Saturday, October 08, 2005

Constructing Celebrity in Contemporary India

This post by K got me wondering about the process of celebrity creation in India. I guess after decades of socialist stupor and seeing the mugs of politicians plastered in newspapers day in and day out, we felt the need to invent other stars. The very fact of an increase in celeb population doesn't bother me one bit, in fact I think it makes for a more interesting social scene and adds to our general gossip making potential. What worries me a teeny bit is the uncritical acceptance of the credentials of just about anyone for celebritihood. I'm usually loathe to point accusing fingers at the Indian media (though I do hate the Aajtak website for screwing up my subscription, damn you Prabhu Chawla), because they are pilloried quite a bit already. But seriously, it's not a bad idea to cross check the claims made by some people before providing them with precious newsprint and hence oodles of free publicity. Let me illustrate with two examples:

The first is Arindam Chaudhuri, who's already featured in two blogs because his institute, IIPM, threatened to sue a blogger because he linked to an article that sought to investigate the dubious claims made by his institute in print ads. Arindam is widely introduced as a management guru and visionary in many well-established mainstream publications in India. I have not read his DIY management book, but I do know that no work of his has perhaps ever graced the pages of a peer-reviewed journal. His professional experience is limited to being the Dean at the institute that was founded by his father, which is also where he obtained his MBA degree. Whatever little I've read of his ideas, I shudder to think of a working manager taking them seriously. And yet our man gets feted with awards, features prominently in the media and is a fixture on the management lecture and seminar circuit. I wonder how and why he manages to pull this off.

Arindam Chaudhuri is an extreme example, but there are others who perhaps do deserve their success but are allowed to get away with absurdities just because someone was too bored or lazy to run their press releases through fact checkers. Witness this news item, and I quote:

In fact, Olive - Delhi (there's one in Mumbai too), says its Manager - Operations, Tanvir Nizam, is the only restaurant in India to make it to the Conde Nast Traveller's list in 2004, sharing the honour with Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon.

Wow. Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, are you guys serious? I was quite happy that an Indian restaurant had been judged to be the culinary equal of such greats as The French Laundry, but also puzzled that they had picked one serving pan-Mediterranean rather than Indian cuisine. So I hopped over to the Conde Nast Traveller website, and this is what I find. Turns out it just made it to the list of new restaurants, hence the presence of the august company of Keller, Ducasse and Robuchon, who were opening second or third ventures. The list is picked by Condy's inhouse staff rather than readers, which explains the puzzling inclusion of so many celebrity chef restaurants. So technically the Olive staff are right, but strictly speaking I don't think any serious publication should allow a restaurant to get away with the misleading assertion that they belong right at the top with the best in the world.

Actually the chef behind Oliva/Olive Moshe Shek is quite an intriguing character as well. Curious about the current culinary scene in India I tried to find more information about him. In interview after interview, reporters mention the fact that he worked in a kibbutz as part of his resume as a chef. Now I have friends whose families, or they themselves have lived and worked in kibbutzes, but certainly they didn't think it qualified them to become professional chefs. There is mention of having worked for the Hilton Group, but no mention of specific restaurants, or responsibilities undertaken (was he a line or a sous chef, or a hospitality manager). I'll let pass his reference to Schnitzel as "typical Israeli food" because there is considerable debate about what constitutes "Israeli cuisine".

Also I have my own opinion about this whole business of a restaurant serving pan-Mediterranean cuisine. I mean innovative cusine is exciting, and fusion can work at times, but representing accurately the culinary heritage of a bunch of Mediterranean nations is a great challenge that even the best of chefs can stumble with. I've been cooking and reading up on Greek cuisine for the last three years, and I still feel apprehensive serving a Greek dish to someone who is Greek. I genuinely think I know very little about the cuisine and have a lot to learn, and hence pardon the my skepticism about claims to serve Sicilian, Genovese, Greek, Turkish, and Israeli cuisines, all under one roof. Serving a bunch of cuisines together in one restaurant simply because all use olive oil is as absurd as serving Swedish and Japanese food together, because both have raw fish as ingredient.

But of course, in the current scramble for celeb cred, pan Mediterranean is more exotic than just plain old Lucknowi kebabs. Toss in an Israeli connection, a stint in Switzerland and you've got the foreign mystique. Apparently working in a kibbutz helps as well. And for some, just a ponytail and dorky glasses would do just fine.

14 Comments:

Blogger MAHARAJADHIRAJ said...

Our 'offline' bloggers meet yes'day somehow turned into a rather stale barkfest. Liberalisation Vs the Old Order: overdone, charred, almost to death!! But what came out of it was ovenfresh. Socialist Cuisine! Tell me if you ever wanna try it.

12:44 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Nary a staler bread than that at the Socialist table. Let me know when the Globalization buffet will be served. Hmm..someone still wants the Old Order back?

3:04 PM  
Blogger Gamesmaster G9 said...

Paris Hilton, anyone?

2:14 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

came here thru K's ... u did considerable research for this, i see :-)

4:54 AM  
Blogger Vijayeta said...

Arindam Chaudhary has also launched a production house! His first film BOMBED big time...but he's not given up! He'd be back screaming at his assistants (who do ALL the directing there is!) wearing full-sleeved shirt and tie!
I recently read this survey for The World's Most Pointless People. David & Victoria Beckham topped it!
AARGHHH!

10:19 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Ani, the Paris Hilton saga is one of the wonders of our times. But I don't think the American media had any illusions that she was a ditzy gatecrasher with a famous name. I guess they liked her precisely for those reasons.

Hi Bonatellis, welcome! Nothing 24-hour ethernet access cannot achieve!

Vijayeta, apparently he produced a Bengali movie too (Shanjhbatir Roopkothara - has anyone seen it?). He seems to have an inordinate affection for bandgalas, wears them in every pic of him I ever saw.

Wonder what would the rankings for Most Pointless People in India should be? Perhaps we should compile a list.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Ok so I agree with you. But i think you have been much too forgiving to "such" people. Also so long as we are talking about "fake" celebrities (Ok so at some point I will learn english properly so that I have to stop putting quotes around every second word) you forgot about the market of fraudulent physicists who publish books on physics and offer "expert" comments of subjects they have no clue about. Case in point being The final Theory by Mark McCutcheon (I wont even bother talking about all the ones out there which relate contemporary physics to eastern philospohy). Check this out: http://www.physics.buffalo.edu/~bapowell
/amazon.html
I have been thinking of writing about it for ages but it burns me up so I cant get anything coherent written!

12:38 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hmmm...Adagio, are you perchance referring to The Tao of Physics? My dad used to work for the National Physical Lab and I grew up around physicists, so of course I get just as annoyed by these fraudulent physicists.

What is equally disturbing is the trend among some social scientists to mine ideas developed in natural sciences and engineering (fuzzy logic, stochastic processes, neural networks), appropriate them, and present them as revolutionary new ideas in social theory, without knowing jack about what they mean in the first place.

Please, please, do write the post, and if it turns into a rant, so much the better!

2:51 PM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

yes! precisely! (and there is one more whose name escapes me!). these guys think that anything weird idea one gets can be a physical theory. well its not! otherwise why the {expletive of choice} am i busting my {body part of choice} in my lab trying to figure out if an idea corresponds to physical reality or not!

well the post is going to come at some point. currently not in right place to be posting anything of consequence (as must be obvious from the lack oof posts in past week).

10:07 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Adagio, it's really hard for many to digest that often things are esoteric for a reason, that there are no short cuts to the rigor, hard work and dedication needed to master a body of knowledge. Easier to try and debunk that which we do not understand :)!

10:41 PM  
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Just a month back, his life too was as cozy as theirs was! His family had gone on a vacation to Kashmir! And just when they were about to leave Uri, the earth quake struck! Everyone of his family was lost in it! He went to Delhi by an Army van. None of his relatives were ready to accomodate him. With no one to support him, whatever little wealth his family had, was split among the relatives! Finally, it was decided that he should stop his studies & get back to Delhi to work in his Uncle's kiraana dukhan!

So he is, in the station, on the way to Trivandrum,with his tattered clothes & torn suitcase, that he has been wearing since last week. He would go to the Sainik school in Trivandram and get back his belongings to join the prestigious job in his Uncle's petty shop!

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6:42 AM  
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I have word verification, and I still get spammed?

4:53 PM  
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2:40 AM  

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