Time was when a nation was judged by it's heroes. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi all did just as much for national image as they did for their people. Then the navel-gazing, oil-paranoid Nineties happened, and most countries lost the right to claim any kind of heroism at all. The Noughties have somehow brought things full circle, and in these consumerist times, a country is often judged by the brands it's idols endorse. Just as brands are judged by the celebrities that endorse them. So for every retired punk rocker doing serious damage to his credibility by selling insurance on the telly, there's a Gillette or Nike distancing themselves from a philandering Tiger Woods. And just as national heroes once upon a time rebelled against injustice or stood up for those trampled upon, they now kick balls great distances, or compose angsty guitar lullabies. The times they are a-changing, indeed.
Whether or not heroism is a quality attributed too easily today is a debate for another day. I spent much of my day -as did at least a few million other Indians, I suspect- in front of the telly, watching the national cricket team pull off an astounding victory over sworn enemy and perpetual rival, Pakistan. The pace was set by a typically robust start from Sachin Tendulkar, a man who has long been elevated to the status of a cricketing God (is there any other kind?), and sustained marvelously by Virat Kohli, the most promising batsman India has produced since the Fab Four. The 23-year old Kohli is a bonafide youth icon, who has backed up the millions he earns in endorsements with stellar performances for his team(s) time and again.
The commentator delved a little deeper into Kohli's psyche, musing aloud that it was perhaps a means of staying focused on the team's goal after surpassing a considerable personal milestone, or indicative of the desire and hunger of the younger generation or some such psychobabble. Maybe his parents didn't love him enough, I don't care. I did notice he contrasted Kohli's celebrations to Tendulkar's, a man who has scaled practically every statistical peak that populates the game, and goes about it in muted, dignified fashion. I didn't think it was fair to compare two individuals on what is essentially a personal expression of joy, and I'm still not convinced his theory goes any deeper than "to each his own".
A few minutes after his comment however, an ad came on featuring the man of the moment, Mr. Kohli himself. It was for Fair and Lovely, a much-maligned and much-in-use cosmetic product that promises to lighten the complexion of one's skin. India has long debated the morality (or lack of it) in promoting ''fairness'' of skin as a (key) determinant of beauty in a country where the majority of the population is dark-skinned. Questions have been raised about whether it is ethical for celebrities to endorse fairness products, and whether these products even work, but the cosmetic industry lobby has always teacupped such storms with a minimum of difficulty.
I wouldn't fault somebody for having a distinctive preference for a sexual partner of a particular complexion (it's as straightforward as preferring blonde to brunette, or tall women to midgets, whatever), but I do feel strongly against establishing one common standard of beauty for a billion people. If nine year olds today feel towards Kohli anything similar to the fanatic devotion I felt towards a then-20-year-old Tendulkar, they're investing a lot on this talented young man - hopes, dreams, aspirations, even life lessons. Tendulkar was the perfect role model - the Doogie Houser of cricket- with his prodigious talent, and his impeccable behavior on and off the field. And in almost twenty two years of professional cricket -and hundreds of advertisements- never have I seen him endorse a product of questionable character.
Tendulkar seems like one of those kids you wouldn't really want to hang out with in school simply because he was too determined and too focused to be fun company. (Would you really want to hang out with Doogie Houser?) Frankly, he's missed out on more than he will ever realize if his squeaky-clean image is entirely true. Kohli on the other hand has- or used to have- a bit of a reputation as a partying type, and I hope he gets his share. I'd never put pants on during off-season if I were him. I do hope however that he chooses wisely when he lends his name and his credibility to consumer goods. The current generation of adolescents don't have to wait for a game or concert to catch their heroes in action - they're constantly hanging on to their every word and action on social networks and cable TV. It'd be a shame if the only lesson a 9-year old fan takes away from someone as successful and driven as Virat Kohli is how far he or she is from the ideal colour spectrum. Maybe Kohli could bottle his excess anger and offer the world an alternative source of energy instead.
Image sources: V. Kohli, S. R. Tendulkar