If this time last year, someone would have told Shilpa Shetty that in a year’s time, she would be India’s best known celebrity internationally, better known than Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan put together, she would have perhaps swallowed her false eyelashes and emitted sharp squeaking sounds from her mouth. Yet, here we are, with her name and visage being household names in the U.K., at least for the moment.
Her claim to fame is truly serendipitous—she was selected for Celebrity Big Brother to add a dash of exotic glamour. Any other fading Bollywood heroine could have been asked, but she got the gig. And then, for no apparent reason, she became the target of bullying that seemed to reek of racism to many, and by virtue of this martyrdom, was anointed Big Sister or whatever it is that you are called when you win something like this.
Brand Shilpa has become one by default. International celebrity-hood has, in a case of benevolent hit-and-run, crashed into her and flung her atop a pile of opportunities. Of course, her fame has the attention span of a dribbling channel surfer and hence she needs to capitalize on it quickly if we are to speak of her this time in 2008. Ironically, she could learn some tricks from her erstwhile tormentor, Jade Goody, who converted a foul-mouthed swallow into a vituperative summer. If she plays her cards right, which means that she quickly finds another tabloid-worthy story to feature in (for instance, romance an English rugby player or suchlike), she could well join the ranks of people who became famous accidentally and then find ways of never becoming un-famous, like Paris Hilton.
Equally surprising, and accidental, is Sourav Ganguly’s return to public favour. Unlike Shilpa of course, accident played a role in his getting an opportunity when he was all but preparing his retirement announcement. But Brand Sourav has always been about the spirit beating the pants off the flesh. He came in to the Indian team amid whispers of favouritism; he was the sulky spoilt Maharaja in the team, apparently because of a powerful father. He proceeded immediately to prove everyone wrong with a classy century. And thus set the pattern for the Sourav story. Always underrated, always questioned by the purists, always finding a way through sheer aggression to rise above his abilities. As captain, Sourav ushered in a new, almost feral, body language in a team hitherto as vegetarian as Srinath’s stare. Victories started pouring in and, more importantly, India started winning from losing positions, having so far mastered the art of doing the exact opposite. And then Sourav’s form failed over a length of time, he got into an ugly spat with Chappell, retreated into sullen political manoeuvring and fell out of favour with team management. The public, of course, is increasingly in it for the bloodsport and hence is forever looking for someone to lynch. When Sourav failed in the few meagre chances he got, it seemed all over.
Then team India started losing and the public thirst for blood looked for fresh meat. Magically, Sourav took the lifeline that came his way and acted out a story he could not have scripted in his most optimistic dreams. Today, the brand Sourav story, one of grim determination and fierce competitiveness, is potentially one of the most inspiring ones in the country. This year should be Sourav’s year as a brand, for he has proved himself through action against impossible odds. The trouble with Sourav is that his edgy persona makes the use of his brand a little difficult. He is a hero who doesn’t quite look the part.
Last year was an eventful year for the father of all celebrities—Amitabh Bachchan—and his gradually expanding family. His films did well, he fell ill, Abhishek came into his own and Aishwarya Rai started making bahu-like sounds. Amitabh Bachchan is today a brand that reeks of immortality; the combination of benevolence and larger-than-life scale strikes a powerful chord with today’s times. He is the father figure who no one can resist admiring.
Perhaps the alleged cold war between Shah Rukh and Amitabh Bachchan is, in brand terms, about who steps into Bachchan’s shoes as the presiding deity of Bollywood. First Don and now KBC3 suggest an almost oedipal conflict of SRK wanting to out-Bachchan Amitabh. The trumpeting of Abhishek’s performance in Guru by Mr Bachchan suggests who he thinks should inherit his mantle.
The trouble with Shah Rukh’s attempts is that the vehicles chosen are weak. Don was passable in a quirky sort of way, but it is with KBC3 that Shah Rukh could well stumble. Not because of his performance which , though too carefully crafted,is creditable in its freshness. The problem lies with the format. Between the last two KBCs, the world of television has changed. Reality television now seeks a much higher dose of adrenalin per second. In KBC, no one is bitchy, no one gets voted out, people are fully clad and nothing gets bleeped out. In a larger sense, Shah Rukh, Abhishek and Bachchan Sr will, in all probability, continue to command the kind of attention and affection that they currently do.
The year 2007 will test brand Aishwarya. Poised interminably on the brink of international stardom, her marrying avatar is unlikely to set Hollywood on fire. It is more likely that she gets put to royal pasture and spends her days giggling gracefully.
No assessment of celebrity brands in 2007 can be complete without some mention of Rakhi Sawant. She represents a genuinely new kind of archetype; a woman who lives her life by instantly articulating whatever she is feeling. Her life is not only an open book, but an open running commentary. Her Bigg Boss appearance has made her a presence that is unlikely to be ignored in the next months. Her brand of total outwardliness is truly a sign of the media-infested times we live in.
Santosh Desai is the ?CEO ?of Future Brands. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org