With stars going public with their blogs and tweets, CHITRA PADMANABHAN examines the nature of celeb blogs as a smart marketing strategy to remain visible at all times.
Not so long ago, celebrity battles with the media hinged on one vital question: how far could a journalist go in writing about those in the public eye before being rated, or berated, as having gone too far? As Bollywood's most wanted saw it, responsible journalism was all about being able to distinguish between public and off-screen lives. Remember Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan ‘ banning' the media from their lives in the past?
That was then.
Today, seated on the serpentine coils of the entertainment and publicity industries as brand deities, the same stars have gone public with private on their blogs with a vengeance. So much so that definitions of private and public, personal and professional now conjure continents of lost meanings.
The star blog is an online personal diary in the time of new media. Unlike the vintage diary's cloistered existence, it exults in its coming-out ritual in public space, inviting comments. However, the celebrity remains the sole reference for an entry to be slotted as public issue or, when needed, as a delicately private matter in the public realm.
Take the voracious elder statesman of blogger's park, Amitabh Bachchan, and his May 15 post regarding a comment that had been picked up by the media: “My comment on the blog was never a firm statement or a stand taken. It was still in the realm of the ‘if'.” The iffy remark being that whatever the official decision regarding the caste census “…my answer is ready; caste, Indian.”
An iffy remark is seemingly ‘private' in nature; besides, it marks a communion between Bachchan and his fans: “…our little haven of peace and friendship, of extended families (EF) and familia extendum (FmXt)…” That it should attract none-too-flattering media headlines; that a reader's letter in a Mumbai daily should suggest Bachchan was confusing caste with regionalism (mentioning marriages within his family), signals an ‘invasion of privacy', albeit in a totally public space.
In February came Bachchan's soulful ode to Bal Thackeray – “as resolute and firm as ever” – when Thackeray's toiling Shiv Sainiks were threatening to vandalise theatres screening the Shahrukh Khan starrer “My Name is Khan”. The public paean, with political timing, sought the shade of ‘personal' comment on a personal relationship. You see, Thackeray had wanted to see Bachchan's film “Rann”.
A public issue is different. Some time ago, Big B wrote indignantly about a journalist. Apparently she did not inquire about his daughter-in-law, whose indisposition forced her to cancel a public engagement for the journalist's organisation at the eleventh hour. Rumination on matters behavioural attained the bombastic hue of a ‘media issue'.
Surfing the blogs of Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, Bollywood's most respected stars, is revealing. A birthday, bereavement, a mishap one thought too intimate for the sober Khan to upload, unending trivia, sly asides at colleagues or peek into a film underway comprise one giant crested wave. It's difficult to know where the public ends and private begins in this calibrated wave of self help.
Reason: erecting such picket fences in market space is a waste of time, a loss-making proposition. Being a celebrity brand is a ceaseless effort to remain visible.
The stars are their own direct-to-fan PR companies par excellence, controlling their image projection without uttering the m-word (marketing). Cyber lingo helps with talk of virtual ‘communities' wired to the ‘Aha!' moment of ‘contact' with the star come down to earth.
It is like creating a private army that marches on every star revelation, ready to uphold the image which gives celebrity brands currency in the market, where else! Witness the relentless march of celebrities galore on various social interfaces - blog today, Twitter tomorrow – permitting themselves a smile of satisfaction upon getting news of virtual stampedes.
In times when cinema was the biggest draw, a star's charisma was enhanced by mystique born out of remoteness. Big screen personalities could envision press boycotts.
Today, the biggest star is television's small and split screen. It airs the epic of lifestyle consumerism in every home 24X7. Its biggest script is a never-ending symphony of serial entertainment, advertising, sponsorships and endorsements. To be a star today necessitates constant presence in the public eye.
But the public eye or media is not uniformly kind. A blog is a masterstroke; it connects to diehard fans who are consumers too. They will surely consider the product brands their idols are synonymous with?
Bachchan is a Bhishma pitamah blogger and product endorser, Khan the youthful figure plugged into the pulse of the age. Imagine the fan's state as a ‘ confidant' of the star. Khan writes, “I have bad news folks. Kiran and I lost our baby.”
Bachchan is dramatic: “Aaahhhh!! It is painful… when we construct what we know needs to be shared, to be given out for public consumption, to be given out to extended family … then the pain of its loss or disappearance is unbearable.”
He goes further: “I confirm that whatever I share with my friends here on our blog is true. Yes I confess I do not share everything, but whatever I do is true.”
It is the seduction of the ‘authentic' in the labyrinth of illusion, the ‘face' behind the mask, the thoughts beyond scripted dialogues. But is the blogger unmasking here or constructing a new image?
Whatever it is, blogs arm stars with a brahmastra called the ‘ authoritative version'. It has made a news media leaning on entertainment frenetically track blogs for constantly breaking news.
Besides, in an information age that never sleeps, this brahmastra helps counter a critical media or bypass it. Anything denting the soft focus image is deemed criticism against which that old signpost of invasion of privacy is resurrected, as happened recently when a Mumbai newspaper carried an item on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's alleged motherhood issues.
Consider how Khan used this brahmastra to handle media debate over his decision to run with the Beijing Games Olympic torch, discounting appeals of pro-Tibetan groups. Khan posted a statement on his blog saying the Games belonged to the world, neatly sidestepping uncomfortable questions of whether his endorsement of Coke (a Games sponsor) was a reason for not staying away from the torch run.
What should have been a dialogue effectively became a monologue; brand image must be protected at all cost. Being in public space is desirable, but not the slightest scrutiny so integral to the idea of public space. To occupy the public realm as a privatised space is the hallmark of power in our times.
Here's the twist. The world of ‘new' media is lauded for its quality of decentralising information as power, unlike ‘old' media's one way flow. Not so the star blogs, for stars power this one way flow. It gives them a new lease of life and who would cavil at that?
So, is this the dawn of ‘public-private' partnership that we have been hearing so much about?
Chitra Padmanabhan is a culture critic based in New Delhi.