There was this girl in a red hat: wide-brimmed and felt, not too expensive, bought from a shop called Ann Taylor. She wore it with a matching red blazer, skinny jeans and purple suede boots as she strode down the streets, canvas and paints in hand. Construction workers hooted as she passed; horns honked. She flipped her middle finger and kept walking. Jaunty as hell. Except that it wasn’t her at all, you see. It was the red hat that stopped traffic and made her a character.
Being a character is different from having character. There are a few people—such as Gandhi and Churchill—who were both characters and had character. But they were exceptions. Most great people—ranging from M.S. Subbalakshmi to C.V. Raman—had signature styles but were not characters in the contrarian sense of the word. Ordinary folk may possess sterling character but don’t necessarily stand out. They work hard, pay their bills, try not to cheat anyone, take care of families and each other. They are of good character but not necessarily memorable.
One of a kind? Kakkar (left) and Husain flaunt their quirks and eccentricities. Photos: Ramesh Pathania / Mint, Hindustan Times
Being a character may have little to do with integrity and values: the stuff you are made of. Lalu Prasad, by all accounts, is a real character, but his integrity is a source of debate. Being a character is not so much about talent, effort, beauty or intelligence. It is about quirkiness and eccentricity; the willingness to flaunt a distinct persona. It is as much about style as substance. Sculptor Louise Nevelson—she of the black-lined eyes, colourful head scarves and red lipstick—was a character, but the equally, if not more talented, painter Barnett Newman was not. S.H. Raza and F.N. Souza may not be characters but M.F. Husain certainly is.
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We need characters to liven up our lives. They make us stop in our tracks and look again; smile and shake our heads. They lighten our day. Characters are usually contrarian. They grow long hair if they are men; wear sunglasses when they are indoors; cultivate a weird accent or manner. Like Malayali ministers in their white mundus or author Tom Wolfe in his white suits, they are sartorial non-conformists.
Some professions like advertising and the theatre lend themselves to characters. They encourage mavericks like ad-man Prahlad Kakkar and thespian Dolly Thakore. Others such as business or law stifle individuality. I can’t think of too many businessmen who are characters. Vijay Mallya could have been one if he weren’t so predictably over the top. I am told by my journalist friends that Aveek Sarkar of the Anandabazar Patrika group is a real character—someone who wears dhotis and spouts wine-wisdom about obscure Chardonnays. But when I go down the list of India’s top businesses, I am hard-pressed to find a character. Perhaps our corporate titans are quirky in private. In public, however, they lack the panache that makes for interest and allure.
Singer Usha Uthup is a character. She is willing to shock people and not care about the consequences. The thing about singing pop songs clad in a silk sari, giant bindi and with flowers in braided hair is that it will put off a whole section of people. They will write you off as a weirdo, deem you guilty without giving you a second chance. It is far easier and less courageous to blend in like an Alisha Chinai. To be a character like Uthup and Abdul Kalam requires a combination of guts and confidence. It is necessary but not sufficient to know who you are. Most people above 50 know who they are; or they should. But not many have the guts to flaunt their quirks and eccentricities. For some reason, the office of the chief election commissioner (CEC) attracts characters ranging from T.N. Seshan to our current CEC N. Gopalaswami.
Ordinary Indians are characters. Every day I take my dog for a walk along my street. It is full of characters. There is the handicapped smiling guy who adorns his wheelchair with fresh flowers every morning; the drunk autorickshaw driver who dances across the road at midnight with a grace that Bollywood can aspire to; the raggedy old lady who sells lemon juice from her street cart and plays cards with her grandchildren; the beedi-puffing bloke in his pristine white dhoti who guards a church. Characters all.
In theory, becoming a character is easy because a lot of it has to do with persona and appearance. It would be harder to develop character than become a character. I want to be a character but I am afraid of embarrassing my kids. Even leaving that aside, I need to figure out how to become one. It is not enough to develop a sartorial signature that defines me. I have to be true to myself but more important, I have to be unusual and if possible, unique. Wearing ethnic clothes is my style but it is not enough to mark me a character. Many photographers, for instance, wear all black. It looks chic and arresting but it isn’t unusual. Black blends in; black is a cop-out. Black may be the epitome of style but it is the antithesis of character.
Personal style is different from being a character anyway. Style goes hand in glove with good taste. Character involves ruffling the general consensus about good taste. The other day, I had lunch at Ballal Residency in Bangalore. An old woman walked by. She was wearing a pink sari in the Maharashtrian kaccha style—coming in between her legs and tucked in the back. She was memorable but not a character because her style was unconscious. She probably wore the kaccha sari all her life. It wasn’t the conscious, well-thought-out gesture of a maverick. Now, if Sonia Gandhi or Brinda Karat wore that type of sari, it would give them instant “character” status.
Why become a character? Let me put it this way. Ladies, would you rather be stuck in an elevator with Mukesh or Anil Ambani? And before you answer “Neither”, let me just say that John Abraham and Pierce Brosnan are not in the running. Consider the Ambanis. They are both rich, brothers—or used to be, and come from similar backgrounds and looks. Except that one has the makings of a character and one doesn’t.
An eccentric hobby or collection is a good place to start on the journey to becoming a character. Either that or a strong visual accessory—like nose rings, tattoos, a chunky antique bracelet, a moustache, barefoot in pyjamas a la Husain or simply a kaccha sari in Parliament. As for the girl in the red hat, I haven’t seen her for the last 15 years. I still have the hat though.
Shoba Narayan would travel across the Sahara on a camel. As long as she can spend the night around a campfire with a bunch of bona fide characters. Or weirdos. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org