India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
And then the Internet took us by storm, and life became a giant goldfish bowl, where jealously guarded information was made breezily transparent. “It turns out inconvenience was a really important part of our lives, and we didn’t realize it,” says Siva Vaidyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything. “While most of your embarrassing baggage was already available to the public, it was effectively off-limits to everyone but the professionally intrepid or supremely nosy. Now, in states where court records have gone online, and thanks to the one-click ease of Google, you can read all the sordid details of your neighbor’s divorce with no more effort than it takes to check your e-mail.” Websites such as Zillow allowed us to see a dollar value to any house. Whether this was crass or not was not the point. The point was that it could be done.
Facebook has exaggerated this fear about the invasion of privacy. I worried about identity theft, and I worried about what my professional colleagues would think about my Farmville accomplishments. The heavy Facebook reader, researchers have found, tends to score higher on measures of narcissism. Would people think I was narcissistic if I posted too much? Aloof if I posted too little? As unwashed dishes and ungraded student papers began to pile up, I worried about all that time I spent on Facebook.
And then, quite unexpectedly, when I was convinced that there was no way I could sustain my fascination with the web, I found Amitabh Bachchan’s blog on Facebook.
The Bollywood of my childhood had cast a larger-than-life shadow on my psyche. And Amitabh Bachchan was surely a towering presence. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays an angry young man in Deewar, in Sholay, in Muqaddar ka Sikandar, and a sensitive poet in Kabhie Kabhie. Amitabh Bachchan, who has lived much of his adult life in front of the adulating gaze of the camera, and whose substantial celebrity can be directly attributable to his telegenic bravado. Amitabh Bachchan, who has had his share of business setbacks, and whose company ABCL suffered financial setbacks in the 1990s.
In the information age, he has a blog. I began to follow his blog with starry-eyed devotion.
Big B’s Adda
The website, before it migrated to Facebook and then Tumblr, was called Big B’s adda, the Hindi slang for lair or, with less sinister overtones, hangout. The “Big B” for Bachchan was a self-conscious acknowledgement of Bachchan’s giant presence on Indian silver screens for over three decades. Big B was a global forum, reflecting not only Indians who live in India, but those representing the Indian diaspora from the United States and the U.K. and other parts of the world. The home page of the blog had the image of Bachchan wearing spectacles of the thick-framed variety. The look was a weighty and intellectual one, not the aging playboy persona he adopted in several films, such as Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, where he plays a boozing womanizer, or Cheeni Kum, where he is paired with a much younger Tabu and is literally old enough to be her father. The verses of Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, occupy pride of place on the website, lending gravitas and artistic respectability to the Bachchan brand that is now in its third generation, and has recently “acquired,” through the Rai-Bachchan merger, the Aishwariya Rai brand power. A small startup, little Aaradhya Bachchan has been successfully launched.
The weblog, or blog can be an outpouring of one’s innermost thoughts, and for a fan, it is a particularly intense form of interaction with a revered personality. I make the assumption here that Amitabh Bachchan had in fact written the blog, or at least closely collaborated with the ghost writer so that the opinions did, in fact, reflect Big B’s worldview. At any rate, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Henry Jenkins, author of Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, has focused on the participatory nature of virtual fandom, and the homage to a celebrity’s website can enhance the sense of a shared space. No more writing lovelorn letters to celebrities and never hearing back. This was two-way communication at its most participatory best.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one besotted.
Fan Ashwini fawned: “Can’t stop looking at your photo with that cutest smile, sho shweet… mwah! Love you heaps, Amitji” (Ashwini, Jan 14. http://bigb.bigadda.com)
Then, apparently unable to stay away, fan Ashwini returned for some more outpouring of admiration: “Mwah! Thanks for your photo with that sweet smile. Love you sweetness. Shoo cute and shoo shweet. Mwah again. So adorable. Mwah again and again.” (Ashwini, Jan 14. http://bigb.bigadda.com)
Forgive me if I thought such gushing was just too fatuous.
Though I did like the idea of referring to Amitabh Bachchan as Amitji.
Admitedly, I had been a bit star-struck in my younger years, but now, I argued strenuously to myself, I was far more interested in Amitji’s opinion, both of world affairs and of other cultural work. I recalled that there had been some controversy where Amitabh Bachchan, sorry, Amitji had criticized the film Slumdog Millionaire some years ago. It did not take much time to find the relevant entry.
“If SM [Slumdog Millionaire] projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.” He adds that an Indian director might not have achieved such global acclaim. “It’s just that the Slumdog Millionaire idea, authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a westerner, gets creative globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”
REMEMBER SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE?
A little bit about Slumdog Millionaire.
At its heart, Slumdog Millionaire was a love story, but it was also a Cinderella story, and provided a vignette into living amidst the most wretched conditions in the world. The love story was set in the backdrop of a rapidly changing India, whose glittering entry into global consumer capitalism was in evidence as skyscrapers pushed their way up in Indian skies, the labor for this phenomenon provided by slumdwellers like Jamal Malik, whose childhood in Dharavi, the world’s largest slum, was captured in this film with a sensibility that is uniquely Danny Boyle. There is an ironic reference to the Bachchan celebrity, which serves to underline the sharp inequality between the superstar and the slumdog.
The Indian media system adapted Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (WWTBAM) into its own version: Kaun Banega Crorepati. For the film, Anil Kapoor played the role of game host Amitabh Bachchan, while Dev Patel is contestant Jamal Malik, one correct answer away from the 20 million rupees prize that would get him out of the slums. If we agree that both global media entertainment as well as the immense slums of third world capitals coexist uneasily, but equally, as products of globalization, in the film, we witness a product of the slums, Jamal, seeking a permanent “escape” by a product of global media entertainment, the game show.
The slums are emblematic of several decades of failed socialist policies to reverse colonial exploitation and eradicate poverty (“Garibi Hatao” was the slogan of the Congress party of the Gandhis and Nehrus, which came into power when erstwhile British colonial powers were ousted.) The game show, a format that has been commoditized and successfully exported to other parts of the global media system, is an example of the ceaseless impulse of TV screens over the world to look depressingly similar.
Was Slumdog Millionaire an example of “poverty porn” or “slum voyeurism” as some have alleged? While watching the film, I was reminded of other depictions of slumdwellers, such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988 or City of God, a 2002 film set in Brazil’s favelas. Born into Brothels, a 2004 film about the children of prostitutes of Calcutta’s Red Light district also came to mind. Allegations of slum voyeurism were flying fast and furious, then too.
The criticism of Slumdog Millionaire as somehow exploitative of the urban squalor that it depicts has resonance. Cross-cultural communications is never easy, but cultural values are genuinely at odds here, unable to transcend political chasms. Bachchan wishes to spare “nationalists” the pain of the intrusive camera reaching beyond the “privacy please” sign. The determination of Westerners to focus on the shameful, the wretchedness and the squalor of slum existence is likely to exacerbate the wounds of injured pride.
One of Hindi poet Munshi PremChand’s famous works is called “Taat ka Parda” (jute curtain). The story is of the deteriorating economic condition of a family that has come to rely on a disintegrating jute cloth to conceal this reality. There is not even enough money for the women of the family to wear anything but rags. When the symbolic jute curtain is stripped away, the last remnant of self-pride disintegrates for this family, and there is nothing left to cover the shame of the half-clad women who shrink from the intrusive gaze of the onlooker. Joshua Meyrowitz, author of the book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior has written about the cruel capability of the cameras to bring to the “frontstage” sights that are meant to be hidden away backstage—away from the public eye.
Had Slumdog Millionaire crossed the line?
I decided that it was time to discuss this matter with Shanti (not her real name), a film-maker friend from Mumbai, to get her perspective.
MY FACEBOOK CHAT WITH SHANTI
Me: @Shanti: Hmm… those who use the expression “poverty porn” appear to be chastising filmmakers (such as Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire) who are “titillating” audiences by gritty filmic representations of poverty, thereby exploiting that poverty. But isn’t an imperative of art to jolt, shock and possibly bring change?
Shanti: @Geetika :… I don’t think poverty porn is used to allude to ALL films located in poor contexts. Just to those which use the extreme conditions of poverty to talk about that poverty, and create images which present the poor in terms of that degradation, as porn depicts not sex, but often a degraded version of sex that condenses all that might be exploitative without including that which might be liberated, mutually pleasurable etc. These are complicated categories of course, and like the line between porn and erotica, the line between poverty porn and humanistic depictions of poverty may possibly be a hard one to define without a lot of substantiation.
And with that, I had to be content. Thank you, Shanti!
I felt closer to Amitji than I could believe possible, and I had found answers to so many vexing questions on the Internet.
In the film The Social Network, Sean Parker, one of the co-founders of Facebook, made a remark to the effect that after Facebook, all of us would live our lives online.
That day has come, Amitji.
Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the Bay Area. Like her, you can read Amitji’s blog on http://srbachchan.tumblr.com/
This article was originally published on Aug 10, 2012. Some details have been updated.