Big Screen Movies

Celebrity messaging in the time of COVID-19: Some got it right, some very wrong

Amitabh Bachchan and family clap to show gratitude to those working to fight coronavirus   | Photo Credit: PTI

Bollywood actors Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal were supposed to get married in April. Not only has the date now been pushed to later this year, the two are also self-isolated in their respective homes in Mumbai, and, like many people, have been keeping in touch over video call.

It was one such free-flowing ‘Be my quarantine’ chat that they recorded at their respective ends that caught everybody’s attention. The sweet, personal vaartalaap (conversation), in which they talk about self-isolation, social distancing, not touching your face, washing your hands regularly and maintaining hygiene, became all the rage on Instagram, while effectively communicating the basics of the situation to the lay person. The spontaneous, unrehearsed attempt was also, as Fazal put it, to address the “weird depression that sets in when you are done watching content. All you want is to be close to people, relate to people,” he says.

Rant routine

Another such video by Anil Kapoor has him video-chatting with Anupam Kher, stressing on the need to maintain distance even from neighbours and close friends. Lyricist-writer-stand-up comic Varun Grover has been leveraging his stand-up routines to post “rant” videos to drill sense into misinformed people. That apart, he also treats it as a diary for himself. “It’s the world war of our times. The entire world is shut. It’s the first time the Olympics won’t be held since WW II. The Taj Mahal, Juhu beach and Siddhivinayak are all shut at the same time. It’s unimaginable that the Indian railway network could ever stop. These are very surreal times and I wanted to document them through my art,” he says.

With mobile phone cameras and social media platforms readily at their disposal, and with plenty of time on hand, celebrities and influencers — from Sonam and Suriya to Shah Rukh Khan and Kartik Aryan — are getting more socially conscious and creative to raise awareness of COVID-19.

What makes the messaging drastically different in these critical times is the fact that the haloed stars, for once, are caught in the same situation as the hoi polloi. They are living the nightmare. “It has impacted everyone. Earlier, it wasn’t their story. Now it is personal to everyone,” says Suraja Kishore, CEO of advertising agency BBDO India. For instance, he says, actor Shefali Shah’s messages on Instagram, about quarantining her sons who have returned from universities abroad, are not just responsible but effective because she comes across as a mother more than a celebrity. “Parents and families vibe with it,” he says.

Celebrity messaging in the time of COVID-19: Some got it right, some very wrong

Moral responsibility

So, how exactly does star messaging play out in these critical times? And does it help? “If some positivity comes out of it, why not?” says Fazal. Star YouTuber Bhuvan Bam, whose “Time to be a Hero” video garnered over 480k views in less than 45 minutes of its release and has touched a million views at last count, says he felt it was his “moral responsibility to bust the myths around coronavirus circulating on WhatsApp”. It is necessary “in times like these,” he says.

As Santosh Desai, CEO of Futurebrands, points out, “They [celebrities] have an audience and the ability to communicate in a direct way.”

However, this huge reach, influence and captive audience comes with its pitfalls, especially when coupled with misinformation. Be it Mohanlal, talking about bacteria and viruses vanishing when people clap in unison, or Amitabh Bachchan tweeting superstitious mumbo-jumbo that he had to delete, or Rajinikanth’s misleading ‘Janata curfew’ message that had to be taken down by Twitter, the end result can be dangerous because diehard fans probably believe everything they say.

Grover has a few pointers on how to get it right — stick to facts, don’t alienate people, don’t bring in politics. “It’s about saving as many lives as we can,” he says. According to him it’s “the first global calamity in the time of social media, and of an unimaginable scale,” in which transmission of the correct information is key. “It’s an information war. The right information will save us, the wrong will endanger us.”

Shah Rukh Khan

Shah Rukh Khan  

Irony and sarcasm don’t work well in these confused times. Pointing out superstitions and myths can conversely amplify them. “One has to be wise with words because there’s a massive population out there... You have to say things in as simple a language as you can,” says Bam.

The moral of the story? Keep it simple or keep quiet. “It’s a formidable task,” says Desai. “The stars also have to align their behaviour to what they are saying. You have to live what you are preaching. In that sense, it’s not just advertisement and there’s no leeway to go off script.”

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 11:55:58 PM |

Next Story