When a superstar-turned-'national figure' like Amitabh Bachchan starts toting graphs and pie charts to show that he is far ahead in television show ratings than a much younger colleague, Shah Rukh Khan, it reveals a great deal about the icon.
A few days on, when the same superstar announces that it was not his intention to indulge in comparisons with colleagues, it reveals a few more layers of the famed star make-up.
These actions are an involuntary admission on Bachchan's part that his iconic status notwithstanding, he is a brand in the market and has to fight for his place in that mercurial space, like anyone else.
Like Shah Rukh, for instance, who consistently trails him in 'all-time popular star' polls. Khan is so damnably comfortable being a brand in the market and having a price. He thinks being priceless is a waste of time in an age of convergence when cinema, television, advertising and live shows form a giant entertainment block, feeding off each other, and offering blockbuster revenue models to he who dares.
This space demands a different kind of star. In the late 1970s and early 80s, when Bachchan became a big name, television was a cottage industry. The big screen was the big turn-on; a star's aura depended in part on mystique born out of his/her remoteness.
But life in the coiled times of 24-hour television, 24-hour entertainment and 24-hour advertisements, promotions and endorsements is totally different. A star is one, whose visage, still or moving, is carpet-bombed in magazines, on TV channels and in ads that sell the good life. It testifies to his popularity and brand value; can you imagine the hard work in being top of the mind of nano-attention spans? It even extends to burning the midnight oil for blog posts to connect to that vast audience with a sudarshan chakra called viewers' response.
But look at the bonanza it fetches through endorsement, that contemporary fairy tale of the marketplace. Endorse a string of products and see your home fires burn brighter, with a film thrown in every year. Whether it is curing indigestion, fanning a neighbour's envy or putting down unimaginable stunts or emotions to fizz bottled inside, how does it matter?
Everything hinges on how you create a persona and positioning to attract the market, meshing personal and professional aspects. Here's where Bachchan and Khan present an interesting contrast.
The aura of 'Shahenshah' Bachchan subtly signals that he may be in the market for whatever reasons but is above it; he is a man of lineage harking back to the literary, cultured old world elite. Thus a mundane ad for a muscle relaxant is couched in ringing poetry as befits his background. Even his critiques of colleagues must sound urbane. Alongside, Bachchan's world is one of 'tradition' as witnessed in the wedding of his son.
It's a persona that has great appeal. It holds out the promise that you do not become what you consume; your past, your 'tradition' and the privilege of heredity remains intact.
In complete contrast, 'Badshah' Khan gleefully admits that the market is his world. That in a shrinking world, possibly the biggest adventure is the act of buying. Whether it is a Kajol in his arms or the keys to a new car, he lights up in the same way. What are you made of, is the punchline of a branded watch ad that Khan does, and it sums up his persona.
In Khan's world, it is all right to desire. In fact in an ad for a dish satellite, he chides the viewers for not asking for more. You don't need lineage; it is possible to create your own world in the present free of the fixities of the past. After all, didn't Khan gargle with a soft drink first thing in the morning in "Dil To Paagal Hai"? No wonder Khan is a first choice mascot for much of the corporate world...
The stakes are high in this world. But for those who inhabit it, it is a land of cash cows and eternal light. Be it Bachchan or Khan, they have to work at sharp silhouettes of personas to keep their individualistic brand values alive.
So one breezily buys (okay, in part) an entire team of cricketers - who at times seem like non-performing assets - and adds another acute angle to his persona. The other, befitting his elder statesman image, works late at night on a 'serious' - almost academic - blog post about the risky business of TRPs. Life is tough, boss.
(Chitra Padmanabhan is a Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)