Before Aa Dil Hai Mushkil was released, its lead actors Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma were the subject of an unsavoury exchange with the entertainment portal Pinkvilla. The actors challenged the website to publish the unedited version of their message, in which Kapoor described the web publication as “Shitvilla” and claimed that at least 80% of the items on the site were fake.
Kapoor, who wears his contempt for the media on his middle finger, rarely courts journalists unless he has a new release. The website shot back by publishing the rather juvenile dare along with a reminder of how stars and the media are in a symbiotic relationship. The Pinkvilla editorial ended with the declaration, “Like you appreciate space and want to do your job without any distractions, we would like the same freedom as well and not be treated as lesser mortals. Gone are the days when stars and superstars were put on pedestals, come down to Mother Earth brother.”
The incident was just another example of the volatile relationship stars have had with the media, which has been trying to make sense of its changing role after the rise of self-appointed commentators and hashtag activists. In 2016, this uneasy marriage marked all kinds of highs and lows, taking in its sweep everything from whistle-blowing tax frauds, very public breakups, unabashed self-promotions and breathlessly intrusive reportage.
Salman Khan showed us that despite the consistent efforts of image managers and spin doctors, a slip of the tongue and a limited vocabulary can be perilous. At a press conference to promote the July 6 release Sultan, Khan said while talking about the gruelling wrestling sequences, “I felt like a raped woman.”
Most of the journalists present at the event did not find the remark offensive, and dismissed it as a harmless bit of Salmanese. But away from a room filled with celebrity power and star-struck journalists, the comment hit a raw nerve. You don’t joke about rape in India, especially when you are battling a handful of court cases and have a history of bad relationships on your resume.
The media outrage had no impact on Sultan’s massive box office haul. Khan never apologised for the statement, allowing his father and brothers to do the damage control on his behalf – a reminder of how some stars are beyond reproach.
Even as the older stars struggle to deal with social media, the new generation seemed more adept at negotiating it. The likes of Harshvardhan Kapoor crafted their public persona by selective interactions with the media, while millennial kids who are yet to sign a film remained high on virtual mindshare.
Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan is an Instagram and Twitter star. But when images of Khan’s daughter Suhana on a beach in a bikini with her brother AbRam and draped around her girlfriends in a post-party slumber went viral, the star father intervened to tone done the hysteria.
Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya Naveli has been both body shamed and sensationalised, while Sridevi and Boney Kapoor’s daughter Jahnavi and Saif Ali Khan’s daughter Sara are social media darlings. These youngsters have either learnt a lesson or two from the uneasy relationship their parents have with the media or are natural born negotiators. But they certainly seem better equipped to handle trolls and tabloids.
Even the very young Taimur, who was subjected to vicious trolling simply because of his name, will probably grow up knowing how to tame the beast.
The most definitive word in the narrative was delivered by the most recognisable baritone in the country. Amitabh Bachchan was one of the earliest stars to embrace social media when he began blogging. Bachchan reaches out directly to his fans with his blogs and tweets, leaving journalists with no option but to quote his posts and spin their stories around them.
Reducing entertainment journalists to celebrity watchers and hashtag trackers is one thing, but responding to a piece of investigative journalism about alleged tax frauds is another, as Bachchan learnt. In April 2016, the Indian Express newspaper published a series of investigative reports under the title Panama Papers. Bachchan was on the list of individuals who allegedly paid the law firm Mossack Fonseca and “bought the benefits of the secretive, lax regulatory system in which it operates – to set up offshore entities in tax havens around the world”.
Bachchan did not engage with the media directly, but issued statements in which he claimed that he was a “law abiding citizen” and diligent tax payer. Even as a section of the media kept up the ante on the investigations, Bachchan slipped back to his suave social self, plugging the government’s many social initiatives. While promoting his warmly received film Pink, the star told Scroll.in, “Celebrities attract attention... That is a stride that all celebrities shall have to take.”
The never-ending battle of egos between Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut was a perfect example of a star scandal fuelling an entire season’s worth of tabloid headlines, social media posts and memes. Both stars used media platforms to mount a war whose details are fuzzy now, lost in a haze of allegations, counter-allegations, quotes from “sources close to the stars” and legal notices. Women’s rights, witch hunts, nepotism and mental illness were invoked, and Ranaut enjoyed the moral upper ground by default and design.
The most hotly followed washing of celebrity laundry in recent history was a reminder of how it is imperative to separate the social from the media.