Worshipping a Bollywood actress? How backward

A Bombay-based writer is shocked by the British elite’s transformation of Shilpa Shetty into a high priestess of unity.

Sadhvi Sharma

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Bombay, India — In some Western circles, it is fashionable to mock the Indian masses for turning their favourite Bollywood actresses into goddesses to be worshipped. American and European writers have described Bollywood as a ‘great divinity-making machine’, which ‘churns’ out new gods. Some of its stars are ‘literally idolised by their fans’, shocked Western audiences are told, and turned into objects of ‘national devotion’ (1).

Yet now the highest echelons of British society, the educated elite, have transformed Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty into a ‘divinity’. Seriously – that is how she was actually described on a TV show on Channel 4. Following the ‘racist bullying’ controversy on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother, when Shetty was picked on by reality TV star Jade Goody, politicians, journalists and community activists in Britain seem to have elevated Shetty to the role of high priestess of unity; a potential saviour whose grace under fire should be a lesson to us all, and whose values might help to fix a ‘broken nation’ and unite the masses.

And I thought it was we Indians who were supposed to be backward in our love and devotion for the dancing queens of Bollywood?

Many in the West view the wonderfully idiosyncratic world of Bollywood as bizarre. It is true that in Bombay (the name most of us Bombay residents still use to refer to the city), ardent fans will wait for hours outside the gates of certain film stars’ homes, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols – though that happens in Hollywood, too. In South India, some film stars are treated as demigods. In Calcutta in Eastern India there is even a temple for superstar Amitabh Bachchan, where traditional ceremonies of worship are carried out by qualified priests (1). ‘For millions of Asians both at home and abroad, Bollywood is religion. Its screen stars are demigods, its narratives morality tales’, says Satinder Chohan in the UK Guardian (2). Perhaps – but let’s not forget that some locks of Britney Spears’ hair are reportedly up for sale for around £500,000. It is not only in apparently weird India where celebs are treated as oracles these days, and their possessions passed around like pseudo-religious relics.

I admit that, coming from Bombay, land of Bollywood, I have always amused my friends in Britain and elsewhere with outlandish tales about film star worship. Yet now it seems that some Brits are doing an even better job of venerating actors than we Indians ever could.

In India, life has got back to normal following the Shilpa Shetty/Jade Goody uproar last month. Not in Britain. The British political class seems to be clinging to Shetty in the hope that she will inject new meaning and purpose into British politics. It has been revealed that Shetty will speak at a Commonwealth Day event in London in two weeks’ time, which will be attended by the Queen and other assorted dignitaries. Indeed, Shetty looks like she might knock the Queen off her pedestal and become the No.1 symbol of British dignity and poise. She is constantly being praised by the British media for embodying these and other ‘British values’. Tory minister Edwina Currie defended Shetty, a ‘beautiful young lady’, against the villainous ‘slags’ that are Jade Goody and her Celebrity Big Brother cohorts (3).

The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries gushed about Shetty’s embodiment of ‘civility, articulacy and reserve’, while a Daily Mail reader declared that: ‘Shilpa won because of her inner beauty. She is so forgiving and a wonderful human being.’ (4) Inundated with offers of films, more reality TV shows and advertising contracts, Shetty has come to epitomise beauty, grace and decency. Her ordeal on CBB even prompted the UK tabloid the Sun to launch an anti-bigotry campaign. The paper thanked and saluted her for awakening a nation to the ‘evil of racism’ (5). Apparently, Britons were ignorant about the issue of racism until Shetty reached their shores and opened their eyes. Not even in a Bollywood film, where, believe me, anything is possible, has Shetty been offered such a ground-breaking, starring role as that which has been bestowed on her by the British.

Shetty is the victim turned symbol of tolerance turned icon of strength, good will, morality and tradition. The British have transformed a rather boring incident (two celebrities arguing about Oxo cubes on a rubbish reality show) into a melodrama involving forces of good and evil, slags and a dignified Indian; in its fairytale simplicity, it is a match for anything produced by Bollywood in recent years.

Shetty has even been given a privileged tour of the House of Commons, followed by a private meeting with prime minister Tony Blair and an extravagant lunch in the Commons dining room. Labour MP Keith Vaz lauded Shetty, while MPs from all parties fell over themselves to be photographed next to the ‘divinity’. Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights proudly commended the eviction of Goody from CBB because it showed that the British were willing to ‘stand up for an Asian woman’ (6). Phillips said it took Shetty ‘to remind us of what we most value about being British’ – whatever that might be. Like all good prophets, Shetty has opened the British people’s eyes and reminded them of their core values.

It’s worth noting that here in India Shetty is revered for her looks and her popular dance numbers, rather than for her acting or any kind of political/social role. Yet this pretty shallow celeb has been turned into a goddess of anti-racism by elected members of the British parliament and the heads of various quangos.

Shetty, it is hoped, might even save the next generation of Britons from a life of ignorance and prejudice. The British education secretary, Alan Johnson, impressed by Shetty’s calm and tolerance on CBB, says schools should make an effort to focus on ‘British values of justice and tolerance’. Inspired by Shetty’s onscreen experience, Johnson has recommended that schools teach ‘common values that bind communities together’ (7). So a lucky generation of British school pupils might even have Shetty as their role model! How bizarre that Shetty has achieved this status in Britain simply by appearing on a reality TV show; she had to work much harder for reverence in India, with complex and pretty exhausting song-and-dance routines. In Britain she has become a ‘goddess’ just by being shouted at by Jade Goody on a show not many people were watching anyway. At least we Indians expect our stars to do a bit more if they want our love.

Get a grip, Britain. Yes, some Indians ‘worship’ film stars, but only because they think they are beautiful, or they like their dance numbers, or they liked their most recent film. They see Bollywood for what it is: an escape from everyday life. In Britain, some ministers and journalists seem to want to escape having the hard debate about what Britain stands for these days in favour of elevating a Bollywood actress as a symbol of ‘the new Britain’. When film fans in Bihar in India burnt effigies of Channel 4 producers in protest at Shetty’s treatment on CBB, it wasn’t because she represented ‘Indian values’ but because her dance numbers are especially popular in Bihar.

The Indians who ‘worship’ their screen gods and goddesses for taking them on three-hour fantastical journeys in the local cinema look perfectly rational in comparison to a British elite that believes a fading Bollywood actress can save Britain and unite the nation.

Sadhavi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay, and formerly worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) See Temple for God Amitabh Movies India

(2) See Idol moments Guardian, 28 May 1999

(3) See ‘No public audience’ at tonight’s Big Brother eviction, 19 January 2007

(4) See Beauty and the beastliness: a tale of declining British values, Stuart Jeffries, Guardian, 19 January 2007

(5) See Thanks, Shilpa, The Sun, 29 January 2007

(6) See Crocodile tears won’t wash her guilt away, Trevor Phillips, News of the World

(7) See Schools ‘must act on Brother row’, BBC, 21 January 2007

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