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The fickle nature of internet fame

Such rags-to-riches stories with generous interventions of luck, only make fans experience the short, tantalising distance from their own slice of stardom

In middle-class neighbourhoods of Indian cities and small towns, there is a type of boy or girl next door who undergoes voice modulation after a certain event. That event, however small, is usually called success. At times, it comes in the form of cracking a class-changing examination — think civil services or admission into a premier institution. In those moments of neighbourhood stardom, the anxieties, expectations, and envy of those around — people who haven’t managed to escape their mundane lives — are laid bare. The way neighbourhood fame is viewed, and handled, is a microcosm of how Indians process and react to sudden fame. The same goes for attitudes towards overnight celebrities; versions of which have proliferated on social media sites and video sharing sites like YouTube.

Recently, Indian Twitteratti trolled Ranu Mondal, Internet-singing-sensation-turned-overnight-celebrity, for snubbing an admirer’s selfie request. The subsequent trolling and the tone of certain media reports reflects the reality of the anxieties that surround a newly-minted celebrity. This comes through especially when these celebs behave in a way people fantasise themselves as behaving in their own daydreams of getting rich and famous. Such rags-to-riches stories with generous interventions of luck, only make them experience the short, tantalising distance from their own slice of stardom. They themselves are more likely to do what Mondal did. It is just that they want their recognition for her lottery and fortune — an entitlement that, in a way, reflects the changing nature of engagement with fame and the famous over the years.

Reality TV and social media demands celebrities to act like you and me. With millions of unknown and obscure followers, stars have been tested for their adherence to an unspoken code of identifiability. A large section of online fans consider themselves to be patrons who have helped these celebrities go viral. It’s a marked departure from the times when stars were known more for being different, and out of the ordinary.

In an abrupt departure from the expectation of identifiability, fans online expect their idols to serve up a healthy display of humility. The expectation is that Mondal should oblige every passing fan with a selfie, without exhibiting annoyance. An unwritten reassurance of modesty that matches the fan’s idea of a nobody’s rise to stardom. By having such expectations they want to make their own ordinariness more tolerable, even noble. These expectations also become part of journalistic judgments about public figures.

Almost a decade ago, in a perceptive piece on the appeal of  Sachin Tendulkar, journalist and novelist, Manu Joseph, wrote about the high premium we place on humility in judging people and what it actually deprives us of. “No other nation is as fond of this line: ‘What strikes you about him is his humility’. It is a compliment usually given to a celebrity with good manners, who has made a journalist feel comfortable, who has offered him a glass of water to drink. How many times have we seen Tendulkar being described as humble, and readily accepted that view. And his self-centred caution that ensures he does not always speak his mind, are we misinterpreting that disappointing aspect of his personality for humility? He might be humble, as somehow required by all his devotees, but my point is we don’t know.”

The nature of Mondal’s fame has similar elements to other stars like 46-year-old Dancing Uncle who rode the viral wave last year. The pitfalls of readymade fame are alike, as well. It is often and correctly argued that what accounts for the viral factor on the internet defies logic and predictability. However, the blending together of home-cooked domesticity and the revenge of the anonymous have often paved the way for many a viral success story.

Subsequent digging of Mondal’s past might have shown her as no novice to the world of music. Her appeal as the readily available elderly presence, the languishing talent in the twilight of her life, opened doors for her on millions of screens across the country. Domesticity, well aided by anonymity, makes such fame an assertion of the unknown over the known. There is a kind of impish glee, the assertion of a small town that harboured such talent in its anonymous corners — talent that could easily give the best in the business a run for their money. So in a way, it was also the vicarious cheerleading of the unsung, a reminder of people’s unexplored selves.

In all likelihood, fans perceive these celebrities as an extension of their own unfulfilled fantasies of stardom. There is a need to forget the struggle that the newly-famous went through so they can fit the fan’s idea of a star who is grateful to their cheerleaders. That is an adjustment that failures and nobodies have to make with quirks of success and fame.

Perhaps, it is the emotive route to such instant recognition that makes its beneficiaries vulnerable to popular scrutiny of their conduct. In doing so, people forget that their ownership of such fame is fallacious. It is as mistaken a belief as feeling a sense of contribution to a fluke lottery win.

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