In a 1992 interview that had gone viral recently, Malayalam actor Sai Kumar, then a newcomer to the industry, was seen speaking with disarming candour, on the state of cinema at that point of time. “To be honest, Malayalam cinema at present is unbearable. Is there anything memorable being made? I don’t even remember the names of some of the films I acted in”.
It was a time before the spread of private television channels, when stars were not seen in much in public, other than on the big screen. The only other portals into their world were the film magazines, which brought to the people news from film sets along with liberal doses of gossip. The rare television interview would have the typical set of questions, which at times would elicit forthright responses that would tell us more about the actor and the person, as can be seen in the Sai Kumar interview mentioned above. There would be serious discussions on cinema as a medium, and even introspection of their own choices, as had happened in one of Mohanlal’s first television interviews with Doordarshan. This was the more common format rather than the typical informal chats that would discuss salacious gossip from their private lives or the film sets.
With the explosion of television channels, the world of the actors became more accessible to the common public, with many of them appearing regularly with their families for interviews timed for festivals like Onam. The nature of the interviews did not change much in this period too, although a fun element was injected into some of these, differentiating them from the prim and proper, and at times sedate, interviews seen in the state-owned television channel. The general audience still did not have much of a direct access to the film stars, for which they had to wait till the social media era.
Actors and filmmakers through their social media presence opened the doors to the current phase of celebrity culture, in which film celebrities are expected to be active, online and offline. The changing nature of the moviemaking business, with crores riding on each film, also meant that promotional activities are now very much part of the job of the actors and filmmakers. It is no longer a choice. From making the rounds in popular campuses, appearing in crowded malls to interviews with television channels, YouTube channels, FM stations and Instagram/Facebook live appearances, most of them have a hectic schedule ahead of a film release these days. It can even be more exhausting than a film shoot, so much so that most of the actors now provide only interviews related to pre-release promotions and rarely sit down for a long profile interview in the old-fashioned way.
Some of these promotional activities, especially mall appearances, campus shows and frequent social media appearances have made the actors more accessible to the common man than in the past, in a way reducing the aura once associated with them. From coy requests for autographs on the rare occasion of spotting a film celebrity in public, the actors now are forced to pose for numerous selfies in each of these appearances. There have been times when things had gone out of hand too, like the recent incident where two female actors were sexually assaulted at a mall by some people in the crowd while they were leaving after attending a promotional function.
The nature of star interviews have also undergone quite a change, with a large number of them being superficial, having nothing to do with even the film they are trying to promote. These are a world away from the interviews like the one Sai Kumar had given in 1992. It was in one such interview recently given to a YouTube channel that Sreenath Bhasi had an alleged abusive outburst, which eventually led to his arrest and a temporary ban from film productions. The actor, who apologised, tried to defend his conduct by pointing at the punishing schedule of promotional events and the silly nature of the questions which were repeatedly posed to him. But, another video of his interviews to an FM station, in which he could be heard hurling expletives at the anchor, did not help matters.
Bhasi with his alleged abusive outburst, lost the opportunity to turn the tables on some of these Youtube channels, which are known for click-bait content, and often pry into the personal lives of the actors, in an attempt to imitate the Koffee With Karan format. In one particularly cringe-worthy interview, actor Asif Ali was asked whether he had gone out with anyone without his wife’s knowledge. The actor, without losing his cool, asked her to maintain some standards while framing questions. Actor Aparna Balamurali recently shared her disappointing experience of being asked about her crush in an interview, right after winning the National Award. Even senior television anchors have been known for questions which are meant to elicit information about their personal lives. In one such instance, actor Shobhana chided the anchor for asking a personal question, despite being told earlier not to. Comments which they made in interviews have landed a bunch of younger actors, including Shane Nigam, Shine Tom Chacko and Dhyan Sreenivasan, in controversies. But this is not to say that fun interviews are a strict no-no. Quite a few online channels have interviewers who know how to strike the right balance between fun and sincere.
Actors and filmmakers who are known for making serious comments might also be more guarded now, given the online backlash that follows some of their utterances. Actor Parvathy was viciously trolled and abused on various online platforms after she commented on certain misogynistic scenes in a superstar movie. Similarly, actor Nikhila Vimal was also at the receiving end of abusive comments after her statements supporting beef eating. Raising a genuine concern or expressing one’s choices openly is now fraught with the danger of attracting the anger of regressive elements, who often hide behind anonymous accounts. Yet, it is commendable that some of them have stuck to their guns.
Even if they remain silent, the women actors now invariably face a barrage of sexist comments. Younger actors like Anaswara Rajan and Esther Anil, who are just out of their teens, are often victims of uncharitable comments on their attire. The lack of platforms for the public to make such anonymous comments in the past might have spared yesteryear actors from such attacks. Yet, it is these same platforms that have enabled large groups of people to come out and express solidarity with these young actors facing unfair attacks.
From a time when the printed word or the rare television appearance were the only ways for viewers to have an idea of the lives of actors outside their movies, it has now reached a point where every action of the actor in public spaces is watched and scrutinised by admirers and detractors alike. It has at times turned out to be positive for some actors like Tovino Thomas, especially during the time he came out to take part in the flood relief efforts in 2018. On the other hand, there are others like actor and producer Vijay Babu, who came on an infamous Facebook live video and named the survivor after a woman actor raised sexual abuse allegations against him, leading to cyber attacks on her social media profiles. Rape accused actor Dileep’s army of online supporters have also been relentlessly campaigning about his “innocence” and attacking anyone who mentions the allegations against him. It has become easier for those with star power and a following to push false narratives that are favourable to them.
The era of actors being seen more on the screen, than off it, has certainly passed. It has had its positives too, especially in allowing them to maintain somewhat of a personal connection with their fans. There have also been quite a few bright spots amid the epidemic of shallow interviews. But recent episodes have shown that the lines of decency and acceptable conduct are crossed, at times from the celebrity’s side and at others from the anchors’ side, in the mad rush to create the next viral content.