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Why Indians are obsessed with the private lives of actors

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Message Prakash Kona

It's unbelievable how much interest Indians take in the private lives of actors. The context of course to what I am saying is the recent, unfortunate death of the actress Sridevi, perhaps one of the most popular women actors ever on the Indian screen. I would expect my old mother to resist the temptation of taking such a morbid interest in the death of the actress. Far from it: my mother was glued to the television and kept giving me constant, seriously annoying updates on details related to the funeral, which perhaps should be of interest to the family members and no one else in my view.

But film is the Indian definition of real life. Indians cannot think of a more real life than films. It is who they are, the bread and butter of their soul and the breath that enters and leaves their bodies each moment of the day. You can penetrate an Indian soul through films. That is the only pathway and no other. Interestingly, films don't imitate life in India. It is life that imitates films. As a nation we want to be on the screen. It is a disease of epidemic proportions.

In the case of the actress Sridevi there is a strong gender dimension to the public and media attention. The thing common to South Asian men cutting across class, caste, language, ethnicity and other divisions is that we don't respect women. Period. The idea of the mother is at the center of who we are as a culture; we don't respect the mother either but instead we idealize her. Idealization is one of the worst forms of dehumanization. In fact there is very thin line that separates demonization from idealization - the same thin line that separates the mother from the other. If we are willing to idealize the mother as much as we do it only means we are also willing to demonize every other woman who does not fall into the paradigm of the mother.

Indian men love "dumb" women; we literally worship them; and the moment we find out that they are not dumb we are shocked and broken and turn either homicidal or suicidal. Our entire popular culture revolves around two things: one is romantic love and another is dumb women and the former would not exist without the latter.

The late Bollywood actress is important to Indians because she perfected the role of the dumb woman and gave a lasting aesthetic value to dumbness. The Sridevi on screen was everything that Indian men fantasize about both in and outside their bed rooms. With her one-sided smile, the look of a pet that we all want to carry, the amateurish longing spread across her face, sometimes childish to the point of being mentally challenged and some other times a cruel, spoiled brat, Sridevi submitted unconditionally to that image without which the Indian male imagination would crumble to dust.

There is no poison deadlier than a "real" woman - a woman who can give words to her feelings. We cannot imagine a self-respecting Jane Eyre who refuses to bow down to circumstances or to let her feelings be taken for granted. The Indian woman who takes refuge in love because she is capable of nothing else comes very close to the character of Madame Bovary in the 19th-century novel with the same title. It is bovarysme, the tendency to escape into fantasies that we suffer as a nation. We are "romantic" but not in any noble, revolutionary sense. Our romanticism is about living a fantasy only to be deeply disappointed by that terrible thing called life. I see this tendency to wallow in day-dreams in students, teachers, homemakers, writers, intellectuals, journalists, preachers and politicians. The only reason why I excuse the working poor is because their condition leaves them with little choice but to escape into the fantasy of a better life.

Strangely the actors themselves are no exception to the fantasies that they dramatize for the masses. They have no idea that the camera will betray them and so will the masses with the passage of time. Nothing is more disastrous for a human being than to have false aspirations and unrealistic expectations. No matter what the cause of her death, the Sridevi of real life did not seem to come remotely close to the roles she played on screen. Her screen presence might have lead millions of young women and men into that psychologically diseased state of bovarysme. It is hard to believe that she herself was not a victim of the same disease of inventing fantasies as response to the problems of the real world. If Indians are obsessed with the private lives of actors it is only because they want evidence to prove that the lives of the latter are as pathetic as their own.

In a profoundly moving poem "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe," the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal gives us the human side to the tragic ending of a great actress.

in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won't blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor's reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
--the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we all have worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.

"She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
She was
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.

whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn't call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn't in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!"

Likewise Sridevi "only acted according to the script we gave her" -- the script of a woman who would never choose to grow up -- "the story of our own lives." In the end we can only sincerely hope that Sridevi, like Marilyn Monroe, found the love that she hungered for, now that she is "without any makeup/ without her Press Agent/ without photographers and without autograph hounds,/ alone like an astronaut facing night in space."

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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