It happens to me every time, and yet it never ceases to amaze me. Every time I stay in a rather obvious and comfortable hotel close by, I am confused by the number of people hanging out outside the Mannat building in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb.
Whether it’s the joggers’ dawn, a sweaty noon, or a rainy monsoon night, the faithful are always present. Most evenings, there are hordes of tourist buses disgorging large numbers of them – of the mofussil star-struck who are clearly on a Mumbai Darshan trip. Apparently, this is one of the highlights of their city itinerary.
Clearly, these adulatory masses don’t expect very much. And to be honest, there isn’t much likely to happen either.
But it’s obvious to even the uninitiated and the befuddled that fandom in India is a strange creature.
And this one that surrounds Shah Rukh Khan and, by association, his home, Mannat, has reached industrial-stratospheric proportions. Clearly, the fans don’t need very much except the assurance that they are within a few hallowed feet from the Star and his family. For them, breathing the same air as their Star is enough.
On the Curious Nature of Public Outrage
This Star is an enigma, and largely reclusive, but he is someone the gathered masses and millions more revere and follow, irrespective of his ups and downs in his fragile industry, and in the toxic atmosphere that he inhabits.
What is this very toxicity that I am looking at more closely today? The backlash that he suddenly faced when he chose to endorse an online real-money gaming platform may seem inexplicable and may be dissed as 'inadvertent'.
As somebody who has sat on the the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) board, and who has been part of the initial drafting of rules and regulations about the misuse of celebrities, this is familiar regulatory territory.
Beyond the responsibilities that celebrities are expected to bear about the products and services that they endorse, I can recognise that there are patterns that we now need to pay attention to.
Yet, because it was real, it deserves a little closer examination. Was it unjustified or was it actually orchestrated? If so, why did this happen and what are the lessons that he and other celebrities may draw from this?
Ponder this if you will, as a possible conspiracy theory, as to why this manufactured outrage was necessary.
Was it because the arbitrarily and abruptly announced backbreaking GST rate on online gaming was facing widespread pushback from the same cohorts who would hang around outside Mannat?
Is Uproar Being Directly Proportionate to Fanbase Fair?
This star was, after all, not the first person to do an endorsement of online real-money gaming. The holiest cow of Indian cricket, also known as the 'Indian cricket team', had recently endorsed an equally addictive, and potentially unusable real-money gaming website.
They hadn’t faced any problem then. And they certainly didn’t have to face strong condemnation that sprung out of nowhere.
So, while it may indeed be that Shah Rukh Khan on his own, commands a larger fanbase than the Indian cricket team, there is reason to wonder whether that is the real cause, or whether there is indeed much more.
Celebrities certainly need to be mindful of what they are endorsing. India has a substantial number of people who tend to take their adulation into the marketplace. This helps convert followership into market share.
So, the dangers are real, and the benefits too, are substantial both for the producer, as well as for the endorser.
But, I feel, if there is any blame to be ascribed, it needs to be placed proportionately more at the feet of the manufacturer rather than of the celebrity who agrees to do the endorsement.
The Burden of Celebritydom
Stars, cricketers, and today’s breed of influencers are just soft targets in the battle against misinformation and advertising that misleads.
But because manufacturers and corporations have a disproportionate share of power in the policymaking ecosphere, they tend to be the first punching bag of convenience.
That’s basically the most obvious reason why Shah Rukh Khan was being pilloried for the advertising that he chose to do.
Surely, the more important question to ask is that if indeed, this kind of gaming is so toxic and detrimental, then why hasn’t it simply been banned?
Does the individual celebrity carry a far greater moral burden than the average consumer? Certainly yes, because after all, he/she does influence many more minds, who are susceptible to being influenced easily. But surely, there must be a line drawn somewhere, and not quite in the sand.
Certainly, there are more keepers of societal norms than just the handful of those who are treated as influencers. That is the point that needs to be accounted for somewhere in our quest for Gross National Ethical Output.
(Dilip Cherian is India’s Image Guru who straddles advertising, public policy and tweets @dilipthecherian. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)