In all the time that Amitabh Bachchan lay ill in hospital recently, he kept up a steady stream of Twitter chatter with his 2 million-plus followers, even giving excruciating details of his surgery and his convalescence — and even the spasms of pain he experienced.
As much as Big B shared from his hospital bed — at unearthly hours — what some would have considered private information on the state of his health, he also drew strength from the good wishes and prayers of his followers. He recalled that in 1982, when he was hospitalised for injuries sustained on the sets of Coolie — sending an entire nation into mass hysteria — he used to keep all his fans’ prayers under his pillow. Now, he said, he stored them on Twitter and on his blog.
Likewise, cricketer Yuvraj Singh too readily shared every milestone moment during his treatment for cancer. Although he may have chosen the timing that he went public with his cancer ailment, given that it would have an impact on his cricketing career, he nevertheless seemed disinclined to retreat behind the veil of privacy about his health condition.
There are many such incidences of people in the public domain going public with very intimate details of their state of health. The cynical view might hold that celebrities are squeezing every last ounce of publicity (or at least public sympathy) from their condition, but in fact that’s not always the case. In fact, in some instances, it works the other way: going public may curtain their career progression. Yet they chose to.
One reason for this may be that the Twitter interface allows celebrities to manage the information flow. You reveal only as much as you want to, and in the way that you want to. Where once a star actor might have had to seek out a trusted journalist to present his story in a favourable light (and still have no control over the narrative), s/he now presents small capsules of information that s/he is comfortable with.
When model-actress Lisa Ray was diagnosed with Mutiple Myeloma, a rare form of cancer, in June 2009, she began blogging about it. “I’ve started this blog to give people an insight into my life,” she wrote.
Quite remarkably, and from early on, Ray used her realisation about what was considered an incurable health condition as a force for good, by “wrenching the spotlight onto Myeloma and cancer awareness”. Today, her blogposts are rather more a vibrant celebration of life – and even her “chemo cut”.
And it isn’t just when they face life-threatening situations that celebrities have been known to share intimate details of their health. Aamir Khan, for instance, blogged about it when his wife had a miscarriage. Perhaps it felt cathartic for someone in his position to share it with his followers, and surrender to the waves of sympathy from his followers.
Perhaps there’s something of a lesson there for Sonia Gandhi, who left on Tuesday for a medical examination overseas connected with her cancer cure, but about which she shared no details with the nation whose destiny she presides over as the “power behind the throne”. The Congress party gave out only cursory information on her health condition, saying that she had gone abroad for a “routine” examination — although it bears saying that there’s nothing routine about going abroad for medical tests.
Sonia Gandhi may claim the right to privacy over her health condition, but to the extent that she is the country’s most powerful leader, her health — as Firstpost has noted earlier — cannot be a state secret.
Besides, in an age of “peer counselling”, Sonia Gandhi’s valiant battle against whatever medical condition she faces could be inspirational for people who share her condition — and there's scope for leveraging her narrative in the public good.
It’s unlikely that Yuvi will offer her advice on the merits of going public on her health status. But one of Bachchan’s earlier posts, directed at one of his followers who asked him why he hadn’t gone abroad for treatment, may hold some lessons for Sonia Gandhi, if she were receptive to advice at all.
“Many suggestions coming in to have gone to USA for surgery,” Bachchan noted. “NO! The Indian medical fraternity is competent to deal with situations.”