A star in a strange role

Posted on April 27, 2016


Salman Khan is in the middle of another Olympic-sized controversy. But why is he in it in the first place?

Is Salman Khan qualified to be Goodwill Ambassador of the Indian contingent at the 2016 Rio Olympics? His father Salim Khan certainly seems to think so. In a tweet battle with Milkha Singh, who objected strenuously to the appointment, Khan Sr. declared – with disturbing disregard for punctuation, given his reputation as a famed screenwriter –  “Salman khan may not have competed but is an A level swimmer cyclist and weight lifter.” Well, that. And the fact that Khan Jr. looks like a wrestler (indeed, he plays one in his upcoming film, Sultan), and appears to be an ace gymnast as well, given his preternatural ability to slip between the front and rear seats of a Toyota Land Cruiser. Khan carried that little girl for a good part of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, so one supposes he’s something of a weightlifter too. Heck, given his clothing-optional stance in his films, a strong case could be made for Khan’s connection to the Olympics: after all, at one time, competitors were required to be nude.

But the backlash is understandable – even necessary. And not just from sports fans. Salim Khan objected to Salman being labelled a Bollywood star. (“Milkhaji it is not Bollywood it is the Indian Film Industry and that too the largest in the world.”) But one rarely finds representatives from the regional film industries in these events. It’s either Amitabh Bachchan singing the national anthem before a Twenty20 World Cup match, or Aishwarya Rai attending the opening ceremony of the 20th Commonwealth Games in Scotland (“her lustrous locks tied in a high bun,” ran the breathless PR prose). Adding to the giddy Bollywood-ness of it all, Rai has come out in support of Khan, her ex-boyfriend. She said, “Anybody who is doing good to represent the country and anybody who is working or seeking or standing out for whatever vocation we have in the country, be it sports, arts or music, I think that’s wonderful and needs to be recognised.”

But who, exactly, is the recognition for? Given our celebrity-crazed times, the latest Salman Khan controversy has already grabbed more attention than Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, and Dattu Bhokanal, who qualified for the sculling event. How dispiriting that representing India at the highest level of international sport is still going to get you fewer headlines than if you are a big star who needs no more headlines to further your career. No wonder cricketer Gautam Gambhir was so outraged,  saying he’d have been happy if someone like shooter Abhinav Bindra, India’s first winner of an Olympic gold medal, had been picked for the post. “There are a lot of sportspersons who have done a lot for sport,” Gambhir said. “Ideally, one among them should have been given that responsibility.”

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There are those who feel that star power works, because stars bring attention to sports. But what sport are we talking about? It’s not as though Salman Khan has sponsored a kho kho team, directing the nation’s eyes to the small sport, the way, say, Aamir Khan drew our attention to dyslexia with Taare Zameen Par. It’s not as though Khan has agreed to take on even a fraction of the training costs for Dipa Karmakar or Dattu Bhokanal, as they consider going abroad to hone their technique. Of course, Khan isn’t required to do this. The expectation comes up only because of the question: What has Salman Khan done to deserve this honour? Khan said in a recent interview that more people have begun to watch cricket after film stars got involved in the sport, and that his role as Goodwill Ambassador will draw new viewers to the Olympics coverage on TV. But will these viewers be tuning in to watch the sports or Salman Khan?

It’s nothing new to have a celebrity lend his or her name to hard-sell topics. (Let us assume, for just an incredulous second, that the Olympics are a little-known undertaking that we’d never tune into were it not for Salman Khan.) George Clooney, for instance, speaks about Darfur. But has he made a difference? In December 2014, The Guardian, in a story titled What happened to Darfur after George Clooney came to town?, asked locals whether Darfur needed another global campaign. A North Darfuri said, “Yes, for sure, but not just a media or celebrity campaign. It should be led by the major powers in the UN Security Council to pressure conflicting parties to reach a comprehensive and just peace.” In other words, star power can only do so much. If more people watch cricket today, is it because of the excitement around IPL and T20 or because the camera keeps cutting to Preity Zinta? And we were already a cricket-crazy nation. How much have stars helped in the case of Pro Kabaddi?

At the end, people look at stars because they like looking at stars. If they ended up doing what stars asked them to do, then no one would be smoking, literacy levels would be at an all-time high, and everyone looking for a vacation would be boarding a flight to Gujarat. And to have such a controversial actor at the centre of India’s Olympic campaign not only detracts attention from the sportsmen and sportswomen who are the rightful stars, it demeans their contribution, their individual ability to make us care about their winning or losing. But India being India, we have not seen the last of Bollywood being called on to awaken our benighted selves to other less popular aspects of Incredible India. Here’s an appeal to Priyanka Chopra to revive Gond art, Alia Bhatt to tell us why ISRO is so awesome, Akshay Kumar to take Carnatic music to the North, Shah Rukh Khan to crack open a book of Upanishads…

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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