Last week, Neil Clark, curator of paleontology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, put forward a startling theory to the British press – that the Loch Ness monster, best loved and most merchandised of all the world’s mysterious monsters, was actually a submerged, bathing Indian circus elephant, a performer from Bertram Mills’ travelling circus, which was touring the area when Nessie was first sighted in the early 30s.
Needless to say, this was an extremely unpopular claim, and scientists, monster-hunters and romantics all over the world have rubbished it, citing the evidence of various sightings to prove Nessie’s continued existence. And you have to feel a degree of sympathy for people who believe in the Loch Ness monster. Not just because it’s an important source of tourist revenue, but because people need mysteries and myths to survive – if nothing is unexplained, nothing is greater than we are, then the world becomes a much less wonderful place.
Over the last few weeks, those of us with no lives, too much time on our hands or simply overcome by our love for glamour have been glued to our television sets, watching in vicarious exultation as film fraternities in the West and at home have been handing out awards to their favourite children. Oscars, Baftas, Golden Globes, Filmfares, Zee Cines and various other statuettes of various shapes in various degrees of nudity have been presented by gushing presenters to overwhelmed, overdressed winners. But if you watched this year’s Oscars, you must have noticed, as I did, that amidst all the trophies and tuxedos, one thing was missing – larger-than life, magnificent movie stars. Sure, they were present, but they weren’t competing. The people in the running for awards were, of course, famous, wonderful actors, but consider the nominees for Best Actor – not a single huge star (box-office appeal, critical acclaim, huge paycheck, awe-inspiring persona) among them. The Hollywood matinee idol seems to be an awe-inspiring beast of the past – from T-Rexes Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich to pale, washed-out mastodons Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts, the stars have had their time. And it’s not just the star-gazers who think so – Christopher Lee, Hollywood’s most bankable actor, recently called the new generation of stars ‘disposable pretty faces’. The mighty have fallen. But they haven’t fallen everywhere.
Consider Bollywood. If you’ve watched any of the glittering, garrulous Indian awards shows over the last month, you will have realized that Hollywood may have better, more expensive movies, better actors, better technicians, and even better award shows, but there’s one vital ingredient of big-time cinema Hollywood has lost, and Bollywood retains in spades – stars. Old-world glamour. Movie magic.
Of course, larger-than-life Hollywood actors still exist. But they’re overexposed to the point of exhaustion, their lives and failures laid bare by pesky paparazzi. They’re not stars any more – they’re just celebrities, and an eager public knows all about their underwear, their drug problems and their grandmothers. They spend their whole lives on camera, and have reached a stage where they’re acting all the time. Tom Cruise has to jump up and down on talk show couches to sell his films. And in the process, they’ve been completely demystified – they’re now down there at the level of socialites, ordinary billionaires, sports champs and (shudder) reality TV contestants. In sharp contrast, the big players in Bollywood manage to keep the media right where they want them, fawning on them and eating out of their occasionally generous hands in furious fan-frenzy. They keep their audiences at a distance, and in doing so, make it possible for their fans to raise them on a pedestal. And in doing so, they maintain their golden auras while Western stars give in to smog. At this point, there’s no Hollywood actor who has the kind of slavish following within and outside the industry that Amitabh Bachchan commands. And a sympathetic media make it possible for Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan to do and say things pretty much as they please.
Looking for stars in Bollywood? We have a galaxy – you can’t throw popcorn in Bombay without hitting a star. There are stars you’ve seen grow up, stars you’ve never heard of, stars you’re still trying to forget cavorting on that giant stage at awards shows with 40 other, equally perfectly sculpted bodies cavorting right along. You don’t need to have won an award, or had a single successful film, or have the right family, or even have the ability to act to be a star. You just need to be a part of that magical fraternity, that occasionally-talented, ever-smiling, navel-baring, navel-gazing fraternity of twice-blessed tinseltown. You will be worshipped, screamed at, superbly paid – and the best part of it all is, once you’ve made the cut, you can make flop after flop, throw tantrum after tantrum, but as long as your face is up there on the posters, the audience’s love is unconditional. Of course, just like in the hospitality industry, there’s a hierarchy of stars, from the groan-inducing Emraan Hashmi who, like Texas, is a lone-star state, to the seven-star Big B, who’s reduced the whole industry to a point where it’s All About Loving The Big Daddy, but they’re all there somewhere, twinkling away merrily.
But the days of Bollywood stars might be numbered too. Because we’re seeing far too much of them, both in flesh-inches and frequency, in the media every day. And the same sort of celebrity-culture marketing that brought stars crashing down in Hollywood is slowly creeping in here as well – personal relationships used to publicize movies, an endless stream of pointless information about the most minute details of our stars’ lives, and the slow process of celebrity democratization and demystification where every music-contest winner and designer of the day competes with the marquee-monarchs for eyeballs. In a sense, of course, too much information is a good thing – it keeps stars from turning completely megalomaniacal, and will ensure fewer Salman Khans in the years to come (thus saving lives both human and animal), but in the process something is lost – the element of mystery and magic which cinema used to have, where big-screen stars were demigods, role models, icons, when heroes were remote, unapproachable, and (possibly therefore) ultimately heroic.