Some years ago when Shah Rukh Khan started doing advertisements by the dozen, Anil Kapoor, his senior of sorts, sagely advised him not to. A firm believer in the old school, Kapoor believed that inaccessibility to an actor helped maintain their aura. Back in the day the veneer of a character made an actor readily accessible to their audience. Accessibility to actors was limited to the screen time of the film and the star moved on from film to film creating everymen to strike a similar chord. With scores of advertisements, television shows and hundreds of public appearances today’s generation of actors use this association to sell everything from undergarments to the miraculous benefits of chyawanprash.
In the last few years there has been a great shift in the definition of accessibility as far as actors go. It’s not like there weren’t products to be endorsed back in the olden days but the screen was the only place that offered unparalleled access to a star. It’d be hard to imagine but the first celebrity product endorsement happened way back in 1936 when Leela Chitnis became the first Indian actor to endorse Lux. Since then the soap has regularly been the open secret of the beauty of actors across generations. So, what kept someone like a Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand from endorsing the superior mileage of a car or talking about the joy they get from signing autographs with a specific brand of pens? The simple explanation was that back then making a quick buck from advertisements was considered lowly. There was a clear demarcation between films and everything else. Much like how the actors who hailed from the stage found it difficult to return to theater, even models who became actors rarely went back to posing for products. Even though much of the early Indian film industry was modeled on Hollywood, advertisements never lured Hindi film stars like their western counterparts. The Golden Age of Hollywood had Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Marlene Dietrich or Dean Martin selling cigarettes, chocolates and cola.
Does inaccessibility really help an actor? One of the biggest villains of Hindi cinema, Pran is an example of how inaccessibility can help an actor cultivate an image. Come to think of it advertisements and television appearances might have diluted the aura of an Amitabh Bachchan to some extent but had it not been for them perhaps the actor wouldn’t have survived his mid-career crisis. Long before Kaun Banega Crorepati resurrected one of Hindi cinema’s greatest actors it was the BPL ad of late 1990s that helped usher in the new Bachchan. Somewhere the warmth of the ‘real’ Bachchan as opposed to the memorable characters he played made an instant connection with the viewer. The audiences desire to seek Bachchan was fueled by the actor’s self-imposed acting exile during the early 1990s and the ad just struck gold.
Similarly when the actor got stuck in the image rut where he tried clinging on to the Angry Young Man persona with films like Mrityudata and Kohraam before Mohabattein happened it was the ‘real’ Bachchan of KBC that boosted his image. If one looks at these two instances in isolation then a certain kind of accessibility helped a star to not only regain some of the lost magic but also create a whole new variety. The other case where access to a star helped was the pulse polio social messaging that Bachchan undertook that saw a great drop in the number of reported cases. In the case of Aamir Khan there is a clear distinction between the onscreen and the real image. He might be one of the most inaccessible stars but ironically enough he has a maintained a very open and real relationship with his fans through social media.
If at first the real persona of a star was sought to help sell products today it’s the other way around. Somewhere along the way, the present generation of stars have been convinced that every endorsement is almost like a film. If a few years ago Salman Khan was enough to sell things today it’s Chulbul Pandey who is required to peddle a bike. In his three decade long career, Anil Kapoor has only endorsed a few products and although he used his real life persona to market a luxury pen brand it didn’t work as much as one would have expected. In stark contrast to his belief Kapoor’s inaccessibility could have also hampered the chances of helping the product. Like many things paradoxical about India the more you know the reality of an idol, the more you crave the dreams.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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