Indians have looked at heroes with feverish reverence. There was something infectious about sitting in a theatre and applauding Amitabh Bachhan when he growled with revenge, whistling when Salman Khan winked before delivering a solid punch, sighing when Shahrukh Khan raised his arms in surrender to his lady love. Or for that matter, the manner in which we consumed cricket – air punching when Ganguly dada took off his shirt, getting teary eyed when Sachin smashed his centuries, strategizing alongside Gavaskar, mentally patting Dravid’s back for being the hulk.
We can all say that there is something about these heroes – they were a spectacle to watch. They took us away from our boring, mundane lives, and transported us into a world of possibilities. And so, much like Gods, they were worshipped.
But, it seems that something is changing today. There is no concrete idea of a hero that comes to mind. The idea of a role model, or even that of ‘fandom’ does not really exist in the younger generations. Who is the hero of today? What face does the hero have?
There has been a drastic shift in what is expected of larger than life figures in modern times. Earlier, and as recent as the late 1990’s / early 2000s, heroism was about becoming a spectacle – charming because of how highly inaccessible, distant and romantically ideal it was. Today, heroism is slowly becoming more about intimacy. The new hero is one who is not revered for being a God, but is loved for being human. The hero today needs to feel accessible, relatable, flawed – less distant and much closer to real people and their lives.
Part of this shift could be because of the limitless world that Internet has brought. We are thoroughly enjoying the digital power we have acquired, albeit quite late in the global game. Indians born post ’91 (post globalization) have been born into a world of abundant choice and colossal opportunities.
When heroism was about that which is spectacular (from the 70s to the early 2000s – before India was a global player), the cultural story was dominantly of Indians wanting to dream beyond their means. They were living in a much less exposed and developed time, and the spectacular heroes delivered on the power of imagination and escape. This old idea of reverence and role models assumes depravity, and a widespread sentiment of aspiring for something more.
Indian youth today however, has never seen these times of scarcity. They are, by default, global in how they express themselves and consume the world. For them, everything is at the click of a button. They expect to be spoken to directly, to be related to. And the new hero is one who can achieve that intimate connection with them.
We can see traces of how heroism is becoming about intimacy today. Snapchat and Instagram of the new-age celebrities have become the prime PR platforms – how can celebrities connect with their audiences, how can they speak their language. Or for that matter, the kind of followership that bloggers are witnessing. There is something about an unknown, ordinary face, from within the world of the audience making a confident public arrival. Today, celebrities need to belong in the world of the audience, rather than rule it.
Let’s take a specific case. Ranbir Kapoor, one of the most popular actors of today, is drastically different than yesteryear actors. The roles he portrays are not along the lines of a quintessential Indian macho hero – he falters, he cries, he doesn’t get the girl, and he gets beaten up. The younger generation is attracted to how human his portrayals are, how intimately they can relate to his roles.
Another case. Virat Kohli as the new cricket hero is not like Sachin in how he presents himself. He chooses aggression over composure, profanities over sportsmanship, and even publically speaks of his love life outside of cricket. Drastic change from the cricket idols of yesteryears who were loved because of just their game, and their ‘refined’ public personas.
The thing about Intimacy is that it promises a sense of candidness. The younger generation, while born into a limitless world of possibilities and opportunity, are also born into an intense world of performance and competition. There is immense stress to impress, to project and to appear a certain way to win over life. Candidness has become rare in this digital, social media heavy world. It is refreshing to experience. And so, what’s unique to a hero today is how he/she brings that intimacy by unapologetically displaying their candid, real selves.
It is this shift that has made it challenging to down pin the role models and heroes for today’s generation. Celebrity followership has always been an offshoot of what the audience is lacking in their current realities – when the realities have catapulted into something so new, even the notion of heroism is bound to mutate into something new. Who is to say, therefore, who will be the hero in the next ten years….
This shift, interestingly, is also evident in how the younger generation has begun to treat brands. Gone are the days when big brands held an awe factor, when Indians subscribed to them with trepidation. For an entitled generation today, brands need to accommodate them as equals and establish intimate connections.