I read somewhere that the actress Nagma was groped while she was campaigning in Meerut! She supposedly slapped the fellow and has threatened that if this happens again she will withdraw from the campaign! (https://in.news.yahoo.com/nagma-slaps-man-who-tried-to-grope-her--threatens-never-to-return-meerut-102214093.html)
Nagma (for those who do not know) is a onetime successful actor from Tamil/ Telugu cinema who later moved on to acting in B grade movies which have wide viewership in the northern part of the country in places like Bihar, UP etc. Most of these recent movies of hers in Bhojpuri portray her as a sex object.
While what happened to her was very disturbing, what I would like to raise here is, the extent to which we understand the difference between the virtual and the real! This is very pertinent when we look at the perception of public figures, particularly those who connect with the masses through cinema, literature or music.
Cinema as we know has a huge appeal. This is the pivot on which the entire story of Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu rests. Some of our popular leaders here starting from MGR, Jayalalitha, Vijaykant etc used it as the vehicle to enter the political arena. There was a time when the screen persona of MGR would be used very deliberately to make political statements. The former Chief Minister Karunanidhi as the script and dialogue writer played a huge role in sculpting this image! This is probably one of the most successful attempts at merging the virtual with the real!
However in the case of Nagma the situation is a little different. Her virtual image as a sex symbol seems to have back fired on her real persona. It is her misfortune that she is campaigning in a region with poor literacy and high patriarchal values that views women either as a Devi or a Slut.
While positive images get reinforced when actors and writers enter public service, people tend to associate sexual images, particularly those of women with the person irrespective of what they might be doing in real life. Like Nagma , Rakhi Sawant is another example. In the case of the later of course, there are other issues like her craze for publicity which make people a bit doubtful about her intentions to contest elections as an independent candidate. Someone once told me that the Southern actors like Jayamalini, Jyotilakshmi etc who used to do titillating dances on screen ( or what used to be called “cabaret”) when attending any public event come dressed very traditionally in saris. I wonder if this is a very deliberate attempt on their part to separate the sexual image that they portray on screen to their real self. But I am sure there are many people in whose minds they may still be categorized as “sluts”.
But it is not just the uneducated who are fooled into believing these images. I remember feeling very let down when the late Smita Patil married Raj Babbar! He was a married man and not half good an actor as she was. When I analyze my feelings about this now, I realize that it was because Smita played the role of a strong emancipated woman and I had taken this image of hers to be real. But she was probably a woman like any other, given to the same feelings. I am sure she had her own reasons for getting into this kind of a relationship. And anyway, who was I to judge if he was suitable for her? If she thought he was good enough for her to bear his child, then it must have been okay for her !! As an audience my links with her should have limited themselves to the roles she played.
I guess, it is easier said than done. And let me tell you, this is not just limited to actors but also to writers. Let me share another personal example. I recently came across someone on social media who wrote brilliantly! I first read his writing in a group that I was part of and thought it was fabulous!! However it was only when I started interacting with him online that I realized that he was actually an obnoxious person. I also found that his creativity was very studied. His comments on people’s posts on facebook showed that he was extremely pompous and a wee bit sleazy!! So I did the next most logical thing – removed him from my list of acquaintances ( he never got to being a “friend” ) But I still maintain that if he were to publish a book I would probably read it because I realize that the writer and the person are two different individuals. The writer’s ability to present something convincingly is a talent that requires patronage. But one does not have to tolerate obnoxious individuals!! I suppose he may learn that later when his work gets published and publishers groom him to be charming in his relations with the public ensuring the real person is masked by a virtual persona so that the book sales improve.
But blending the real with the virtual needs to be done carefully, particularly when public figures are being groomed to be brand ambassadors. Let me clarify this point a bit- this does not just refer to them endorsing a commercial product but something beyond that. Let us take the example of Audrey Hepburn. She was the brand ambassador for UNICEF for a very long time ( I think until her death). While I do not know much about her personal life I think the characters she played on screen and what UNICEF stands for had a certain sync. The same goes for Aamir Khan. His social commitment comes out in the program “Satyamev Jayate” which he anchors. But again, one needs to understand that this does not necessarily mean that he is socially conscious. Remember, he is an actor and he can be very convincing about anything!! What really makes people like him stand apart and bring together the real and the virtual is the way he has supported causes. I understand that he and Gul Panag are two actors who refused to endorse Vedanta as a company because it had displaced a lot of tribals in Odisha.
However, I must say that it is a challenge to differentiate the person from the persona. Let us face this, ultimately all of us are consumers of a public image. Every image has a market that defines it. Amitabh’s image as “Vijay” , the angry young man, had a huge market among the poor. It was these front benchers who made him the millionaire that he is today. His later day image as the Quiz Master in “Kaun Banega Crorepati” as an intelligent and witty old man was targeted at the middle classes. This image extended into roles in films for the multiplex audience. However we must remember that as a politician he was a failed individual. Though he won an election from Allahabad, he could never sustain a political career.
We need to understand that in a country like ours, particularly when it comes to winning elections, images play an important role. Image makeovers cannot happen suddenly. They take time to sink in, particularly if you are trying for a drastic change. And winning an election should be more than striking the right images. The entire issue with politics in India being, we do not understand whether a candidate actually stands for the poll manifesto. In that sense, it is also like a movie or a stage managed event where someone else is writing the script ,the dialogues and calling the shots!!