebrities are the fans. Actors who hold matinee idol or ‘demigod’ status induce a form of mania in their fans, who will queue up for a long time to buy tickets, and argue on social media and in the real world about which of their favourite heroes has the greatest box office collections, records, and hits. Sometimes, the outcome is tragic. In an incident in Tamil Nadu, two fans following different heroes stabbed each other during an argument about box office collections.
In the USA, during a gathering of the Telugu community, people divided into two groups with loyalties to different actors and started fighting. This led to many arrests and detentions by US police.
Indian audiences show their appreciation for a movie by whistling, clapping and throwing papers towards the screen during high-intensity action scenes. In recent times, this has reached a new level as some lunatic fans started to celebrate by lighting fireworks, dumping papers in the cinema and dancing near to the screen. Recently, when an Indian movie was released in the USA, some fans swamped the cinema with papers and created a disturbance. The movie preview was stopped and a police sergeant made everyone vacate the hall. Some fans abuse those who oppose or criticize their favourite celebrity with rape threats, death warnings, stone pelting and even murder. There is an awareness of all this, but no one condemns it or asks fans to stop. Silence is tantamount to encouraging these heinous acts.
As a movie buff myself, I do have my own favourite actors and of course I respect the right of all fans to like theirs. But we should all have self-respect and should not consider any human being to be god or goddess. We should be rational towards our celebrities rather than following them blindly - as some poor fans do, even when stars treat them badly. People must remove the blindfold of ‘Star Status’ and treat stars as normal human beings.