Decoding the stardom of Zubeen Garg — An unpredictable rockstar with a heart of gold
A rockstar is an unplanned, uncontrolled phenomenon. In more ways than one, Zubeen Garg might be one of the last artistes to be called one.
A rockstar is an unplanned, uncontrolled phenomenon. In more ways than one, Zubeen Garg might be one of the last artistes to be called one. His hold over popular culture and imagination in Assam goes beyond anything that public relations, image building or marketing can achieve.
Mercurial and unpredictable, Zubeen is not typically Assamese — the land of lahe lahe (slowly slowly) — in any manner. Yet he receives unconditional love in the state, shining bright despite the head shaking and quiet exasperation that his behavior drives among the educated elite. In a state where heroes are few and far between, Zubeen Garg leads from the front.
Take a look at the last couple of months in his life. On October 30, he left a 15000 strong audience fuming in Patacharkuchi town. One of his sisters was very ill and hospitalised in Jorhat. Slated to perform here, turned up over 2 .5 hours late, explained his predicament onstage and then sung just two songs. Upset with the audience’s ire he thumbed them on their face and walked off even as his manager assured refund of the performance fee. A day later, he sang — smooth as silk — at an event in the capital. In the backdrop of his blow hot, blow cold behavior, there hangs a prison sentence of three months. He slapped a famous advocate’s kid for smoking in public. For a singer whose alcohol fuelled performances in his youth are still spoken about, this can be viewed as a tad bit extreme. But for Gargians, it’s just another day in their icon’s universe.
Garg humbly accepted the court’s verdict on this case of assault and let his current film do all the talking. Directed by respected Assamese filmmaker Munin Barua, Priyar Priyo has become quite a hit in two weeks’ time. Garg’s previous release, Mission China, cost 2 crores to make and broke box office records in the state, pushing Bollywood films out of theatres. Reportedly, Mission China — a masala, dramatic action entertainer — helped reopen over 10 single screen theatres in Assam. Garg’s film played successfully in a Delhi multiplex for three weeks.
That Mission China should become a cinematic phenomenon is baffling, as the film hasn’t won over critics. Noteworthy, that the local Assamese filmgoer has grown up on a diet of decent content made at home. As Gitartha Goswami, a professional music composer quips “Zubeen Garg’s music career is an inspiration for all of us. His contribution towards Assamese and Bengali music will forever be cherished. However, I will keep inspiration limited to his singing only and not include his acting endeavors.”
The singular reason for Mission China’s record-breaking success is Garg’s hold over the state’s popular imagination. And it’s not just limited to making music. The singer’s guerilla antics and flawed behavior make local folk connect with him like a friend and guide. He took a bike ride on the Dhola- Sadiya Bridge, an engineering feat, before it was inaugurated and put up a video on Youtube. When devastating floods hit Assam again, he went door to door in Guwahati asking for clothes, medicines and contributions. He runs a charity where he donates in big amounts for various causes. He took on the raging issue over paid ACS (Assam Civil Services) recruits by pointing out that while his father is among the original, hard working, meritorious cadre of this service, the scammers should be jailed. He also promised to expose the scam further in his next film Kanchanjunga. His good work is equally balanced with his random acts of rage and misbehavior, as each little thing that he does feeds media headlines regularly.
Dr Smritimala Sarmah, Assistant Professor at B Borooah College, Guwahati, explains this: “Local media (in Assam) capitalise on overhyping everything about Zubeen Garg. It may be his misbehavour at an event or his charitable contributions. He is influential but from interactions with people around him, he is a good human being, above all else. I know some people who worked on Mission China. They say Zubeen gives equal importance to every unit member. He/she may be a light man or the actress of the movie.”
Interestingly, as a young, impactful singing talent, Zubeen Garg bubbled with the effervescence of youthful abandon, rather than responsible behavior. Like Assam’s biggest cultural icon, Dr Bhupen Hazarika, Garg brought in originality, freshness and optimism with his early music. Speaking to fans that have grown up on his music present a turning point in his life.
Maharshi Goswami, a Child Rights consultant who has grown up on Garg, encapsulates his music as “Rooted in Assamese sentiments and touched up with Western melody, his earlier songs were gems. But with the unfortunate demise of his siter Jonky Borthakur, the course of his music changed towards the populist and commercial. No doubt, his sea of well-wishers and followers remain, given his present inclination towards helping local people. But it will be pleasant to hear his old sounds that remind us of the cassette tape era.”
Gradually, Zubeen shunned Bollywood music and focused on a revival of Assamese songs. Be it the popular Bihu numbers that exhaust you during the festive season, or classics like Borgeet, Loko Geeti and his signature pop ballads, the singer sang and encouraged all. Assamese music got a fillip in business, and Zubeen’s wealth grew exponentially. Which is when he began giving back substantially to charity. And he isn’t afraid to wade into politics or controversy.
Zubeen was in focus amongst the sea of lakhs of people that queued up to pay tribute to Dr Bhupen Hazarika on his death. He fondly reminisced about the legendary singer, artiste, traveller and poet. An achiever unlike many others, and a wanderer who made back packing a life choice before it became cool, Hazarika’s poetic songs resonate with the Assamese till date. His pure approach to the state made him so popular that his funeral holds a world record in tributes. Garg has big shoes to fill there, but seems to be on the right path. Only his natural born unpredictability could come in the way of this game changer whose life has many lessons for all those who aspire to become icons.
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