That Vinod Khanna photograph: Obituary on the death of Human Decency and Privacy
On April 27, 2017, actor-politician Vinod Khanna passed away.
Human Decency died before him. Three weeks earlier or thereabouts.
She will be back, of course. Decency, after all, has died many deaths and been reborn each time due to her good karma. She has died down the ages in world wars, riots and concentration camps, each time women and Dalits have been assaulted over the centuries, whenever a pedestrian does not help an old person cross a road, when a healthy young passenger does not offer a seat on the Metro to a pregnant woman, when a man was killed on suspicions of having beef in his fridge in 2015 and this year when another was murdered for transporting cows to a dairy farm.
Privacy is a different creature altogether. She has been gasping for oxygen ever since the mainstream media explosion at the turn of the century in India and the emergence of the social media. Human beings have intruded on each other in the past too, but this is a last straw. She may now never again walk in our midst.
Somewhere around the first week of April, approximately 20 days before Vinod Khanna passed on, Human Decency and Privacy died too.
He was exquisite, with the appearance of strength that could wallop many men at one go. If this were his obituary, a discussion of Khanna’s work would get precedence over his looks, but in the context of his demise, his enduring beauty merits a primary reference because the visual has dominated the art in the public eye in recent weeks.
Even if you are just a casual social media user, you are unlikely to have escaped that photograph of Khanna in hospital in what turned out to be his dying days: not the strapping fellow we once knew, but a frail, pale shadow of his former self, embracing his wife Kavita who stands on one side while on the other, a young man leans fondly against him. It was shared and re-shared scores of times on Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms with the caption: “can u identify this famous cine star-cum-politician....? He is Vinod Khanna... Suffering from advanced stage of urinary bladder cancer” (sic).
Three things struck me as I watched with horror people invading a weak old man’s personal space.
One, the photograph does not seem to have been surreptitiously taken. Two, although it captured an intensely private moment (Khanna is not even fully clothed in it), someone thought it fit to pass it on. Three, once it was out in the public realm, it was circulated ad nauseam by individuals and media platforms, by those expressing shock at his decline and even by some expressing shock that others were sharing it without seeing the irony in their disapproval.
Taken together, this triad of circumstances tells us a lot about the society we have become and how we must guard against ourselves.
Learning to say no in the social media age
In the photograph under discussion, Kavita Khanna is looking straight at the camera – unless that happened accidentally, it suggests that the picture was taken with permission, not from a peephole or a hidden device. We do not know yet whether that is indeed the case, and whether the family posed willingly for their own album or, as happens so often these days, reluctantly in an instant of social awkwardness when someone whipped out a camera in a private space and asked for a photograph. Perhaps we will find out some day.
Whatever be the case, the point is, the ubiquitousness of cellphone cams and social media junkies today means that you do not have to be a VIP at a public function to find yourself routinely in situations where people are clicking without asking.
Even at gatherings of family and close friends, it is possible that just seconds after shovelling a spoonful of biryani into your mouth or dancing with gay abandon as if no one but your best buddies are watching because, well, you genuinely thought no one but your best buddies were watching, you could find yourself tagged on Facebook or Instagram in a picture freezing that scene for posterity.
If you spot the taker and ask them to stop, you risk being labelled a snob or a spoilsport, but if you do not object, keep this in mind: if it is shot, chances are it will be uploaded online; and if it is online, chances are it is being viewed by a general population, most of whom do not really give a damn about you.
It is one thing for this to happen in happy circumstances, but a friend recently told me with disgust of a funeral she attended where people took pictures of the body and posted them on Facebook. The world is going crazy in its rejection of earlier norms of privacy.
It is not easy, but if we want the private to remain private, we must learn to say no. Life is not a popularity contest. True friends will understand, and those who do not are probably among those who would write below your holiday photograph with your husband on Facebook, “hot couple…so much love!” before turning to the person seated next to them and saying, “Do you know he is having an affair with the neighbour?”
So, say no for yourself and on behalf of those dear to you who are too vulnerable to put their foot down. Because if you stop to worry about how the other person might react, what happened to Khanna could very well happen to someone you love – even if not on the scale it happened to him due to his movie-star status.
Even if you have faith in the person who took that snap, that video or audio recording, once it is taken, it is out of your hands, possibly even theirs. A million things could go wrong – cellphones get lost, computers get hacked, technology plays up. What if you trusted the right person but they trust the wrong person? What if you chose the wrong person to trust?
If there is a video, still pic or audio recording we are sure we would never ever want anyone else in the world to see or hear, maybe it is best not to allow it to be taken in the first place. After all, the spouse with whom you made that sex tape may break up with you and go rogue.
Once that picture is out there…
My first reaction on seeing that image of Khanna was to ask, “If it was your father, would you have distributed this picture?”
Wrong question, because in a fast-changing India, there are folks out there whose answer might be, “yes.” We live in an era when honeymooning couples post photographs of themselves in bed together and parents upload naked pictures of their kids on social media. So the question has to be: what gave you the right to share that picture on a public platform without the subject’s permission?
Hindi television actor Kiran Karmakar was among those who protested when Khanna’s picture was being tossed around. “STOP POSTING VINOD KHANNA'S PHOTOS. Don’t bother him. HE'S OUR HERO. LET HIM BE ..,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Most of his followers agreed, but one, a lady called Jagruti Desai Shah, dug her heels in and demanded to know: “What is wrong in praying for him? I am not able to understand logic behind this. When you are hero, people paid to buy magazines to look at them and worship them. Now they are in bad health people have write to see them and express their feelings. People need to think about this when you enter public life. You can not be selective about your public presence. It is all or none.” (sic)
“All or none”? Unthinking though it is, this is a commonly held position. So if no line is drawn, is it okay to place hidden cameras in hotel rooms and bedrooms where celebrities are having sex or spending time alone with their children? To fly helicopters over private property in France for a photograph of Kate Middleton topless, as European paparazzi have done? Or to race Diana, Princess of Wales, down a road in Paris for a photograph of her with her boyfriend?
In any case, it is unclear why fans need a visual of a sick celeb to pray for him. Artists do not enter public life to allow us into their bedrooms, bathrooms and hospital rooms, nor do we get to demand this of them. They enter public life to let us in on their art. Anything beyond that is a bonus they may choose to offer, if at all they do. And unless they are indulging in criminal or socially detrimental activities, we have no right over their personal lives.
Success is not a favour society grants to artists. Success is a reward for their hard work and the joy they have given us.
Some well-meaning journalists and others focused their objection to the publication of Khanna’s photograph on their desire to remember him by his youthful looks, holding that the invasive hospital photograph marred our memories of his handsomeness. They are missing the point.
Age can be and is lovely, even if illness is not. Could it possibly be their contention that old people should be hidden away from our gaze? The debate here is about choice and consent. We do not get to make decisions on behalf of others in the matter of privacy.
No one had any business being with Khanna in that hospital room except those he wished to have around him – no one, not even our prying eyes gazing at that photograph.
The fact that he did not issue a statement about his illness should tell us that he considered it a private matter. However much we may disagree with that decision, to have shared that picture in such circumstances was an act of extreme insensitivity.
In a tribute published after his death, senior journalist Bharathi S. Pradhan wrote: “In his last days, nobody but Vinod’s family was encouraged to visit the hospital, which was entirely understandable. Anyone who knew Vinod Khanna would know that he prided himself on his Punjabi robustness and would have opposed letting anyone see how the disease had shrunk him out of existence.”
Yet, when someone chose to photograph him at his weakest, scores of people claiming to be well-wishers chose not to respect his wishes. Vast sections of the media too carried that photograph, under the guise of reporting the online leak. (Note: Firstpost did not publish the aforesaid photograph on the grounds that, as mentioned in an April 7 article, “it would have constituted a gross violation of the actor’s privacy, as well as that of his family”.)
In 1997, when Diana was killed in an accident following a paparazzi chase, the late legendary journalist Vinod Mehta was on television discussing the difference between the Indian and Western media, and why Diana’s death could not have happened that way in India. He recalled a Western newsperson expressing amazement to him about the fact that the Indian press had spared Sonia Gandhi – the young, attractive widow of a young, attractive late prime minister –instead of swarming around her home, investigating possible affairs and so on. Soon afterwards, Atal Bihari Vajpayee became India’s PM for a third time, but his long-time live-in companion was not even mentioned in newspapers till she passed away in 2014. Indian news platforms still avoid speculating about our politicians’ romantic liaisons, keeping their eyes firmly focused on netas’ lawfully wedded spouses. However, coverage of movie stars’ hook-ups and break-ups – once only the subject of film gossip magazines – is now regular fare in the mainstream media.
In the 20 years since 1997, we have been inching inexorably towards the disgraceful paparazzi culture of the West.
We are still not there. We are still not planting photographers in trees opposite the homes of screen idols or flying aircraft over their mansions. Hordes of camerapersons still do not station themselves outside hotels and restaurants to take random shots of emerging guests in the hope that they may, just may, catch a star – minor or major – that a media publication would pay for. This is the Western reality that the Indian media has thankfully not yet imbibed.
Still, with this episode involving the photograph of a dying man, India turned a dismal corner in the mainstreaming of tabloid sensationalism and society’s participation in it.
R.I.P. Vinod Khanna.
R.I.P. Human Decency and Privacy.
Updated Date: May 06, 2017 17:45 PM