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  • Ekta Kumar

No, not him too

The mighty have fallen. At the risk of sounding heartless, his infection is an opportunity.

The mighty have fallen. Mr. Bachchan tested positive for the Covid19, much to the dismay of India. Ever since the announcement, reactions have been pouring in from across the country. In some ways it was expected. The numbers are growing rapidly. We are adding around 28,000 new cases per day. The pandemic is steadily sweeping across our country, and with so many succumbing to it, it was only a matter of time before one of our icons also tested positive. There have been several known, and not so known faces over the past few months who have battled the disease, but this time it is Amitabh Bachchan – a towering superstar. He is not an ordinary celebrity, but a colossal figure whose popularity cuts through generations. Somehow he has managed to be persistently present in public imagination for decades, a superhero in some sense for millions of his fans. And yet even he surrendered.

The actor had been fairly vocal about the dangers of Covid19. All through the lockdown he used his social media accounts to connect with his followers, urging them to stay safe. He also featured in a video posted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare advising us to wash our hands and cover our mouths while we cough. He is not the only one, celebrities across the world have been doing their bit to raise awareness. Using famous and popular people to spread information and help fight the outbreak is a common tool. The World Health Organisation partnered with Tik Tok influencers to provide content to update users on the Covid crisis. There are enough tweets, videos, photographs and messages from actors, sportspersons, leaders, artists and so on telling us what to do. But his contracting the illness can be a potential game changer.

We are a social race that constantly reinforces the importance and value of celebrities. They have a huge impact on popular culture and how we view our own selves. It is a relationship that is completely one-sided. Our tendency to latch on and identify with our heroes is so strong that screen (cinema or the phone) is not a barrier. This para-social relationship, fascination and attachment, is fueled by the rise of mass media. Celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan influence us in many ways. We use their lives as a diversion, as entertainment, to escape from our own world. They are our fashion guides, and dinner table conversations. We use them to form our opinions, and learn behavior and cultural values. They can be very persuasive when they endorse products, and can be very endearing when they cry on tv. They wield power over collective consciousness.

Although their glittering lives are unreal and unattainable, still we seek signs that we can relate to, and familiar events that can connect us. And so we watch as they fall in love, break up, lose jobs, make mistakes. They rejoice and suffer, just like us. They are locked in, and vulnerable to infection, just like us.

Which is why when Mr. Bachchan tweets from the hospital most of India will listen. No doctor, expert, activist or patient can capture our attention the way he can. At the risk of sounding heartless, his infection is an opportunity.

It is impossible to talk to 1.4 billion people effectively. Our humongous and diverse population makes it increasingly difficult to formulate a coherent strategy for mass communication. We need to educate the public and engage them, build trust in the healthcare system and dispel myths. It is here that Mr. Bachchan can help. His voice will be even more compelling as this is his own story.

He tells us that although the lockdown rules are easing, but we still need to be careful. We are trying to ‘unlock’ but masks are slipping off, the kirana stores are getting crowded, and we are getting careless. When we hear of Amitabh Bachchan testing positive, it is a grim reminder that we are all still vulnerable and exposed.

There is a deep-seated social stigma against those who have been affected. It is natural to be afraid and anxious. But discrimination makes people hesitant to seek help, they hide their symptoms and illness. Stigma leads to channeling of anger and fear against ordinary people, instead of focusing on solving the problem. Amitabh Bachchan has now crossed over to the other side. He can help dispel our prejudices and misinformation around the virus. His fans will continue to love him, they will not hold him accountable for the illness, and perhaps by extension we will also not discriminate against those around us who have tested positive.

The fact is that celebrities amplify the message. Even more so when it’s personal. We look and learn. In the past Mr. Bachchan fought the bad guys and won. We hope and pray he will do it again. And while he is bravely battling it out from the hospital bed, perhaps he can still teach us a thing or two.

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