The new celebrity circuit
When the A-list drops into India, where does it go?
By the time you read this, the great starship Oprah will have departed our shores after getting a taste of India (‘it’s life Gayle, but not as we know it’). The Winfrey whirlwind started in Mumbai and then tore through the rest of India with a breathless intensity. Oprah partied with Bollywood, was serenaded by children, went shopping in quirky little stores, stopped by a temple, attended a literary festival, and even managed to squeeze in some paparazzi-bashing (quite literally, as her bodyguards manhandled the media entourage waiting to greet her in Vrindavan).
But while nobody got a real sense of what Oprah Winfrey is all about – except that she is an expert manipulator of her own image – by the end of her visit one thing was clear: India now has a new celebrity circuit in place. Sure, the old delights still feature and Oprah dutifully dropped by to be photographed open-mouthed at the Taj Mahal in Agra, but there is a brand-new itinerary in place for visiting celebs.
First up is Bollywood. It is now a truth universally acknowledged that any A-list visitor to India has to hook up with some Indian film star or the other. Hugh Jackman danced with Shah Rukh Khan at an event when he visited Mumbai. Tom Cruise was shadowed by his MI 4 co-star Anil Kapoor during his recent visit. And Oprah’s first stop in Mumbai was at the Bachchan residence where she renewed her acquaintance with Aishwarya and Abhishek (who have appeared on her show) and met their new-born daughter.
Next up is Parmeshwar Godrej. You clearly don’t rate as a bona fide celebrity unless Parmesh throws a party for you. And her guest list is pretty eclectic taking in everyone from Imran Khan and Jennifer Saunders to Richard Gere and now – yes, that’s right – Oprah Winfrey. The beach shimmers, the champagne flows , the stars shine bright and the conversation sparkles as Mumbai’s A list queues up to have its picture taken with the guest of honour.
And then, there’s Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame, who is to Mumbai what Mother Teresa was once to Calcutta. If there is a celebrity in town, then Roberts won’t be far behind, organising a visit to the Mumbai slums that featured so prominently in his book. Madonna and Oprah were only the latest celebrities to have been given the grand tour, but you can be sure that they won’t be the last.
In fact, poverty tourism itself has become quite the rage as visiting celebrities vie with one another to visit the ‘real’ India (you know, the one that featured in Slumdog Millionaire). Cue, trips to deprived neighbourhoods, shanty towns, orphanages, crowded railway stations, even sleepy villages. The entire entourage descends on the chosen spot, wearing horrified expressions, SPF factor 50 sunblock and baseball caps, clutching bottles of mineral water in their sanitized hands and trying very hard not to inhale. Some go back home and write cheques to assuage their guilt, others just wash away the grime under the power showers in their 5-star hotel and move on to the next stop.
Those whose sensibilities are not quite up to all this hard-core stuff, get their ‘slice of Indian life’ stuff from the temples. Ever since the Beatles fetched up at Rishikesh to stay at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in the 60s to learn a bit of transcendental meditation (and a spot of levitation while they were at it) India has been the favoured destination of spirituality junkies. Pushkar, which has the only Brahma temple in India, is a favourite stop as are some of the more famous shrines in south India like Tirupati.
But the recent success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love and its movie version featuring Julia Roberts has given a fresh fillip to this industry. Now, there is a new influx of celebrities descending on India, keen to find themselves through fasting, meditation and some light chanting. Madonna was seen at the Nathdwara shrine in Rajasthan, Mick Jagger is said to be a regular visitor to temples in and around Jaipur and Udaipur, and Oprah herself put in an appearance at the Ma Dham in Vrindavan to film the widows (without permission, as it turned out, but that – as they say – is another story).
On the scenic front, too, things have changed. Rajasthan is still a great draw, but the celebs are increasingly plumbing for small, off-the-beaten path, family-run properties like Deogarh over the big hotel chains. Goa is now officially passé. Kerala is where it’s at, with the backwaters scoring effortlessly over the beaches. And Dharamsala is the new Rishikesh, with the Dalai Lama proving to be an irresistible draw to all those newly-minted Buddhists in Hollywood with Richard Gere (yes, him again!) leading the way.
Yes, there is a new celebrity circuit in India now. And once Oprah airs that India special on her cable network, I’m guessing that it’s going to get a tad crowded.