Let's start with a genuine question to those who circulated actor Vinod Khanna's photograph, taken at a Mumbai hospital, which consequently ended up as 'news' items in various digital publications: What did you all gain from, or hope to learn from, by circulating it?
When these social media forwards and 'articles' — with a 70-year-old Khanna as their lead image — surfaced on my Facebook and Twitter timelines, I wondered what it said apart from what we already know about ageing and mortality. Or the ravages that illness can wreak on the body. Or the brutal truth that most of us aren't exempt from any of these facts of existence.
Yet, people clicked on the link, sent it out on WhatsApp, passed it around on social media platforms. Shock and sadness were expressed all around, parallels were drawn with the dashingly handsome star of yore who was a heartthrob for many. Again, to what end, one may ask.
Privacy, always a precious word, is in ever shorter supply these days.
The short answer to the question is prurience. The public appetite for it is boundless, especially in stories concerning celebrities. Privacy, always a precious word, is in ever shorter supply these days.
Social media is where people come to inform the world at large about the momentous things that are happening to them every so often. It might concern a new haircut, or their lunch, the books they are reading or a one-night stand. In extreme cases, it may even extend to discussing novel ways of killing themselves. If such is the effect of social networking on lesser mortals, what hope is there for celebrities to protect their private lives?
To be fair, the notorious paparazzi culture existed aeons before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. From tabloids publishing photos of Princess Diana's car crash to those of Aishwarya Rai weeping at her father's funeral, little has changed in the media's attitude to celebrities, if at all. Or, for that matter, in the public's hunger for delving into the deepest, darkest, most intimate moments of their favourite stars' lives. (It would be only too convenient, and wrong, to put all the blame on media alone.)
Not only does it make an exhibit of Khanna's vulnerabilities, it also puts an undoubtedly private moment out there in the public domain without his consent.
Some media outlets, if their headlines were anything to go by, probably sought to mask how complicit they were in this voyeurism fest by speculating what disease Khanna may be suffering from. Not only does it make an exhibit of Khanna's vulnerabilities, it also puts an undoubtedly private moment out there in the public domain without his consent.
Khanna's son, Rahul, hasn't commented on the authenticity of the photograph yet, except to say that his father is stable after being treated for severe dehydration. That's as much as the family has chosen to divulge so far and that's where the matter should end. Whether he is suffering from a particular disease or he needs an organ transplant (actor Irrfan Khan has allegedly offered to donate one, in case it helps the ailing Khanna in his recovery) is idle speculation, without even a trace of merit to it.
Public curiosity, bordering on the manic and irrational, goes hand in hand with celebrity culture.
Public curiosity, bordering on the manic and irrational, goes hand in hand with celebrity culture. Like the legendary Faust, who made a pact with the Devil for the sake of creativity, artists have to reckon with the price they must pay for their fame. But like every other individual, they too are entitled to their agency. So where do we draw the line?
Bengali actress Suchitra Sen's example comes to mind. For someone who retreated from the public eye as soon as she retired from the movies, she was subjected to unwanted attention till the end of her life. Suspected photographs of Sen in her later years surfaced time and again, her daughter Moon Moon Sen and grand daughters Riya and Raima faced a barrage of prying questions about her, reams of reports were written in the local press based on pure conjecture. But Sen remained defiantly behind her own self-imposed purdah.
After her death, the media frenzy peaked, when it should have abated, considering her bereaved family. It was their one last chance to catch a glimpse of the beloved actress and to relay it to the world. In spite of all the efforts, Sen was laid to rest with her dignity intact, leaving behind the image of her pristine beauty for her fans to hold on to. Not everyone is as fortunate.
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