Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. Image courtesy: AP
Indian celebrities, especially in Mumbai, have evolved a cosy live-and-let-live policy with the ‘paps’. They both oblige each other: one with ready smiles and poses and the other with adulatory photos and running themes of ‘airport looks’ and pre-arranged sneak-peaks of engagement and wedding revelry. But Prince Harry and his wife Meghan seem determined to follow the tragic policy of Princess Diana — avoiding, and if need be, out-running them.
The car chase with the paparazzi in purported hot pursuit of the Duke and Duchess last week as they tried to get back to their lodgings in New York after a glitzy awards ceremony almost deliberately harked back to the tragic death of Princess Diana. The question is, why would today’s paparazzi even want to rekindle the animosity that the public felt towards them after what their fellow paps did in Paris in 1997 by doing a redux in 2023 with her son and bahu?
Considering the couple have shown an amazing alacrity for court cases against the media, it seems a rather foolhardy tactic. More so because in the age of social media — a post-Diana phenomenon — the paps anyway are not the only people able and willing to capture images of celebrities. Trying to avoid being clicked, that too in a public area (not private property) is a fruitless exercise that would be exhausting and annoying for both sides, particularly in the US.
A high speed car chase in New York, as those familiar with that city would vouch, happens only in the movies, given the traffic. It’s as unlikely as a car chase in Mumbai outside Hindi films. In any case, even if the media did get to find out which hotel or billionaire’s apartment they were dossing down for the night, they could not exactly break down those doors. Both would also have private entrances which the couple’s security detail would have already scouted.
Also, as the Duke, Duchess and her mother were apparently zooming around Manhattan for two hours, it is amazing that no quick-witted pedestrians or drivers managed to capture it on their phones. A car being followed by a posse of cars and two-wheelers should have caught many a curious bystander’s eye? But it did not. It seems the couple’s patently litigious reputation precedes them these days, making even the casual clicker wary of using her phone camera!
The media is a crucial part of the Sussexes’ gameplan as much of their allure and income depends on publicity. Yet they have decided to aggressively guard and control access to their faces (which are their fortunes) via the courts rather than arrive at a modus vivendi with the paparazzi and other media. At one level it leads to the kind of pointless dodge’em game played out in New York but on the other it does now seem to discourage opportunistic phone-camera shots.
India has its share of ‘royalty’ — mostly from the world of sports, cinema and politics — but most understand their symbiotic relationship with the media. Today’s public is increasingly voyeuristic and wants to peek into every aspect of the lives of famous people. Reality shows likeKeeping Up With the Kardashiansor theFabulous Lives of Bollywood Wivesalso whet the audiences’ appetites for more than just videos and photos of the celebs’ public appearances.
Celebrities here have realised the value of these peeks and agree to them, often for a fat fee. This trend has reduced the relevance (and income) of the paparazzi so they are eager to not miss out on whatever opportunities remain of celeb photo-ops. This has even led to a new kind of ‘airport reporting’ in Mumbai, which has nothing to do with aviation but with stars: catching the ‘airport looks’ of celebs of sports, cinema and even those ‘famous-for-being-famous’.
Instagram is full of videos of pouting and preening celebs amicably heeding calls from shutterbugs to look this way or that. Even selfie-takers are accommodated as the stars stroll slowly from their cars to the entry doors of Mumbai airport. Had they ducked or dodged cameras like, say, those being taken by the police for arraignment in court, there would have been pandemonium with paparazzi jostling to get shots of hidden faces. And no one would be happy.
Even the British royals, traditionally allergic to media ‘intrusion’, have learnt their lesson from Diana’s death and its fallout. Kate, now Princess of Wales, for instance, has even cleverly snatched the initiative from the paparazzi by posting photos and videos she personally takes — or supervises — of her husband and children so that the public’s ‘hunger’ is sated without chasing and dodging. She controls the narrative, and the paparazzi have no mandate to stalk.
A watershed moment for intrusive paparazzi was when in 2017, a judge ordered a French magazine to pay Prince William and Kate 100,000 euros in damages and fined two of its photographers 90,000 euros for publishing photos of the then Duchess of Cambridge vacationing topless in Provence in 2012. Though it was a fraction of the 1.5 million euros the couple had sued for, the judgement made it clear that the media had no excuse for blatant breach of privacy.
Kate realised that they were dealing with a hydra-headed monster and court battles would never end; they would have to change the game. Which is what they did (while still Cambridges) by releasing visuals of themselves in enough “private” moments, to give the paparazzi no cause to peek through windows and doorways for “candid” shots! A good example was the video of the Waleses at home, kids and all, before leaving for King Charles’ coronation.
Most British royals whom the public want to see and know about — the extended Windsor clan does not excite the same curiosity — have followed Kate’s cue and now allow enough visuals of themselves to the satisfaction of both sides. The paparazzi have little reason to chase them down London’s streets — or ambush them exiting restaurants and gyms as they once used to do to Diana. Which makes Harry and Meghan’s New York chase even more inexplicable.
Celebrity reportage has moved on from the time of Fellini’s 1960 filmLa Dolce Vita, whose intrepid photographer character Paparazzo provided the name for this relentless band of shutterbugs. And the apparent reluctance of bystanders to click-and-post about the Harry-Meghan car chase could mark a new turn in the game that changed totally when camera phones and social media turned the public into rivals of paparazzi as prime sources for candid celebrity visuals.
But it is premature to say that Harry and Meghan’s litigious strategy is as effective as Kate’s current one when it comes to tackling the paparazzi phenomenon. Legal challenges harden stances, though fines are awarded to the plaintiffs by courts and paid by media houses. Earning the goodwill of the public by at least appearing to understand their interest and trying to address it within reason, can not only tame the paparazzi ‘beast’ but also benefit those being ‘papped’.
The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.
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