Fame helps you jump lines in life. It can make you what you are not. It also has its own special gravity that warps people’s judgment about you. Fame, like beauty, needs no explanation. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde).
Reading a piece by David Orr about actor James Franco as a poet in The New York Times, I am yet again reminded of what I have always believed about fame. It gives you credibility where none should accrue.
To Orr’s credit, he does recognize Franco’s celebrity as a powerful factor in his poetry getting critical notices. Orr says, “This book wouldn’t be published by Graywolf (I hope) if James Franco weren’t “James Franco.” James Franco wouldn’t be doing events with Frank Bidart if he weren’t “James Franco.” For that matter, James Franco wouldn’t be getting reviewed right now if he weren’t “James Franco.””
Fame has long been a subject of great fascination for me, particularly the chemistry of fame. Something happens to people in the presence someone famous. They look as if their chemistry has been upended. There is a recognizable alteration in people’s personalities effected by fame.
Almost 25 years ago in one of my two interviews with Amitabh Bachchan I had asked him what it meant to be someone so unsettlingly famous. He was both amused and intrigued by the question and could only say something to the effect that he didn’t quite know how to handle it.
A couple of years ago while traveling in India, I had a taste of someone known for about a nanosecond. I wrote about it in June, 2012. I republish it here. After reading the piece about Franco yesterday, it struck me that in those fleeting seconds of celebrity, I could have told the man who thought I was someone famous anything and compelled him to applaud me. I could have recited my poetry and made him feel exultant. Here is that piece:
Visual fame, as being recognized on sight, is something that has long fascinated me; not so much to be that person but to understand the chemistry and mechanics of it.
I am not talking only about the Amitabh Bachchan kind of raging fame that never seems to dim and carries a massive force field around it all the time. I am also talking about semi-moderate to moderate kind of fame that many others among us have experienced. I mean the TV anchor or TV pundit kind of fame which is incidental to the profession and not integral to it. Also, it is not really earned but grudgingly granted.
Speaking of incidental fame, this morning as I waited for my luggage at the Mumbai airport after arriving from Ahmedabad, something mildly amusing happened. A ground staff member of Go Air, by which I traveled, looked at me with a passing degree of familiarity first. Out of sheer politeness I smiled at him, thinking it was in the nature of his job to greet passengers fidgeting near the conveyor belt.
After about a minute he approached me with a peculiar combination of diffidence and obsequiousness that famous people are known to cause among those who are not famous. “Sir, I have seen you on TV many times and…” he said and trailed off expecting me to complete his sentence. I had to swiftly formulate my response and weigh it so as not to ruin his sense of accomplishment at having spotted a famous person. That is much harder than what you might think.
Here is a total stranger who has invested in my fame and celebrity in such a way that not to be the person he thinks I am could scar him for life. (Literary exaggeration). At the same time though he does not quite know who I really am but suspects I am someone he has seen on TV “many times.”
Before I tell you what I told him, here is a simple fact. I have never been on TV, certainly not in the way the young man thought of me. I have never been on Indian TV. I am not even remotely famous. (Zero modesty here). I have zero visual fame. (Bare fact). It is possible that I look like someone he sees on TV regularly although I am not sure why someone who looks like me would be on TV. (Labored self-deprecation). So please weigh my response against this backdrop.
After about five seconds all that I could tell him was, “Well, I don’t live here but it is nice meeting you.” Both those parts are 100 percent accurate and put together they saved me the unpleasantness of disappointing a perfectly nice young stranger. As I shook hands with him, I am not sure whether he thought my response had vindicated his vague feeling that he had seen me many times on TV or that he was grateful at having been saved the awkwardness of discovering that I was not who he thought I was.
The question that has remained in my mind is whether I should have ended his misconception right there or I should have played along in order that he had a reward, a very inconsequential one but a reward nevertheless, on his otherwise boring job. I do not know the answer to it. What I do know is that fame, even as mild and uncertain as the kind I experienced for about a nanosecond, has that natural adhesive that sticks to you long after life has come unstuck.