“If Salman is India’s most desirable bachelor, then Sonam is unequivocally the most fashionable bride-to-be,” writes the editor of Bazaar Bride magazine Nupur Mehta Puri in the editor’s letter of the October issue. You can’t disagree about Sonam Kapoor, but Salman Khan as India’s most desirable bachelor? Excuse us?
In May 2015, the “Bollywood superstar” fondly dubbed as the Bhai with a heart of gold was sentenced to a five-year jail term by a sessions court in Mumbai in a 2002 hit-and-run case. In the verdict, judge D.W. Deshpande pronounced him guilty of all the prosecution’s charges, including culpable homicide not amounting to murder, rash and drunken driving and driving without a valid licence. Right after that, deciding on Khan’s appeal, the Bombay high court suspended his conviction and granted him bail till his appeal can be heard.
Bail is Khan’s right. As is his celebrity status and the unchallenged fandom he evokes. His films bust ceilings in terms of earnings and yes, movie-goers are crazy about Bhai. Brand Salman is big but it is chipped.
That makes Khan a top-notch celebrity who is out on bail. At the time of his sentencing and appeal, this was the news media’s top story. Sharp questions fell like rain: Should celebrities walk while innocents rot in jail? What happened to the surviving family of the man who was killed? What about Abdullah Shaikh, the injured survivor? Whose side is the law on?
To recall the remarks of the Bombay high court: “It was unfortunate that people who did not have the resources had to be in detention till their appeals were decided.”
India Today news channel (then called Headlines Today) and the news magazine joined voice in this relevant and heated debate. In fact, some of the strongest arguments were voiced on the news channel.
The India Today group also publishes Bazaar Bride in India. The question that must now be asked is: are fashion magazines out of the sphere of “responsibility” and “objective journalism” that news channels and magazines hawk as their core principle? Do they live in a space disconnected or out of sync with a society’s socio-legal conundrums? Must glossies glorify him while thousands of innocents rot in jails and hundreds wait for appeals that they do not have the means to file, delays that sometimes cost them a lifetime? There are larger sensitivities involved and not everyone may be keen to idolize Khan.
Indeed, the higher court may rule that Khan is innocent but right now, there is the shadow of a suspended sentence that can’t be ignored. Nor can the poaching case against him.
While promotions for the actor’s new film with Kapoor, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, will hit us soon, and Khan may talk to us from more magazines and TV studios, making Bazaar Bride not the only case, it is also a fact that GQ India has never ever put Khan on the cover. Some sections of the fashion media have clearly made a choice. “It is not something I would be comfortable with. It is in bad taste,” says Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of ELLE India. “We have responsibility. We are not cut off from the rest of the world or from the rest of the media,” she adds.
Subramanyam however points out that there is a fascination both among readers and interviewers to understand and document the mind of the ‘bad boy’. She recounts the instance of ELLE running an article in January this year on Bikram Choudhury, the US-based proponent of Bikram Yoga who has been accused of numerous unwanted sexual advances. The ELLE article however, clarifies Subramanyam, brings up these accusations against Choudhury, it doesn’t gloss over them.
The Bazaar Bride interview makes no mention of Khan’s current legal controversy. It is all about his celebrity, his dream woman, whether he would ever like to get married, if he is a romantic person, about his Being Human organization and the best bedroom line he has ever used. I phoned Puri for her comments, she said she would come back to me. After a reminder and an e-mail, there was no word from her till the time this article was published.
It is not just about idealism or the moral high ground, which from a broad perspective remains elusive in the media. This is a cause-and-effect phenomenon used to study celebrity brands around the world. Stars accused or convicted of wrongdoing lose endorsements and support from brands that otherwise piggy-back on their popularity. Who can forget the Tiger Woods’ scandal of 2009? In a 2009 paper titled Celebrity Endorsements, Firm Value and Reputation Risk: Evidence from the Tiger Woods Scandal, Victor Stango, associate professor of management from the UC Davis Graduate School of Management in the US, even studied how shareholders of Nike, Gatorade and other sponsors of Tiger Woods lost a collective of $5-12 billion in the wake of the scandal involving Woods’s extramarital affairs. Just today, it is in the headlines that PepsiCo wants to dissociate from the Indian Premier League (IPL), calling it a “disreputable business”. IPL too is a pack of popular cricketers and entertainment, but so what?
Who to put on the cover of a magazine, how and in which context has always been a debatable issue; from both sides of the fence. Way back in 1994 when Time magazine put a blurry sketch of a darkened and unshaven O.J. Simpson, accused of killing his wife, on its cover, there were accusations of racism, of making Simpson look “blacker” and so more “criminal”. In a reply posted by then Time editor James R. Gaines in June 1994, the magazine explained its stand and that it intended no racial discrimination.
It’s a lost irony though when it comes back to Bazaar Bride. Especially as the cover story inside is called Most Wanted.