Archive for May, 2008

Just mad about being bonkers

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

May 18, 2008

There’s a bold new civil rights movement gathering strength in the West. People with mental health disorders are fighting back for respect from and acceptance in society, and their key weapon is the word that has been hurled at them for centuries as an insult and an expression of contempt: ‘mad’. Just as ‘black’ was turned beautiful in the 1960s, just as gay people turned the slur ‘queer’ into a badge of pride, Mad Pride activists want to bring dignity and honour to their three-letter generalised descriptor. And to words like ‘bonkers’, ‘wacko’, ‘bananas’, ‘lunatic’, and every other word that has been used through history to poke fun at them, to sneer at them. The largest annual Mad Pride festival in Britain is called Bonkersfest.

They are no longer interested in being described by medical terms such as ‘bipolar disorder’ and ‘schizophrenia’. In an article in The Guardian, one of the organisers of Bonkersfest tells the writer: “The problem with medical terms is that they are terribly misunderstood. They promote a culture of fear, and try to fit your whole being into a label and a set of symptoms. ‘Bonkers’ is not insulting; it’s broad and lighthearted. We chose it as a name because it is both sexual and funny and fits with the celebratory mood of the festival.” Mad Pride gatherings and festivals are now held regularly in at least seven countries, including the United States and South Africa.

Mad Pride people counsel one another, act as support groups and have fun together. They are pressure groups on their governments and on pharmaceutical companies manufacturing controversial psychotropic drugs; they are increasingly questioning the way doctors treat mental health disorders. And many of them are highly-educated and successful professionals. Liz Spikol, one of the leading voices, is a senior contributing editor at Philadelphia Weekly and an award-winning columnist. Elyn Saks is a law professor and associate dean at the University of Southern California. Indeed, one of the principal points that the activists are trying to make to the world is that people with these disabilities can lead productive lives. They do not want to hide their specialness, or be defensive about it.

Wrote the late Pete Shaughnessy, one of the founders of the movement: “I see life as one big swimming pool. Some of us are thrust in the deep end and we manage to survive. We make our way down to the shallow end, where it’s easy, boring. The people there are scared of the deep end, scared of the unknown, so they shun people like me and call me MAD. Madness is a natural reaction.”

Language, as we all know, is a powerful tool for social change. When a ‘Red Indian’ becomes a Native American, the world, in a way, gives him his rightful and respectworthy place in American society, and recognises his history and all the injustices done to him over five hundred years. Yet, it can be taken too far. Bending over backwards by calling a short man ‘vertically challenged’ is just plain stupid. It reduces it all to a joke and makes him even more conscious of his height. I am quite happy describing myself as a balding man, and would think that anyone who called me ‘follically challenged’ — or whatever the ‘politically correct’ term is — is an idiot. It’s neither my fault nor his that I have lost nearly all my hair, so why is he feeling guilty about it? A spastic person suffers from spasticity; it is only when we use ‘spastic’ to describe someone who does not have the condition, but because we think he is a fool, that we insult all spastic persons, and do not deserve to move around in civilised society.

Mad Pride has turned political correctness upside down. By embracing every insult used at them, they are robbing the words of their stigma. If you turn my insult into an expression of self-esteem, you are throwing the ball right back in my court, and I am first taken aback, then puzzled, and then realise that I have no power to insult you. And finally, nor do I have any right, I never had any. When the words are destigmatised, society will perforce have to accept these people as equal members, just a bit different from the ‘average bloke’. But then, all of us ‘average blokes’ are different from one another, and all of us get along with one another most of the time, don’t we? Even if I call you ‘just another average bloke, nothing else’.

Superstar and Everyman, why this Khan is king

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

May 04, 2008

I have had many conversations with friends about this. As, I am sure, you would have had. The question is simple but important, though the answer won’t make any difference to your or my life. Yet it needs to be pondered: Why is Shah Rukh Khan the superstar that he is?

He is not as handsome as Hrithik Roshan, is hardly a great actor. He is not as good at fights and stunts as Akshay Kumar is, and does not have the comic timing or dancing skills of a Govinda. Yet he is by far the most popular actor in the history of Indian cinema. And remember, in the current cutthroat firmament of film stars, he is one of the very few who did not have a prior connection with the Mumbai film industry. No father, no godfather, no influential mentor. The man is not even from Mumbai! Obviously, his success, fame, popularity and wealth are totally of his own making. So why is he what he is?

Here is my thesis, birthed by numerous drunken discussions with concerned citizens. Four attributes, and a fifth one that uses the four and takes full advantage of them. One, in every film he has appeared in, Shah Rukh, you can make out, is doing his best to entertain you. There is a palpable energy he brings to the task; he desires to please and is willing to do anything to achieve that goal. He does not enter a role; rather, he uses it to appeal to the viewer directly, as Shah Rukh Khan, your friend, your uncle, your younger brother, not as a larger-than-life superhero or icon. He craves your love, your acceptance as a family member. He is happy to dance like any other fan in a cricket stadium (and he knows exactly why and when, for maximum effect)

Which takes us to his second attribute, that he comes across — and also makes sure he does — as an ordinary guy. For proof, compare Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh as Kaun Banega Crorepati hosts. One the stately aristocrat, the other a playmate. A contestant who got a hug from Amitabh took it as a gift, the one hugged by Shah Rukh thought he was a pal. And it’s not just a generational issue.

The third quality that Shah Rukh has, and his most visible one, is that he does not seem to take himself seriously (I am sure he does, but it’s a persona he has built for himself, but every persona must have some root in the person). Whether in television interviews or in most of his roles, or in the excellent film Om Shanti Om that he produced, he is ever-willing to poke fun at himself, or convey a gee-whiz wonder at his own spectacular success. He masks his indubitable intelligence with a boyish mischievousness that is endearing to child, man, woman, parent. He is both Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger, and you know it, and want to do a high-five with him for that.

These three qualities contribute equally to communicate the most important aspect of Shah Rukh Khan Superstar. He is non-threatening. If you are a man, you will be at least mildly uneasy if your girlfriend kept gushing about Salman Khan. You wouldn’t like your sister to have Ajay Devgan as boyfriend, sitting in your living room, brooding morosely. But, it’s very likely that you wouldn’t mind too much if your wife stuck a poster of Shah Rukh on the cupboard door. And if your sister brought him home, you would instantly make him your drinking buddy. This is a rare trait that the man has, and has nurtured carefully.

To all this, Shah Rukh brings a unique self-awareness, a very clear understanding of what he is as a brand. This is something no other Indian film star has, except Aamir Khan. Shah Rukh seems to know exactly what he is, and what he is perceived as, and he stokes that image efficienctly and – seemingly — effortlesly. The boy-next-doorness, the playfulness, the non-sexiness, he carefully manages all his product attributes to sustain a superstardom that seems curiously achievable to the ordinary bloke. He seems to be a guy whose back you can slap, a chap you can play gullee cricket with. Very few stars in world cinema ever managed to do this. To be a star, and to be Everyman. An enigma that looks like a simple fable. A complex structure masquerading as a child’s painting. To do what you do and no one notices, yet everyone applauds. This man is a very intelligent man.