The euphoria of epic proportions surrounding Kabali, which was released on Friday, poses one important question: Why do Indians have such an astonishing penchant for idolisation? Be it Rajinikanth or Sachin Tendulkar or Narendra Modi—or Indira Gandhi in the past—Indians, especially those who live south of the Vindhyas, stretch their adulation for their icons to extremes.
Psychologists call it Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS), a relatively new subject that caught their interest. The first major study on the subject was published in 2002 by American psychologists Lynn McCutcheon, Rense Lange and James Houran. This was followed in 2003 by a larger study by John Maltby, James Houran and Lynn E McCutcheon. But neither study talked of a Celebrity Worship ‘Syndrome’. The CWS they referred to was, in fact, Celebrity Worship ‘Scale’ which measured the madness.
It was in his story Do you worship the celebs? about the 2003 study that journalist James Chapman took the liberty to expand CWS to Celebrity Worship Syndrome. But no psychologist objected. When taken to ridiculous extents, it was after all a syndrome: an undesirable mental condition.
That the western psychologists found it necessary to delve into the phenomenon should reassure Indians that it’s not an ailment unique to just India. But in the west, fans don’t build temples for celebrities. Indians do. And they do it with gusto and without shame. Look at these bizarre examples:
---Two temples were built for Sonia Gandhi in 2014 in Telangana, one in Mahbubnagar district and the other at Mallial in Karimnagar district, both in gratitude for her creation of the new state. Vanamvari village in Telangana’s Khammam district has a temple, raised in 2011, for former Congress chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy.
---And we have, of course, temples for Ambitabh Bachchan at Kolkata, for Kushboo at Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu (built in 1992 but demolished in 2005 after she supported premarital sex) and for Namitha at Tirunelveli, also in Tamil Nadu.
---Nathamedu on the outskirts of Chennai has one temple for AIADMK leader MG Ramachandran, and Samireddipalli in Vellore district has another for DMK head-honcho M Karunanidhi.
---Sachin Tendulkar has a sanctum sanctorum for himself at Atarwalia in the Kaimur district of Bihar, built in 2013.
---Dalit admirers of Mahatma Gandhi put up a temple for him at Bhatra village in the Sambalpur district of Odisha in 1971.
---In August 2011, when Rajinikanth recovered from a kidney ailment, 1,008 fans of his shaved off their heads and prayed as part of a thanks-giving ritual.
Psychologists have been discovering evidence to prove that celebrity worship in its extreme form is linked to poor mental health. Published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 2003, the study by John Maltby and others, titled A clinical interpretation of attitudes and behaviours associated with celebrity worship, hypothesised three kinds of it.
1. Low-level celebrity worship for entertainment-social reasons, which may reflect extroversion personality traits;
2. Medium-level, intense-personal attitudes and behaviours that may reflect neuroticism; and
3. High-level worship of a borderline-pathological nature that may indicate uncontrollable behaviour, fantasy, hallucination and other traits of psychoticism.
Looking up to a hero or an achiever as a role model with a view to emulating him is both normal and perhaps even desirable, but crossing the threshold of logic clearly raises mental health questions. Some researchers have attributed acute celebrity worship to depression, paranoia and low self-esteem.
It’s possible that people who are denied of normal relationships are taking comfort in imagined associations with celebs and getting vicarious kicks. As for India, it’s also likely that the multiplicity of Hindu gods also makes Indians see an Almighty in each celebrity they are mad about.
I am inclined to believe that CWS can also be case of exhibitionism—in the literal sense of that word, but not as psychologists Charles Lasegue or Sigmund Freud defined it in a sexual context. In other words, some CWS sufferers are not just content with adoring their idols but want you to know it and get some attention for themselves. The urge to seek attention, called Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD), may be the real driving force behind some fans doing the weirdest things.
In the case of film stars, sports icons or other artistes, some of the absurd cases of this syndrome may also be gimmicks orchestrated for publicity. And some cases in politics may just be pretended sycophancy to feed egos. Personality cult is, after all, the foundation on which stands the edifice of Indian democracy, doesn’t it?
But in sum, celebrity worshipping in its pathological version is a consequence of an undesirable state of mind.
But it isn’t as bad as you think
Maltby’s research established that only about two percent of CWS victims really crossed the last boundary of sanity. More or less, this proportion may be true for India, though this study was done in a different continent and at a different time. It would be something like this: Out of every 100 fans of Rajinikanth, some 90 of them just love the man and keep him in their hearts. About 10 of them can’t stop talking about him and even rain posts and tweets on social media. And a handful of them enter the Land of the Absurd. But in a country as populous as India, tiny proportions can mean big numbers.
Another happy thing: It has been proved in India that such a mental process can be reversible in politics.
For instance, Telugu Desam Party founder NT Rama Rao, who trounced the Congress in 1983 in Andhra Pradesh, largely on account of his being a film icon, was voted out of power in 1989. His slogan of “Telugu self-respect” and his campaign against corruption by the Congress government also contributed to the magic, but the problem was that not only people thought he was a demigod, even he believed he was one. He lost.
And “worshippers” have been rapidly abandoning the Gandhi clan in favour of the new national icon Modi or other regional heroes—and heroines.
Fans and fan-atics are not exactly the same, though they share some traits.
The author tweets @sprasadindia