December 11, 2017

Identity crises: The gap between what was and what is

Out of the countless hit songs picturised on the charming Shashi Kapoor who passed away recently, one particular song from the film Kaala Pathar stands out for its deceptively simple, veiled philosophical message: Ek rasta hai Zindagi, Jo thum gaye toh kuch nahi (This life is like a road, if you stop moving, it is meaningless). I feel it is such a layered songs; more than meanings emerge as you keep humming it.

While Kapoor withdrew into retirement pretty much gracefully, owing to a good part to his failing health, not everyone has had such an honorable exit. From sports to the film industry to politics to the corporate world, we see numerous examples wherein individuals, who were once the darling of the media and a hero in the eyes of the masses, swiftly fell out of favor. Some lost their magic touch and faded away, others couldn’t cope with sudden failures and spiraled down in life and still others faced ignominy and often fled their country.

Changing times: from celebrity status to also-rans

A decade back, Vijay Mallya was the toast of the Indian corporate world. His brazen, in-your-face style was celebrated. The variety of businesses he controlled successfully – brewery, airlines, IPL teams and so on – made him a poster boy of business. He was invited as a chief guest to the convocations of major B-schools. His page 3 lifestyle was the source of envy for even film-stars. Some thought he was India’s answer to Sir Richard Branson.

And suddenly financial trouble began. Problems escalated rapidly and before long, his debts so much overtook his assets, fingers were being pointed at whether he had been running businesses ethically. Everything grew so tough all around him he had to take shelter in England.

The story of fall from grace is a common one even in the sports world. Tiger Woods was once considered the pride of the spectacular success of the colored people; soon, however, he fell from grace. The cyclist Lance Armstrong was held in awe for his unbeaten success in Tour de France; suddenly things started turning sour for him. Boxer Mike Tyson, once a symbol of African American pride, faced numerous charges and bankruptcy issues. Closer home, one-time popular cricketers Ajay Jadeja and Mohammed Azharuddin were charged with match-fixing and faced their own tough times.

The common thread in all these examples is how some incidences changed almost overnight the lives of some people who were once considered successful and worthy of emulation.

The psychology of denial

A psychologist friend of mine recently explained to me the psychology behind this denial. “When they fall from the peak of their success, they can’t accept they aren’t successful any longer… they have tricked their minds into believing nothing bad will happen to them... they feel they are invincible.”

This extreme make-believe world in which some famous people create and live in makes it difficult for them to come to terms with facts. When they are no longer #1 in their respective fields, they create a delusional world in which they continue to rule. Sometimes they have unknowingly encouraged a circle of sycophants around them who prevent these celebrities to see the reality around them until it’s too late. At other times, these celebrities are so settled in their own comfort zones their psyche reacts by shutting out reality. In still other cases, they don’t want to confront the real world and withdraw into a cocoon.

Whatever the responses these people adopt, the fact remains that they are in a state of denial. Their ostrich-like approach of hiding themselves from the facts of the day leads them to fix the blame on anybody but themselves.

Bachchan and Khana: A study in contrast

One can think of a number of examples when a successful person fell swiftly from success to failure. Not all of them have responded by going into denial – some have made unbelievable turnarounds and reinvented themselves. Others didn’t do so well and often battled financial issues or substance abuse problems for the rest of their lives.

In the film-industry, industry experts often compare Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Before Bachchan turned successful, Khanna was the reigning superstar of romantic films. He enjoyed unbelievable popularity. Bachchan’s sudden and continued popularity led to the loss of Khanna’s stardom. Years later, Bachchan too faced huge failures and financial crises. Yet their response patterns couldn’t have been more different.

Khanna almost shrank into semi-retirement and never achieved his previous fame. When he passed away, he was a yesteryear’s retired star with no present or tomorrow. Bachchan, on the other hand, displayed immense resilience when he faced financial problems with his company ABCL, his own stardom and what not. And yet he fought back and reinvented himself beginning with Kaun Banega Crorepati. Today, even at 75, he is one of the fittest, busiest and most respected film-star; his stardom has only strengthened over time.

Examples on both sides

There are of course extreme examples too. Famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, poet Sylvia Plath, actors Guru Dutt and Marilyn Monroe, doctor-scientist Subhash Mukhopadhyay and businessman George Eastman are among some of the most well-known and talented persons who committed suicide as they battled a variety of personal and social demons.

On the other hand, you can think of Indira Gandhi faced unprecedented criticism and a severe failure, following the Emergency and allegations of various kinds. Yet she fought back and successfully returned to be the Prime Minister of India again. Even today, people whose political ideology differs from the late Mrs. Gandhi’s, acknowledge that she was the iron lady of India.

Abraham Lincoln, one of the most respected of all US presidents, failed a huge number of failures before he became successful. Oscar-winning Hollywood actress Kim Basinger rose to fame and then filed for bankruptcy and yet survived. The current US president Donald Trump faced a number of major ups and downs in his real estate business before he reached the White House. Viktor Frankl survived the horrible concentration camps during World War II and went on to write one of the most inspiring books every: Man’s search for meaning.

The summing up

The lives of talented or famous people are not easy. Almost all of them have faced tough times. Some could fight back, others could not. There is not one single reason one can attribute to why they did what they did. But if one were to review their lives, one will appreciate the following five facts:

Being famous and being happy are not the same thing. You have to work as hard at being happy as you have to for being famous.

Being talented in a field doesn’t automatically grant you the gift of resilience. Every individual must learn to fight when life becomes difficult and it requires great mental strength.

In many cases, a strong family support or a deep spiritual foundation helps people come out stronger from adversities.

Change is the only constant. Those who could not accept that are more prone to fall prey to disturbing circumstances than others.

It is important to separate one’s real self from one’s success. Success is relatively temporary but the inner strength one can build is far more lasting.


Disclaimer: The objective of this post is not to prove or disprove, appreciate or criticize the ways in which individuals or organizations took action. Neither is the purpose to malign or criticize individuals or organizations. This post simply studies incidences, strives to analyze situations and find the learning out of it.