The Silent Movie Star

I have written on this blog in the past about my concern with regards the negativity on Twitter*, and last month, it claimed a victim in actor Shah Rukh Khan who went off Twitter indefinitely. A piece I wrote about this aspect of social media, especially connected with Bollywood, was carried by the Mumbai Mirror newspaper today. Here’s the entire, unedited piece:

shahrukh-khan-dabboo-ratnanis-2013-calendar

One of the reasons I admired this young television actor Shah Rukh Khan, even before I knew him personally, even before he would be called ‘the biggest star in the world’, was his refreshing candor in interviews. It wasn’t just about humorously taking on rivals and loving himself with childlike frankness – he could equally take potshots at himself publicly. He was articulate, he made sense – but didn’t he know, I always wondered, celebrities shouldn’t say such things!

Fans don’t need it. Having fallen in love with a carefully scripted screen character, they are happier to not break the fantasy. Moreover, distant stars, when they come too near can often be revealed to be as dim as lamppost lights. And it is not their fault. Beyond a genetically-gifted physicality and acting talent, why would we expect them to not be flawed and human like the rest of us? Why would we demand from them an informed point of view on politics, society, culture and life? Shah Rukh Khan, it turned out, did have one and he shared it freely.

Celebrities learn quickly that it’s safer to stay with the lowest common denominator of public opinion – to talk in platitudes against corruption, for women empowerment and praise colleagues, especially dead ones. But something inexplicable within Shah Rukh always rebelled against playing the role of a Barbie-doll celebrity. He shared the truth about the insomnia he sometimes faced and his terror of losing fame. He admitted his imperfections and lampooned his own flops. Against all marketing logic, it worked in his favor.

People began praising him for being a canny publicist, but he was also a publicist’s nightmare because he didn’t stick to any pre-written script. A few months ago, his company’s digital marketing person lamented to me that he could be so much bigger on social media if he just followed some basic ground rules. But he just never listened, she complained.

In the honeymoon days of Twitter, many stars entered this Twitter heaven with Karan Johar as Saint Peter welcoming them aboard. Stars began chattily calling their fans ‘tweeple’ and using cool acronyms like LOL and ROFL. This new platform promised stars not only direct access to their fans but also a way to comment and clarify without being misquoted. For younger stars, it could become a great way to create an identity and build a reliable, quantifiable fan base for that all-important Friday.

But with it came an unexpected dark side. One actress, after a terrible home production, was shocked off Twitter upon receiving an unprecedented barrage of lewd, personal hate tweets. Stars, who had been used to being psychologically protected by their coterie, began to directly face the brutal wrath of the teenaged boys and fanatic groups. Then came the humorists – the stand-up comics who found a career in being nasty to the celebrity target of the day. One small typo, such as the unfortunate misspelling of the final alphabet of ‘my girl gang’ by a young actor last year, could mean weeks of viral embarrassment.

With thicker skin and professional support, stars reworked their online strategy.

Many stayed off Twitter till a film release drew near, a few hired professionals to tweet on their behalf. Bollywood on Twitter slowly began to get organized around powerful fan groups – with nicknames like the Shahid Shanatics, the Akkians, the Salman Khan FC – some of whom became a nightmare for film critics and haters.

Haters, known as Trolls in Twitterverse, hit out at every star, including Shah Rukh. Some of it is genuine opinion, some of it fuelled by vested interests. For someone familiar with Twitter, it’s easy to see from a timeline (a Twitter word which simply means the history of their tweets) if accounts had been created for the sole purpose of criticizing one person. Such accounts had almost no followers and did not tweet about anything else day after day. This was all part of the new social media battlefield and every major star today takes it in their stride.

But gradually, something even more dangerous had begun evolving. Journalists who could not get access to Shah Rukh would juxtapose a few personal tweets about his family or religion, fill in their own assumptions in between, and put it out as an original interview. Others would launch online attacks on the basis of a fragment of a sentence. Fanatic Twitter gangs, from all ends of the religious spectrum, would use his words to attack him… and worse, each other. Even political leaders began using his words to fire salvos against each other’s countries. Everyone, it seemed, had begun using the glitter of his stardust to shine their cause.

On January 9, Shah Rukh posted one final tweet to his 3,624,395 followers – almost equivalent to the population of Singapore: “Sad, I read so much judgments, jingoism, religious intolerance on the net & I used to think this platform will change narrow-mindedness, but no!” (sic) It was retweeted 2255 times and continues to be retweeted every day even today. A month later, his fans, desperate to have him back, trended the hashtag topic #WeLoveSRK at a worldwide level for 24 hours on Valentine’s Day. But he has not tweeted since.

It is a wilder world today than it was when the outspoken TV actor with a dimpled smile who spoke at 2x speed made his debut. And one in which, I personally, would not grouse Shah Rukh Khan his decision to hold his peace for now. Whether he returns or not remains to be seen, but if he doesn’t, I would feel saddened because the media would become a little more manicured and the online world would become a little more plastic in his absence.

TIMELINE: Some of my favourite tweets from the @iamsrk account:

  1. On a beach alone. Stars,big brave & brite inspite of the dark. If it wasn’t for the night v wouldn’t see them so strong. That’s how v should be

    the now silent @iamsrk page
  2. Most of the time ppl dont want to get to know u, instead they want to tell u, who they think u are. Let them maintain their fictions about u
  3. Still am not used to the fact that when I meet new ppl I am a bit awkward, while they meet me with a familiarity of years…its sweet.
  4. Watching Bambi on tv. Is it ok for a grown up man to feel moved watching cartoons or should I switch to Expendables & be all grown up macho
  5. Comparisons, as unavoidable as they are, make u one of many. It leads towards fear of freedom. Only thing to do in numbers is to laugh together
  6. My son. Have a face not just arms. Be a name not a number. Be a human beıng not just human resource. Worry not who u could be… just be who u are.
  7. Just read this… Superstars live on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Superstar, do u know who ur real friends are?
  8. The illusion that you could hold to yourself the things you most want & lose the things you least wanted to keep is the struggle of lıfe…
  9. You cannot live hollow within urself & fill ur hollowness with empty things, empty promises, conveniences and fear of confrontations…
  10. (His final tweet on January 9) Sad, I read so much judgements, jingoism, religious intolerance on the net & I used to think this platform will change narrowmindedness, but no!

Update: Since the article has come out, I have been overwhelmed at the emotional response from people around the world. Some fans have taken it upon themselves to translate it into various languages. Here are the links for the German translation, Russian translation, French and the Arabic Translation.

Moved by the hundreds of touching messages, I compiled and emailed them to Shah Rukh to remind him of the heartwarming support he still has on Twitter. Click HERE to download the compilation. 

*Read Also: Angry Birds – The Addictive Nastiness of Twitter

Title photo by Dabboo Ratnani. All Rights Reserved.