04 Mar 2018 18:34 IST

Curiosity kills more than the cat

There’s a theory that celebrity obsession is natural, even healthy. Seriously?

The desperation for tidbits and gory details surrounding the passing of the much-loved actor Sridevi once again showed up the depths to which our behaviour can sink. Driving back home from work one night, I heard two popular RJs sing a song, a dirge really, that they had composed, bemoaning the depravity of the media. That’s how bad things got.

What is it that makes us spy so shamelessly on celebrities’ saddest moments? What’s so compelling about the lives of the rich and famous that we find so irresistible? Fundamentally, they’re doing a job, we’re doing a job. Sure, they are good-looking, but then so are we, or at least we have the potential to be. Of course, they make a lot more money — or at least they seem to be making a lot more money — but, so do many of us. Those of us who don’t, are trying.

They’re glamorous; we can be too. They work hard, and so do we. We envy their lifestyle; our lifestyle’s better than it used to be. Things are accessible to us, too. They are constantly in the public eye, they’re visible all the time. Hmm, that’s a point. But we have Facebook and WhatsApp, don’t we? If they are macro celebrities, we can be micro celebrities.

So, what’s the deal? Why do we feel we can judge them in their vulnerable moments?

An aspiration

I know I am generalising, and I know generalisations are far too sweeping and, for that reason, unacceptable, but let’s just go with them for argument’s sake. After all, for all those ‘ordinary’ folk who don’t fall into the categories described in the previous paragraph, there are those who are not ‘celebrated’, who have not quite ‘made’ it on to the public platform — and some of them may actually be frontrunners in their field. They remain unknown, uncounted, and struggling.

Perhaps the simplest, most obvious explanation is curiosity. Once, in the course of a survey among college students, one young man revealed to me that he was “dying to know” how much money rich and famous people carried in their wallets. You know: a Mukesh Ambani, for instance? So, in other words, idle curiosity because clearly, knowing how much Mukesh Ambani carries in his wallet will not change the young man’s life. This would be curiosity without consequence, time-pass.

Else, it could be curiosity laced with aspiration. For instance, if Hema Malini can look so good at nearly 70, why can’t I? I want to know what she does so I can do it too. And if she can do it, why can’t I? Well, why not? This would be curiosity related to information-gathering. If Amish Tripathi can churn out bestsellers and market them literally in virtual space, I sure could do. That’s a reasonable argument. But it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that there would be greater interest among the wider public to aspire for the Shah Rukh Khan variety of ‘success’ than the Amish Tripathi variety. The glamour quotient tilts the balance, it would seem, between the possible and the not so easily possible.

An escape

A third scenario could be escape from reality, with or without reason. Just as cinema offers a chance to forget the troubles of our world, at least for a few hours, lingering over the reel and real lives of those who convey us on the escape ride could be a way of hiding from pain or frustration or boredom or responsibility or inertia or whatever other bug has struck.

My dad often spoke about how he was a member of the Flynn Fan Club — they even had a Madras chapter dedicated to the Hollywood star, Errol Flynn! He was a dashing hero, literally, of the 1930s and 40s, known for films such as Captain Blood, Santa Fe Trail, Adventures of Don Juan and The Prince and the Pauper. The idols of Indian cinema all have diehard fans. One celebrity off the beaten track was President Abdul Kalam whose ideals continue to inspire young people; his Facebook fan club is very active.

So, clearly, there are various reasons why and different ways in which people feed off celebrities — vicariously. Sometimes, a frenzied appetite can lead to stalkers making celebrities’ lives miserable. I know of a well-known dancer who shall remain anonymous who noticed the frightening presence of a certain individual at each and every one of her shows. It was eerie. Beatle John Lennon was assassinated by a stalker who, after shooting the musician right at the door of his apartment building, remained there reading aloud from the book, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.

Is it stalking?

Wanting to know every little thing about a celebrity for no accountable reason but to feed an unsatiable greed for such crumbs appears to amount to another kind of stalking. I want to know, I will find ways to know, and know I shall would be the credo underlying such behaviour. And such behaviour has been around a long time. For instance, Dana Dovey writes in an article entitled The science behind why we love celebrity gossip and tabloid magazines that back in the 1800s, there was “Lisztomania”, an obsession with the Hungarian composer.

She quotes an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, Daniel Kruger, who “says our desire to know about the activities of high-status individuals is a trait we share with other primates, and that it’s due to an evolutionary tactic that may have helped us live through the years. Speaking to LiveScience, he said there are two evolutionary benefits to celebrity gossip: The first is for our own personal benefit; ‘learning what high-status individuals do, so you might more effectively become one’, Kruger explained. The second reason is more political, and relates to how we have complex social circles. ‘Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you'd be better able to navigate the social scene’.” She is quick to add, though, that “not all celebrity news is equally popular, and nothing sells a paper more than a good ole’ scandal”.

She also points out that there’s a natural tendency to gravitate towards bad or negative news, and, citing The BBC, says, “we love to see what mistakes celebrities are making in their personal lives, so we can then avoid making those same mistakes in our own lives”. I suggest you check out the conclusion she arrives at yourselves — the article is available online. It will surprise you.

Respecting privacy

The fact is, when we follow celebrities this closely, we feel we know them personally. That’s what misleads us into thinking we have a right to their every private moment. We know about them; they don’t even know we exist, as individuals. So, where’s the question of knowing them personally; there’s simply no cause for the right to know.

While psychologists may say it’s perfectly fine to obsess a bit, maybe even healthy, we do need to understand where to draw the line. It’s to do with respect: for self and for others. It’s to do with decency. It’s to do with compassion. It’s to do with vulnerability.

You may say there’s a price to pay for fame and money. You may say the rich and famous seek out celebrity; it isn’t that it’s only always thrust upon them. After all, they wish to be in the limelight for fear their fans will forget them or ignore them. Fair enough.

But we celebrate them because we love them, we admire them, we want to be like them. We don’t want to hurt them, or invade their privacy. After all, tomorrow you could be that star people are curious about, obsessively.

What if the boot is on the other foot?