Crocodile tweets: Mourning Hangal in the age of Twitter

Bollywood came out in full force to mourn the passing of AK Hangal, the grand old man of Indian cinema. At least they came out in full force on Twitter.

Everyone was there with their RIPs — Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Kapur.

In the real world only a handful of Bollywood’s best and brightest showed up for the actual cremation of the man Anupam Kher extolled (on Twitter, of course) as the “Marathon Man of Hindi cinema”. Raza Murad, who did attend the cremation of the 98-year-old veteran of over 200 films, said it was sad no industry big wigs showed up for Hangal’s last rites. Obviously they were too busy tweeting their respect.

This is the age of Twitter tears where mourning can be accomplished in 140 characters or less. What was created as a micro-blogging tool has become a tool for micro-mourning. As soon as anyone dies, from AK Hangal to Steve Jobs, our celebs pull out their mobiles and tap out their condolences — an exercise that is way more reflexive than reflective. Everyone gets a tweet from Hangal to Neil Armstrong — it's part of the death rituals.

AK Hangal. PTI

Mourning by Twitter has become a win-win for everyone (except perhaps the poor dead person but he is dead anyway.)

The stars can just parade their mourning in front of the whole world. Their Twitter tears are preserved for posterity.

The media, delighted to not have to chase stars down for their reminiscences, can string the tweets together into a quick Twitter-tuary. Sometimes the Twitter-tuary becomes the actual obituary. When Gautam Rajadhyaksha, the ace photographer, died the initial reports were low on any biographical details but stuffed to the gills with inane tweets from every star with a Blackberry. The lazy journalist’s first imperative when news of a death break is not to reach for their rolodex but to log on to Twitter.

It allows everyone to pretend a kinship they might not have had in real life with the dead person. So even an Ashmit Patel can ask for a “moment of sannata (silence) for the grand ol’ man  of Indian cinema." Honestly, in a pre-Twitter world would anyone have cared what Ashmit Patel felt about AK Hangal? But now he’s part of the  grand Twitter round-up of Bollywood’s reactions, on par with the heroes Hangal had worked with for decades.

Of course, mourning via Twitter is not just the prerogative of the stars. When Steve Jobs died, researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute tried to track the memorial tweets around the world. The sheer volume overwhelmed their computers. (You can check out a graphical representation of Twitter-grief here.) Who is to say our sentiments were more genuine than those of Taylor Swift who tweeted "I never met Steve Jobs, but I always wanted to." “In public mourning, we mourn ourselves and recognise our own mortality,” writes Meghan O’Rourke in The New Yorker.  But with our celeb rudaalis of Bollywood, public mourning via Twitter is more about public relations than communal catharsis.

Otherwise why would so many of our stars need to tag their love for Riteish Deshmukh after his father’s death? Really, if you “love” Riteish that much how about picking up the phone? Or sending him an email? Or visiting with him once he got back from Chennai? What need is there to make sure that the world knows that you are thinking of him right now? What happened to one-on-one communication to express condolences?

There is always an element of public spectacle to a celebrity death. When Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s reigning superstar died in the eighties in the pre-Twitter, pre-cable television days, Doordarshan just parked itself next to the body. And Bengalis parked themselves in front of the television watching the who’s who of Tollywood show up with their wreaths. When Rajesh Khanna died this year we switched between channels not so much to hear what they had to say about the life and legacy of Kaka but to play celeb-spotting at Aashirwad. But Khanna was still lucky. His superstardom ensured that the cream of Bollywood showed up for his last rites even in the age of Twitter.

Hangal was not big enough a star to merit that. There was little to be gained from making that much effort for a 98-year-old man, especially one who had to face the wrath of the Shiv Sena back in the day. It is true that stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty did come through for Hangal in his last years. When his son was unable to pay his medical bills they helped out. But for most of Bollywood, the man they are now mourning as the “grand ol’ man” of Indian cinema was long off the radar. Twitter wreaths were more than enough mourning for him. The Twitter gush is especially obnoxious, creating as it does an appearance of mourning, that’s both pro-forma and fake.

It would have been better if no one had bothered. We would have been spared the Twitter tripe and the sannata would have at least spoken volumes as it did in Hangal saab's famous scene in Sholay.

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