Of Icons and Living Legends

Living legends and charismatic figures, they arouse admiration, respect and love — By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Icons hailing from diverse spheres of public life connect people in a country in a special way. They are symbols people need as references insofar as they epitomize the aspirations, ideals, dreams and hopes of common folks. Living legends and charismatic figures, they can be artists, writers, intellectuals, actors, singers, sportsmen and sometimes outstanding key figures in politics. They arouse admiration, respect and love. When they pass away, memories linked to their personality, achievements and charisma resurface and leave people heart-broken and bereaved.

Indians and overseas people of Indian origin and culture have a special way of showing their heart-filled love for iconic figures who have meant a lot in their lives. It is undoubtedly inspired by the bhakti tradition of venerating and loving a myriad of gods and goddesses. No wonder the high profile figures and many others are regarded as semi-gods and heroes. The demise of screen icon Shashi Kapoor at the age of 79, the last of the Kapoor brothers, recalls the psychedelic seventies and the plethora of talented actors and actresses who were loved for their performance, elegance and unparalleled beauty.

None of today’s actors match up to this elder generation. Each of the Kapoor brothers left their unique mark in the Hindi cinematic industry. Besides being most elegant and handsome, Shashi Kapoor had a charming personality and a disarming smile which won the hearts of a wide crowd of female fans. He could display powerful performance without raising his voice, getting angry and violent. He is said to have lived a secluded life after the demise of his wife Jennifer Kendal in 1984, letting himself go. He was only 44 then – something which is quite rare among film stars, particularly European and American movie icons. They continue chasing women and swagger with younger female beauties to boost their ego even in their sunset years. Shashi Kapoor’s death marks the end of an era of screen legends.

Unlike the unfortunate show of selfishness and indifference staged by today’s film stars who were partying instead of attending Vinod Khanna’s funeral, which outraged Rishi Kapoor, the film fraternity came to pay tribute to the last Kapoor. Braving rain and cyclone warnings, loads of people headed to the crematorium in Mumbai to bid farewell to the screen icon of yesteryears. Few are still alive among that generation of film stars. Dilip Kumar is in poor health and often bed-ridden; there are his wife Saira Banu, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Sharmila Tagore and Amitabh Bachchan. Let us bid farewell to the last of the Kapoor legends who were, indeed, with father and theater actor Prithiviraj, the aristocracy of Hindi cinema.

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Jean d’Ormesson: ‘Un jour je m’en irai sans avoir tout dit’

 Another country, another picture. No god and goddess status for atheists, and another way of loving. French people look up to their intellectuals and thinkers and adulate them as living legends. Intellectual and writer Jean d’Ormesson died from a heart attack on Tuesday 4th December. The 92-year-old writer was an endearing personality to a wide French public who loves to read, listen to favourite writers and thinkers and watch them on television. The blue-eyed, ever smiling ageing writer had always been true to himself in his public appearances and interviews, mingling melancholy and irony in his views on various topics, and always appreciating happiness and life’s blessings. As a member of the prestigious French Academy, he was a respected homme de lettres who gave much importance to refinement and elegance in his use of French.

Complete name: Jean Bruno Wvladimir François de Paule le Fèvre d’Ormesson. He hailed from the French nobility and his father, André d’Ormesson was a French diplomat. No doubt he was born with a golden spoon, raised in his mother’s castle and was well-travelled. A few of his books were highly prized national masterpieces, La Gloire de l’Empire, Au plaisir de Dieu. He kept the same style in his writings with flashbacks on past novels and essays. C’était bien (It was good) written in 2003 was already a retrospective glance on himself, his life and works. It foreshadowed other such books as Un jour je m’en irai sans avoir tout dit, and the latest one Je dirai malgré tout que cette vie fut belle.

The general public loved listening to and watching him delivering his thoughts and views on television in his most authentic manner without trying to please or displease anyone with rightist or leftist leaning. As a journalist, editorialist, columnist, philosopher and writer, he had a rich intellectual background. His appreciation of happiness, life and the here and now, the mystery of the universe delivered by the smiling elderly writer in a playful ironic tone made audiences feel optimistic and comfortable in a monde cruel et triste (cruel sad world) and its awe-inspiring history. He will also remembered for his philosophical views. With the demise of one of the oldest representatives of refinement and elegance in French language, the intellectual circle and avid readers will certainly feel the big void as declining importance is attached to the quality of languages these days.

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 Johnny Hallyday, the ‘French Elvis’

Back to the world of stage idols, music and songs. News of the demise of Johnny Hallyday breaks right now as I am closing this chapter. The iconic singer of the seventies rocked thousands of fans on stage with psychedelic music and lyrics that sent them cheering wild. In the West, a young generation headed to explore new frontiers in music, art and philosophy following a bleak period of devastating world war. The hippy movement brought freedom and fresh air.

Life was there to be enjoyed to the full; five young men from the working class in Liverpool drove audiences ecstatic, fans were exalted, women swooned. American music and songs swayed audiences in Europe. Americamania spread across France. It was in that atmosphere of euphoria that Johnny Hallyday, real name Jean Philippe Smet, of Belgian origin, sang ‘On a tous quelque chose de Tennessee’. It probably meant something to French people. In English-educated Mauritius, we had down-to-earth fantasies to fill our minds. Tennessee came later through Tom Sawyer! And much later, lovers of literature surely link Tennessee to the author of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Tennessee Williams.

Despite illness and weakness, Johnny Hallyday displayed incredible energy on stage for decades. To Anglophones, Johnny’s talents and image are a bit exaggerated in France. He appealed mostly to the older generation in the Francophone zone in Europe, Canada and French-speaking small islands. Youngsters do not really relate to his musical style though they listen to French classic songs of Brel, Brassens, Barbara, Piaf and so on. He remains a legend to a wide audience of French music lovers. French President Emmanuel Macron’s words today: ‘On a tous quelque chose de Johnny’ surely ring a bell in the memories and stir emotions in the hearts of Johnny’s fans.

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Need for authentic renewal

Folks everywhere do not live only to work and survive. They need to open their hearts and minds to ideas, aesthetics, art, uplifting ideals and elevating emotions. To what develops sensivity, understanding, knowledge and compassion, and makes them better persons in thoughts and actions. The sight of a high-tech bridge, a bullet train or a metro express does not move us to the point of bringing tears to our eyes. They are necessary to sustain the quality of life.

Neither do random projections of artistic creation on walls enhanced by light and music from amplifiers amid a crowd of consumers raising iPhones to capture the whole show for future brief viewings. It is good entertainment. But nevertheless superficial and is a mirror reflection of a trend that is spreading like wildfire among the people. What matter to anyone who wants to be a somebody instead of a nobody are appearances and status symbols. Despite big capital poured into it, the capital remains shabby and stinking. The stench from the gutters by the roadside is the first thing that greets pedestrians who venture to stroll on the roads from north and south.

How come the opinions and suggestions of local voices on making the town eco-friendly and planting trees are not heeded? It must be the typical colonial mindset that makes the authorities listen to foreign experts, mainly Whites. It is incredible that all those who earn fat cat salaries from public coffers are so incompetent and dull that they are unable to produce anything innovative and environmentally sustainable.

Remember the photo of Port-Louis mayor with his feet on a sprawling desk published in the press a few years ago. Let one of the artists splash that photo in a gigantic size on a wall for the next festival. It is the perfect symbol of the superficial trappings of power and status in empty brains. It will be the mirror image of superficiality of the people themselves.

So are there people that have become worthy references for people to connect to? Symbols they can relate to as models in different spheres. There are many people with talents and huge potential that need not only space but visibility to develop. Apart from a few good cultural programmes showcasing artists, there seems to be a deliberate policy to keep away talented and bright people from the limelight of public television and radios. So that the public would not see them cast a shadow on the army of mediocre and ‘has-been’ figures Parliament is infested with and who daily occupy MBC screen. Television as a propaganda tool for the parties in power has gone from bad to worse since the mid-90s.

The team of jokers who prepare television news must set themselves to serious work. Candidates are not given equal space and hearing in the present electoral campaign. It is totally undemocratic and unfair. Independent and new candidates are blithely ignored. News dwells lengthily on political palaver and ends with political palaver. Foreign news randomly hop from one topic to another, rains, cyclones, Prince Harry, panda and Brigitte Macron, the murder of Saleh in Yemen.

The only worthy local news yesterday was the too short focus on Mr Yacoob Bahemia, the pioneer team of MBC-TV. A time when directors held high standards in administration, carried out the tasks entrusted to them with commitment and were proud of serving the country. Their peers today hold high opinion of themselves and bend down to the wishes of their political masters.

Instead of giving visibility to people of worth and talent the public can relate to, all sorts of crooks, swindlers, drug dealers, liars and cheats, illiterate businessmen donning suit, tie, flashy watches and brand sunglasses are given media coverage and are escorted like princes by policemen in a parody of justice. Some of them cynically smile at the public and the lucky ones give a V sign, knowing beforehand they belong to the untouchable class.

For lack of role models, the public will have to content itself with Judge Lam Shang Leen who is just doing his job properly and thoroughly. As to iconic figures deeply lacking in the local landscape in every field because of the stifling atmosphere deliberately created by political leadership for decades, one is likely to believe that our average breed of politicians are self-proclaimed idols imposed on the public.

If anything, the country needs a break and an authentic renewal of talents, a motivated and innovative breed of individuals to further its destiny.


*  Published in print edition in 8 December 2017

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