Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Post celebrity syndrome
By the time a cricketer is in the third decade of his life, a performing artiste in the fourth or fifth, a politician in the sixth or seventh, arc lights dim and the luminosity of a glorious career tends to fade. The "present" tense becomes the "past" with no escape from time, depositing the burden of age on the individual.
Yet, those acquiring "celebrity-status" refuse to pass unobtrusively into oblivion. Rather, like melted ice-cream shoved back into the freezer, they plot a resurrection for themselves.
Fame is always hard won. But what happens when the hitherto famous are just over the mid-hump of those most treacherous of decades, or when Lady Luck parts ways with them? Do they cling to the old self and not allow the sun to set? Or do they become trampled individuals mourning obscurity? Like other ordinary mortals, do they lead a normal life with its usual fill of abnormalities?
Psychologists explain the "post-celebrity syndrome" on the basis of four factors - nature of the celebrity status, meaning how it is achieved; the depth of talent and inherent maturity to cope with celebrity euphoria; the pace at which celebritydom is reached and the presence of buffers like the family and friends who anchor them in a familiar environment and unlike short public or media memory, continue to remember and appreciate the achievements.
A cross-section of celebrities I spoke to fitted the bill, underlining that it is also "a matter of attitude" - how an individual copes with the transition from being a celebrity to a forgotten recluse away from public glare and adulation.
Ask the cricketing hero of yesteryear, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had a meteoric rise in the game purely because he played well. Now a quarter century later he continues to evoke interminable curiosity. A picture of social grace, he says with a soft smile: "We played at a time when the game periodically produced heroes and the players without adequate academic qualifications found the security of jobs. There was neither money in, nor marketing of, the game as is done now, making it a lot easier to quit. We played for the country, discernibly accepting our short life-span as players. But now players off the field continue to look for alternative careers that revolve around the game like commentary, writing, hosting quiz shows or moderating discussions and acting in commercials, all for the big monetary kill and publicity blitzkrieg."
That does not mean that the Nawab of Pataudi misses playing the game in present times. Both for him and his begum Sharmila Tagore, who with her dimpled chin and fluttering eyes mesmerised cine audiences in the Sixties, goodbye to arc lights has not really meant a farewell from the social scene. "We don't run after anything but politely make ourselves available whenever we are called," is the optimism of the confident couple.
The Nawab has his property in Pataudi to look after and Sharmila continues to act occasionally or lend her concern to public causes like fighting AIDS and drug abuse. Left to themselves, their life revolves around their two daughters and a son. This keeps them "genuinely busy."
Ask about "small pleasures" and Pataudi reveals how much he loves it when people still recognise him but do not mob him.
"I can now maintain my privacy and enjoy travelling by train; I don't get angry if my co-passengers want to know whether I was a batsman or a bowler!" For his actress wife, the fact that she is now hooked to The Hindu crossword indicates that she enjoys the time at her disposal to decipher more tough clues.
This is true of many. When the tyranny of beauty begins to take its toll - particularly in the case of performing artistes - it is the chosen "cerebral exercise" which infuses vitality of a different kind. Danseuse Sonal Mansingh puts its aptly: "Transition is a growth of awareness and wisdom which enables you to transcend all stages of life unaffectedly."
"Arts is not a degree but a meditation for enlightenment, education and entertainment," she says, categorising her life into days of "pretty dancing," when you are young, beautiful and talented, possessing the zing of a bumblebee. "Beautiful dancing," when you combine an innate sense of beauty, rhythm and grace focussing on issues using your wisdom and experience. And the "golden age," particularly women fighting insecurity owing to biological changes and competitive challenges from new dancers, when you have an integrated approach to life, without squandering opportunities judiciously to make your art purposeful as a social instrument for change.
"I marvel at myself, how I lend interpretation to my thinking. Creative experimentation is eternal and there is a constant interplay between the human and divine," asserts this gracious "guruji" to many youngsters today.
Mr. H. D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister, almost endorses this: "Whether as Chief Minister or opposition leader, a caretaker Prime Minister or party president or an ordinary worker, I have never wasted time. In politics, it pays to take things pro-actively and detach oneself from emotions to shoulder political responsibility."
Asked why, after reaching the country's topmost position, he did not choose a quiet family life back in his hometown, he replied: "I have always served the people and that is my passion which my family understands well. My life, therefore, cannot change."
Life "has not changed" for former President, Mr. R. Venkataraman, either. "I led a quiet, normal, regimented life as the First Citizen and continue to do so as an ordinary citizen," he says humbly.
"While holding an important position and after, if you imagine yourself to be a super human being then it makes things difficult. But if you remain your natural, spontaneous, self, whether in or out of power, nothing bothers you," says the octagenarian leader who has always held "temporary offices" as an MP, a State Minister, the country's Industry, Finance, Home and Defence Minister and then from Vice President to the exalted office of President.
"Things always came to me and I accepted them gracefully, gave my best and never regretted when I had to quit. People may be in awe of the land's highest office, but it is for you to remember that you are there to do your job and people will not always remain grateful. Why should they?" he self-introspects.
Now Mr. Venkataraman devotes his time to reading, writing and teaching the Upanishads, besides lecturing on Constitutional matters. In other words, he is busy fattening his reservoir of "intellectual reflexes".
Quintessentially, the need is to release oneself from the stranglehold of one's mindset. Emotions can be overcome if limelight is perceived as an invisible baton. Otherwise the price of fame is dangerous. It is like an open fridge of emotions taking out what is needed and leaving it empty one day. The charisma of celebrities can dim but it is never "all over" if the fine combination of passion and the cerebral is continually nurtured with simplicity.
The 65-year-old retired Director of Punjab Police, who has served in several theatres of civil strife and low intensity warfare and is credited with leading a successful campaign against terrorists in Punjab, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, feels post-retired life has "changed qualitatively."
Writing on internal security and socio-political development issues in between editing the journal Faultlines, the super cop is relieved that he is a "master of his own time now." For security reasons, his movements are still restricted, but his mind is free.
"As an officer, I was always on call. I never fancied pushing files or doing desk jobs but loved leading an action-oriented life in most challenging situations," he says. Yet, he cannot recall missing anything "good" from his high-profile service life.
"Where was the good? I should be in the Guinness Book for seeing the largest number of bodies during encounters and in mortuaries in Assam and Punjab. My job was not unpleasant, but I am glad I no longer have to sit in an office where the only news you receive is about people getting killed. That is awkward," he asserts.
"But I do not regret my life spent. I perhaps cannot choose any other either if given another chance," he adds. Still as fit as a stick of lit dynamite in motion, he says, "coping with transition is not difficult when you treat your years of gathering knowledge as sheer bliss and remain professional and committed to the end."
One person who rewrote the rules on what a Prime Minister's wife is all about is Sheila Gujral, wife of former Prime Minister, I. K. Gujral. The septuagenarian had surprised all with her piece "goodbye to headaches and tensions" when her husband moved out of 7 Race Course Road two summers ago.
Intelligent and articulate, she says honestly, "he (Mr. Gujral) was doing a wonderful job as the Foreign Minister, building bridges with neighbours. But as the Prime Minister, his energy was taken up by too many things so that any real achievement became harder."
For a person who combines individuality with a voice of conscience, taking to the life of post-PM's wife was not difficult. Her natural candour and loads of attitude convinces easily when she shares how terrible she felt when her friends - with whom she lunched out regularly as the ambassador's or the Foreign Minister's wife - had to wait for hours and undergo security checks to meet her or when she would be distanced from them sitting on the dias and later cocooned by security personnel and escorted away. Or, how, out of consideration, her relatives and friends were forced to cut down upon letter writing and visits.
Her passion for poetry and writing, belief in women's causes and rights and an adept official hostess are the qualities which Mrs. Gujral has kept intact right through her years to etch herself firmly without any remorse on a track now in reverse gear.
Perhaps the powerful and influential politicians who leap-frog the social divide between masses and classes when at the helm of affairs are later unable to take the "thumbs down" sign. That is why it is no surprise that a former Prime Minister is undergoing anti-depression therapy.
But the director of Institute of the Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences in Delhi, Dr. N. G. Desai, says, it is not uncommon or unnatural for retired politicians to seek medical help. "The problem begins when loss of status gets noted. Age is not the limiting factor for politics, so politicians like to keep their rocking chairs waiting, and for their psychological catharsis the cause for which they came into politics remains as pressing at the time of exit."
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