Interview with Dr Kabir Bedi – Journalism and Storytelling

Posted by on Jan 2, 2019 in Blog, Critic's Area | 0 comments


Kabir Bedi, Samita Nandy

Dr Kabir Bedi and Dr Samita Nandy at Soho Club House Mumbai  

From Journalism to Fashion Activism: Refashioning Stories for Social Change

Interview with Kabir Bedi
– Samita Nandy

Today celebrity activists and fashion models are accomplishing what most journalism schools cannot. While this statement is rooted in controversy, influencers and activists have come to rely on storytelling, both literally and visually, to help their fans spark social change.

This is what international actor and Oscar-voting member Kabir Bedi indicates in his radical views of journalism education. He also expresses his opinion on the critical state of the tabloid press — especially when it comes to violence, fake news and scandals.

‘The real scandal is not who slept with who,’ explains the Sandokan star at the Mumbai Soho House in India. ‘The real scandal is when that building collapsed in Bangladesh, and it shows the extent of exploitation in the fashion world — how many big names are involved and how many of those names have become responsive today as a result of that accident and loss of life.’

The rhetorical question in #WhoMadeMyClothes is gaining a valid response beyond tabloid journalism in the fashion revolution.

In this regard, Bedi believes there is an entire movement taking place, and he is certain it will continue to pick up steam. It has become increasingly clear that public figures have been condemned for not challenging the status quo — for perpetuating the embodiment of normative identity, and for circulating gender myths. But those who criticize the unachievable standards of beauty models and celebrities bring can do so much more than simply retweet a trending hashtag.

Rather, they can use autoethnographic learning tools and share stories of the Gandhian change they wish to inspire.

Yet, while victims in the post-Weinstein era need not be excluded from class-based responses to the star-studded #MeToo movement, such is far too often the plight of the oppressed. Many victims’ use of #MeToo in Hollywood and Bollywood celebrity culture just isn’t enough.

And despite the prominence of higher education and online news, there are similar observations involving ‘lookism’ in the discrimination of race, class and species, as well as other marginalized categories.

This illustrates that words can fail. Moreover, while rationality has opened the door for progressive thinking, it has also enabled greater categorization and discrimination. Nonetheless, activists are using visual storytelling to help others bring positive change. They are refashioning stories, and inspiring fans, students and scholars in the process.

But how?

As the 7th Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS) conference demonstrated in Lisbon, models, actors, authors, academics and athletes have taken to stylizing their profile pictures and building their personal brands through visual and literary expressions of fashion. When it comes to choosing between being a storywriter or a storyteller, taking action via aesthetic means and becoming a citizen journalist are conscious decisions we must make.

From my perspective, as an author and model without agency representation, I appropriated and employed sustainable fashion for my cruelty-free brown skin. This, I found, allowed me to navigate the cultural spaces where celebrities are represented and mediated in fandom. There is no single-issue cause here, as the roots of oppression overlap.

Accordingly, the speciesism and sexism that once rendered me invisible — all for the sake of family honour — could have been addressed with the visual representation I offer now. That is what it means to be excluded.

Fortunately, today expressions of fashion are playing a key role in the publicity and promotion of many public figures’ ethical brands. I’ve learned this both in my own experience and by observing other activists in their effort to spark transformation.

This brings us to an essential question: can students and fans refashion stories and normalize some of the much-needed democratic practices in celebrity activism, journalism and academic studies involving popular culture? If not, what are the ethical issues at play in tabloid journalism that must be addressed at the societal level?

The interview below will explore the answers to these questions and others like them. Readers will find that Kabir Bedi draws on his activism experience in Hollywood and Bollywood, and offers deep insights into the dichotomy of the tabloid press.

Kabir Bedi: Tabloid journalism, by its very nature, will want to seize sensational stories. It needs headlines, so whatever is the most sensational aspect of the story, that’s what will be highlighted. As far as fandom goes, fans want any and all information — whether it is authentic or from tabloid or whatever — they are just hungry for information.

The ethical issue that arises — what is real and what is not, what is valid and what is not, what is true and what is not — that is not an easy thing to sort out because there is no source by which you can say that I will go and check out what the truth of the matter is.

There are sites celebrities have on themselves — they have a certain amount of information. They will naturally give the best information about themselves — they won’t give the worst. Therefore, one has to reach out to various levels of social media to try and balance what is true and what is not true, especially when it comes to what appears in the tabloids.

News no longer filters down from the top — it’s not like what we have had from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN — and everything goes down to the bottom of the pyramid. Today bottom of the pyramid is talking to each other — they have all kinds of other sources of information. No matter what your hobby is, what your interest is — you will always find some group on the Internet that you will relate to, that is interested in things you are interested in — whether it is information about a star, information about fans –these groups may help you to sift some of the weed from the chaff but not always. It is an ‘imperfect science,’ and it will always remain that.

Samita Nandy: Do you think that journalism educators should encourage their students and overall readers to access websites or any sort of platform that celebrities and celebrity activists maintain themselves for an authentic voice?

Kabir Bedi: Journalism educators should be aware of the reach and form of social media because it’s not just the Facebooks, Twitters and Instagrams as the only source of information. You can get an enormous amount of information from Youtube, Wikipedia, and sites that are created by the celebrities themselves.

You can get an enormous amount of information from mainstream press. Journalism educators’ biggest job is to train their students in the sheer number of sources of information that exist today for getting information and from that information, how to distill what is closest to the truth because there are no shortcuts to that.

When there are multiple voices singing, you have to figure out which are the right tones.

There are so many aspects to stories today.

And there is so much PR spin that comes in as well because today journalists aren’t really doing the ‘beat’ — looking for stories. They are sitting in offices and stories are being given to them pre-packaged stories by PR agencies with glossy photos and brilliant write-ups all ready made. So the incentive for them to go out and hunt for the truth is greatly reduced — they have only a certain number of columns to fill. And if it comes all ready-made — they will take the easy option — it’s human nature.

So the important thing is to seek out practitioners or those journalists or those sources of information that have a commitment to trying to sort the truth analyzed and trying to give more objective answers. Really the job of journalism educators is to train students to find such sources because there is no other way, no other way.

Samita Nandy: You are an actor known for a lot of activism — I come across a lot of political issues that you address -all the ethical, social and political issues in human rights. Do you feel that they are being as effective as you would like them to be — not just yours but social justice movements and your role in them? How do you feel?

Kabir Bedi: One believes in certain causes. I believe in the cause of education, I believe in the cause of helping and preventing blindness. India has one of the largest blind populations in the world. And if something can be prevented, that is the best thing you can do. I am involved in the educational aspects.

I use all the social media that I have to talk about myself as well as promote the causes that interest me.

What I say is disseminated widely enough? Probably not.

But, by the same token, it is proportionate to the amount of time I put into disseminating that news.

Instead of just putting them on Facebook Instagram and Twitter, I can go to all kinds of different forums etc — that I don’t do. Because frankly, to make the causes my full-time job, I don’t have the time.

And therefore, I just put out there what I believe in, what are the things I hope for. And I hope that those who are following me will take the message forward and carry the message forward.

There are a lot of causes in this world — one can’t do all of them — one chooses the ones that they can make a difference.

The ones that I am involved in — I have certainly seen a great difference happened — it has improved fundraising, it has improved the morale of the people in the field — the results are being spectacular.

This is real, tangible change.

When you know that so many thousands of people are saved from blindness because of surgical interventions that happened — that prevented them from going blind — you know you have done good.

The rest is numbers — it doesn’t matter if you help 1 person 1000, or 10000 — main thing is the processes.

So one has to work with the reach one has.

But hope that the reach amplifies itself through those people that are part of my reach.

Samita Nandy: And I think what makes it very real and engaging is a lot of the life stories that come along — the contexts in which you write, what you observe in parallel to the causes that you are fighting for. I think that makes it very authentic. Being a living example of change is the most important thing, which Gandhi would say. Bearing witness is something he always advocated for. I believe that every voice counts, every step counts so to put it out there along with your authentic stories, your contexts — that is very powerful. Because one of the biggest issues that I noticed in tabloid journalism is the loss of the contexts in which a lot of work, whether it is artistic, activist or just educational emerges — so the nuances and subtleties are lost — but I think that’s what makes voices very original.

Another issue that I noticed in overall education, art and activism is that we use a lot of words but it becomes more powerful when you have certain images and real facts along with them. And you use a lot of images. The reason why these images are powerful is that they act as an aesthetic mode of communication — they are not rational, they are not linear. While rationality has really allowed progressive thinking, the same rationality and linear thinking have also made categorization and discrimination possible. According to a TED talk that I watched, artistic modes of inquiries are very important — anything that is sensed, perceived.

What came out of the last conference that I hosted is how fashion can act as an activist tool in pop culture.

We are focusing on popular culture and how tabloid journalism is dealing with it. Fashion, particularly glamorous fashion, is coming into question. Most people have social media profiles, they stylize and re-fashion themselves, re-contextualize themselves. So, in my mind, fashion can act as a political tool to bring change — this is very non-verbal e.g., Bibi Russell what has done.

Kabir Bedi: It is an area of great interest — my wife and I are part of the sustainable fashion movement. They had a number of events in India to promote the fair trade concept, to promote the sustainable fashion -#WhoMadeMyClothes. And ask those questions and make manufacturers more aware of the possibilities of the efforts. In fact, as a result of those efforts, Mumbai Fashion Week has one section entirely on sustainable fashion. So the message of sustainable fashion is spreading, as it should spread. Because not only are we talking about the ethics of using underpaid labor but also of using products that are more natural. So that is an important movement — more of my wife’s area of interest — Parveen Dusanj Bedi’s. But I support the concept fully — I go to their events, show my presence. I hope that the message spreads.

Samita Nandy: I feel that the stories around fashion — or even using fabric within fashion as a text to read in fashion — has a strong potential to reach out compared to a lot of rumors, scandals, and gossips — I think there is an alternative space that fashion can enable — I have hope there too.

Kabir Bedi: The real scandal is not who slept with who — the real scandal is when that building collapsed in Bangladesh shows the extent of exploitation in the fashion world — how many big names are involved and how many of those names have become responsive today as a result of that accident and loss of life — so there is a movement and I am sure it will pick up a lot of steam.

Even in Bombay, plastic is banned and people have started using paper bags. It’s just a matter of will, a desire to see a slightly different world.

And that’s what’s happening at all levels — at private levels, at government levels.

The only thing is that we have to get some aspects of the industry that still hold on to the old order — that still wants to be exploitative, that still wants to be polluting, that still wants to be purely driven by profits. And those people will eventually lose their popularity because people’s consciousness is moving in a different direction.

Samita Nandy: Just along the question of fashion activism, do you feel that there are limitations along with its potential? What are the limits of fashion activism?

Kabir Bedi: The limits of fashion activism are:

1. there are manufacturers who are not interested in the topic and just want profit

2. there are customers that are frankly not interested in the larger goals — they just want the cheapest clothes they can get.

So as long this alliance between the manufacturer wanting more profit and the consumer wants to lowest cost continues, then that becomes a limitation. However, if it’s clear that there is a social trend against that and that social movement makes such manufacturers uncomfortable and unattractive to the customers, these things will change. There are certainly obstacles.

Samita Nandy: Do you feel that universities could help when it comes to fashion activism or just fashion journalism? What kind of role can universities play?

Kabir Bedi: I think universities need to, in addition to imparting the very valuable knowledge that they do, make students in all subjects of the social dimensions of what they propose to do — whether that is journalism, whether that is fashion, whether that is sports, whether that is cinema — there is a social dimension to it too. And there is a social responsibility for promoting a shared good, which is part of the human condition — we must help each other a lot. And if those things are made clear by the educators, they will lead to students who are more enlightened, therefore become better citizens of the world.

Samita Nandy: Do you think more hands-on work, more field work would really help as opposed to just teaching theory?

Kabir Bedi: Fieldwork obviously helps but fieldwork is expensive and it takes a lot of time. The experience is important but even before the experience, the information is the most important. Those that have the sensibility “oh my god, there is this damage to this, my god I didn’t think about that and will use that information to improve things in the world, in the society, in the products they use — they will make the biggest difference. But you can’t just bank on fieldwork. You have to allow that the information itself is the biggest influencer. Gone are the days when parents were the only source of information “Daddy, why is the sky blue?” and daddy says “sky is blue because of xyz” — that’s the answer. They Google it. Google is the biggest parent today, as far as information goes. Parents have other very valuable functions. But one thing is people are not imprisoned by beliefs, dogmas, and circumstances anymore if they do not want to. They have too much reach around them for information, for new directions. And that’s why mentoring people to understand what is available is the single most important thing. It’s like that old saying, “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, teach him how to feed for a lifetime.” Teach people what’s out there so that they know what’s out there because the biggest sin of all is ignorance in today’s information age. And that’s the job of an educator — to overcome that ignorance whatever form that takes.

Samita Nandy: In giving that information, do you feel that images, telling visual stories would be effective instead of just reading books?

Kabir Bedi: Of course. Stories are always the most effective form as people have seen stories. Cinema has done its share. Today people are aware of ‘blood diamonds’ because there are films that are made on the subject that has shown this. The fact that people are aware of the Bangladesh tragedy is because people saw pictures of the Bangladesh buildings collapsing and people being pulled out from there. So if things are put in an audiovisual way, it magnifies the impact — there is no question. We are living in an audio-visual world — never forget that part of the world.

Samita Nandy: And in that mentorship, to facilitate new role models is also the responsibility of educators.

Media educators could use storytelling for social change especially when media and educational institutions are limited to specific research agendas and news agendas. The reason why I think that is because a lot of the discrimination I observe is based on looks. When it comes to discrimination or bias against race, gender, species or age, it’s really around looks. And I feel visual storytelling and images in that storytelling would really help. What would be your take on that?

Kabir Bedi: Well, you are absolutely right. That’s also the part of the job of educators — that you just don’t give people information. You have to enable people to spread that information. You have to make them facilitators. And the best way to make them facilitators is the use of storytelling. People love listening to stories. You can’t just give a set of facts that they are not interested in. But you can link them together in a story that is fascinating. You will absorb without realizing it. So one of the great jobs of educators today is to make ‘doers’ of tomorrow into storytellers.

Samita Nandy: We come from oral history….

Kabir Bedi: Oral history is, of course, is important but now we have the written word, we have audio, we have visual — we have all aspects. Earlier, people used to come to meetings with a few things written on a piece of paper in their agenda. Today, they come with PowerPoint presentations, they come with mini-movies, brilliant slideshows. It’s not just the common man — even in the boardrooms, storytelling is a very important device. People love listening to stories. It’s one of the oldest things — sitting under a tree and listening to a wise, old man telling stories. And that ability to tell stories is an art. What is storytelling? What is a story? A good story in its essence has conflict — something that must happen when something cannot. The stronger the ‘must’, the stronger the ‘cannot; the stronger ‘the story.’ This is the way how you put things. So teaching the art of storytelling of how to take information and turn it into a story that people want to see or listen to is an art and that is one of the big jobs of communicators today, and of educators today, and of parents. Teachers. Mentors. We need a world that is full of storytellers.

Dr Kabir Bedi is an international actor: Bollywood Hollywood Rome. Knighted by the Italian Republic. Oscar Voter.

Follow @iKabirBedi

Dr Samita Nandy is the author of Fame in Hollywood North | Published in Celebrity Studies | Media: CBC, VICE, Flare, Chatelaine, SUN, 24 Hrs, Yahoo! Entertainment

Follow @famecritic

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