Home / Opinion / Katniss, Kejriwal and revolution in the age of celebrity

Is it feasible for a revolutionary to be a celebrity? Or vice versa?

Such a question would never have occurred to a Danton or a Lenin or a Che Guevara. They all lived in a different epoch—one that had famous people but not celebrities, media but not 24x7 news television, political propaganda but not political brand ambassadors.

Back then, revolutionaries, by definition, were intellectuals, or at least had a solid background in the world of ideas and political thought. But today, even intellectuals are commodified into celebrities and absorbed into the cultural economy of the mainstream—the very mainstream that the revolutionary content of the intellectual’s ideas is supposed to help overthrow.

So how seriously do we take a celebrity who wants to change the world—or change your country? This is not an idle question. It was provoked by the latest instalment of the box office phenomenon, Hunger Games, which released in India last week. This film, which covers one-half of the final book of Suzanne Collins’s young adult trilogy, makes an important departure from its precursors.

In the first two films—Hunger Games (2012) and Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)—we see the teenaged protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) participating in the eponymous gladiatorial competition. Her skills in archery and open defiance of the dystopian Panem’s tyrannical president, Snow (Donald Sutherland), captivate her country’s oppressed multitudes and inspire them to rebellion.

But in Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I, there are no ‘hunger games’ as such. So all the gorgeous pageantry, as well as the spectacular action sequences where children murder each other, are out. Instead, the film opens with the teenage celebrity already under the protection of the rebels’ president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) in District 13.

We learn that her new role is as a public relations asset. As the revolution’s brand ambassador, her job is to exhort the people of Panem to join the rebels’ fight against tyranny. Not that different from Arvind Kejriwal popping up on FM radio to exhort the people of Delhi to join the fight against corruption.

From rebelling to enacting rebellion

In what is perhaps the defining sequence in the film, the rebel commander Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is seated at a video console, coaching Everdeen on how to deliver a rousing call to revolution for a propaganda video, or “propo", as it’s called.

But Everdeen, despite all the coaching she receives, is unable to deliver the pre-scripted lines with conviction. The same girl whose actions planted the seed of revolution in the hearts of her countrymen ends up sounding like a phony the moment she is made to enact rebellion.


What follows could have been straight out of the conference room of an ad agency holding a creative brainstorming session. But no, it is actually the war room of the rebel leadership. And their creative brainstorming is on how best to extract pitch perfect lines from their celebrity brand ambassador. They eventually conclude that it is well nigh impossible to get Everdeen to stage defiance. That being the case, the only option left is to risk exposing their precious PR asset to a real battle situation.

Everdeen is taken into hostile territory, dressed in TV-friendly battle-gear, camera crew in tow—not in order to engage with the enemy, but to produce quality content. As it happens, the rebels manage to get some excellent propaganda footage. But in the process, Everdeen indirectly causes the death of hundreds of civilians—the very people for whom she was ostensibly making the propaganda video.

Now let’s turn to Kejriwal. When he first launched the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), he began by pitching for nothing less than a “political revolution"—those are his exact words—whose objective would be to “uproot the system". In the statement he issued to announce the launch of a new party, he had said, “There is no opposition in the country. Everybody is in the government, only we are in the opposition. We don’t know whether we will win or lose but if I don’t fight, then my children will question me on why I let go a chance to change the country."

But somewhere along the line, Kejriwal, much like Everdeen does in Mockingjay Part I, mutated, in the public imagination, from a real person (an aam aadmi) fighting for political revolution into a mascot of what he was fighting for. Once he was safely abstracted into the realm of pure image, dismantling the image became an easy means of delegitimizing the politics that the image had come to represent.

This process was helped along in no small measure by sections of the media that turned against him, as well as the numerous comic videos that suddenly began to pop up, caricaturing his over-earnest, hyper-humble persona. It was just a matter of time before the muffler took over the jhadoo as the pre-eminent meme of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP had clearly lost its way, both in its political as well as communication strategy.

Now, Mockingjay Part I is basically about a communication war fronted by two celebrity “tributes", with Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) serving as brand ambassadors for Panem and the rebels, respectively. The film’s real protagonist is not Everdeen, but technology. It is the tech wizard, Beetee, who is the prime mover, who determines the battle strategy and the military missions in the film. And where the technological dictates to the social, revolution goes out the window.

That is why the propos that Everdeen makes are full of sound and fury but bereft of substance. If they end up looking like motivational videos, it is because of their wholesale surrender to the logic of celebrity—and celebrification is nothing but the cultural supplement of the technology of mass media.

Political change and the logic of celebrity

The logic of celebrity, though unavoidable in media-saturated polities, needs to be managed strategically. Sure, it works well for selling detergents, and for promoting mild social reform that is non-threatening to the prevailing socio-political order. It works even better to sell politicians as personalities delinked from substantive politics.

But where the objective is transformative political change, the logic of celebrity, unless made subservient to the party’s values, can empty political messaging of all meaning, transforming them instead into symbolic performances by the celebrified individual. That is why demagogues and celebrity-politicians—no matter what their ideologies—are all reactionary in their political impact.

The AAP has recently tried to regain some lost ground in the communication war with hash tags such as “MufflerMan" and “Kejriwal Phir Se". This is a strategic mistake. For one, it can hardly expect to match the vastly superior social media firepower of its main electoral rival in the forthcoming Delhi Assembly polls.

Secondly, those who have read Collins’ Mockingjay (2010) would know how it all ends. The rebel who is domesticated by power in Part I reclaims her legacy by turning against it in Part II. For all his defiance of the prevailing political ethos, and his periodic run-ins with the system, it would, of course, be overstating the case to brand Kejriwal as a revolutionary.

Having said that, a man who likes to speak of political revolution should know that building up individual leaders into larger than life personas is the opposite of whatever you may mean by “political revolution"—which is also why the system (that he claims to want to uproot) is eager to abbreviate politics into personalities.

We have all seen what reliance on one family has done to one party. And we shall see what reliance on one man will do to another party. As it is, the world offers enough examples of what happens when a party is identified with one man. The AAP claims pluralism and dispersion of power as its core values. For such an entity to be identified with one man—no matter how expedient it may seem in the present political scenario, or how astute as a performative communication tactic—cannot be a healthy sign for those who subscribe to its avowed political agenda.

Yes, the media will want to build up personalities, because that is how mass media works. The 2014 national elections was won by the party that basically won the communication war. But the AAP has consciously sought to chart a path that’s different from that of the others.

It therefore needs to undertake one fundamental course correction if it hopes to weather the ups and downs of politics: as a conscious strategy, even in its communications, it must draw its strength from its values and actions, not its icons; from the integrity of its leadership, not the charisma of its leader.

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