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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Small vs silver

TV stars abroad may quality as A-listers; but in India they remain on the C-list

Over the last couple of years I’ve become a fan of Glee, the US television series set in all-American high school. And my favourite character is the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. So, imagine my joy when Jane Lynch – who plays crazy, driven Sue with a delightfully demented gleam in her eye – was chosen to host this year’s Emmy awards. And whatever the fashion fascistas may have thought of Jane’s frocks – cue shock and horror – I thought she did a bang-up job. (And that’s the way Seema sees it!)

But what struck me much more forcibly at the Emmys was the wealth of A-grade stars lined up on the red carpet. In fact, such was the glut of celebrity in the presentation hall that you searched in vain to see an unfamiliar face. There was Gwyneth Paltrow, who won a special award for her guest star turn on Glee. There was Kate Winslet, looking absolutely ecstatic at winning for Mildred Pierce. There was Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame, her legendary curves poured into a shimmering dress that could barely contain them. It was easy to see that this was an A-list gathering – because almost every lady in the room could pass the litmus test of celebrity, with her cellulite and cleavage under the daily scrutiny of the tabloid press.

That’s what set me thinking. If I tuned in to see an equivalent awards show for Indian entertainment television – and yes, you’re right, I wouldn’t really – I would be hard-pressed to recognise a single star. Yes, there would be some faces which would look vaguely familiar. Was that Anandi what’s-her-name from Balika Badhu? Is that the actress who plays the eternal Savitri Bhabhi (not to be confused with the other, much-maligned Savita Bhabhi?
The only faces I could place with some degree of certainty would be the stars of reality television – Rakhi Sawant, Dolly Bindra – but only because the news channels play them up every day in their entertainment shows. And even then I would be hard pressed to tell Veena Malik from Payal Rohatgi or Ashmit Patel from Sameer Soni.

Not because I am some sort of sad snob, but because our entertainment channels don’t really produce A-list stars. Our TV actors may have their 15 minutes of fame while their shows are doing well. But they soon fade away never to be heard of again. Who remembers Gracy Singh, for instance? Or Jassi of Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin? Or even Dakshaben from Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? In fact, the only cast member of that iconic show who survives in our consciousness is Smriti ‘Tulsi’ Irani – and then only because she has since recast herself as a BJP politician and turns up on news channels regularly to give us the benefit of her wisdom.

The truth is that no matter how much transient fame our TV stars achieve during their all-too-brief careers, they never really graduate to the A-list. They never rate a glossy magazine cover, for instance. Nor are they ever signed up to endorse top-end products like sports stars and film actors are.

Contrast this to the kind of stardom that TV actors achieve in the America and Britain. The stars of Friends are still considered to be A-listers. Celebrity magazines are still obsessed with the love lives of Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox. Matt LeBlac may have flopped spectacularly with Joey, but he still has enough star value for a new show – Episodes – to be created around his real-life persona. More recently, the actors of Desperate Housewives and Mad Men have become bona fide stars. In fact, Eva Longoria’s wedding and subsequent divorce was accorded the same treatment as Tom Cruise’s nuptials to Katie Holmes.

In the UK, the stars of Downton Abbey are forever being written up in the press. The British show, The Only Way is Essex – better known as TOWIE – has attained near cult-status. And it’s not for nothing that the legendary British actor, Alec Guinness, followed up his role in Star Wars with the TV mini-series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Across the Atlantic, such is the power of television that even big Hollywood stars think nothing of working in TV shows. At the height of her fame, Meryl Streep starred in a TV series, Angels in America; Glen Close did a magnificent job in Damages and The Shield; Robert Downey Jr dazzled in Ally McBeal; and Alec Baldwin continues to sparkle in 30 Rock alongside Tina Fey.

One measure of the power of these TV shows is how many A listers they can pull in as guest stars. Gwyneth Paltrow in Glee is perhaps the most famous one. But the last season of 30 Rock had Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Bono, Condoleeza Rice, Michael Keaton and Alan Alda come on as guest stars.

Contrast this with India when Bollywood actors only condescend to work in TV serials if their careers have completely collapsed. Otherwise, the only way you can tempt them on to television is to give them several crores to host a quiz show or a reality TV programme. So while Amitabh Bachchan is happy to front Kaun Banega Crorepati and Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt will do the honours for Bigg Boss, and Akshay Kumar will do his usual dare-devilry for Khatron Ke Khiladi, no A-list film actor will ever deign to act in a TV series.

In India, at least, it seems that television is doomed to remain the ‘small’ screen forever, while the biggies strut their stuff on the ‘silver’ one. And more’s the pity.

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