How Big B has pushed India to a regressive low

MINU JAIN writes from New Delhi: The family that prays together stays together. That seems to be the mantra of the Bachchans as they hotfoot it from one temple to another in the run-up to son Abhishek‘s wedding to Aishwarya Rai. And a star struck nation, denied of any real news of the wedding of the year, eagerly laps up the superstitious journeys of Bollywood’s numero uno family.

It’s the year when archaic terms like manglik jumped out of the matrimonial columns of newspapers to page one, when our screen idols moved out of the silver screen to grace temples across India as they bowed down to blind belief, and when the paparazzi failed to get any real news and compensated by covering every detail of the temple visits.

And filmdom’s ultimate screen icon Amitabh Bachchan, wife Jaya, son Abhishek and to be daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, a formidable family unit with millions of rupees riding on them and millions of fans following every move, are singularly responsible.

From November, when Bollywood’s hottest couple went public with their relationship, to now, the Bachchan family have been seen outside numerous temples genuflecting before the gods that be, and to every superstition in the book.

In a country where astrologers are consulted before business planners when starting a new venture, where a much-in-love couple has to call off their relationship because their horoscopes don’t “match”, where women are relegated to second position and where religion and politics have come to make a combustible mix, the Bachchans aren’t exactly the best role models.

They began their religious quest in November when they visited the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi in the dead of the night reportedly to get Ash married to a tree because she was a Manglik, astrologically Mars bearing.

It was the first confirmation that the couple were getting married. And photographs of the family, with a deglamourised Aishwarya’s forehead smeared with vermilion, with Abhishek and his parents (and Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh of course) had the nation giddy with excitement.

From uber success and glamour, Aishwarya was suitably reduced to bahu status, head bowed demurely and the Bachchans took on patriarchal dominance.

Just like it is in much of feudal India.

It was also an opportunity for much of India to brush up on their terminology. Hey, what exactly is a manglik? How does one describe the term? Do you really have to get married to a tree to ensure your husband doesn’t die? Those were the questions doing the rounds of not only media offices that had to write the story, but also of many drawing rooms.

In the end, whether Aishwarya really got married to a peepul tree in Varanasi, a banana tree in a Bangalore temple and a god’s idol in Ayodhya as was widely reported didn’t really matter.

The damage had been done. Father-in-law Amitabh—rings of every stone and hue on his fingers obviously to ward off the evil eye flashing from every photograph—denied that she had done so. But who cared. By that time, the message had gone down.

The powerful Bachchans are as susceptible to the worst kind of superstition as the next person. To expect them to be different and help stem the regressive slide of Indian society would obviously be too much.

Since then, the media—and all of us—have faithfully followed their travels to the Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur on Amar Singh’s birthday, their much publicised 15 km trek to the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai (the favourite of all the stars), and some more to help Aishwarya’s smooth induction into the family.

In the latest, Bachchan senior and his confidants, industrialist Anil Ambani and Amar Singh, have visited the Tirupati temple and offered Rs.5.1 million each to the temple trust, one of the richest in the country. Amitabh, who is said to have also donated 100 kg of gold, placed a card for his son’s wedding on April 20 at the deity’s feet.

The motive was honourable no doubt—for poor children and hospital facilities in Tirupati. But Tirupati presumably doesn’t need the money, other places could do more with it.

One of the few signs of protest came from a Bihar feminist lawyer, Shruti Singh, who filed a PIL against the Bachchans in the Patna High Court.

“The rituals performed by Aishwarya, Amitabh and Abhishek would only promote superstitions and blind faith among common people,” says a furious Shruti.

It could so easily have been different. It is the same Amitabh who has been hugely successful in making a dent in the campaign against polio simply because he has such a huge following and people believe in him. He tells us what to drink, what suiting to wear and what battery to use.

He could also use his power over the people to deliver a progressive, rational message through his personal life.

But that is not to be.

If this can happen to Aishwarya Rai, who symbolises ultimate power, money and success, think of other women in India. She should have broken the stereotype instead of becoming one. The Bachchans have failed India.

Did anyone say religion should be a private matter?

Photograph courtesy Rajesh Chaurasia/ Associated Press