For many in Indian entertainment, 2023 reflects a long, cumulative journey where established movie stars and dependable film names failed; or simply lost their sheen. Perhaps as a consequence of the pandemic lockdowns, and post-pandemic shifts in everyday life, but a constructed, curated narrative of a celebrity is not proving effective anymore. Just look around us.
As has always been the case with entertainment, Hollywood and Western music icons seem to have noticed this shift at the right time. Recent documentaries, showing the flip side of being a celebrity, have offered us an inside view on what goes on in a celebrity’s mind, or their life.
There’s Limitless with Chris Hemsworth (Hotstar), My Mind and Me on Selena Gomez (Apple TV+) and House of Hammer about Armie Hammer (Discovery+), and a touch of retro charm with Lucy and Desi (Prime Video).
The most surprising one is Limitless With Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, this is a story of a global superstar who literally played a Norse God in the Avengers movies, dealing with ageing. Hemsworth pushes himself to physical endurance limits, in an attempt to live healthy and longer. This journey begins for him when he begins to realize that with each passing year, it becomes more challenging to resemble the physicality of Thor for the movies. With his kind of resources, of course, he accesses the world’s leading longevity experts and therapists. Stories of these professionals and their processes as well as convictions, add a layer of optimism and alternate thinking that brings in introspection to the viewer. Hemsworth’s core interest is to push his body to limits, because, when challenged, the human body can accomplish the highly improbable as a response. In each episode Hemsworth tackles a very difficult task, preparing for it with focus, thoroughness and an expert by his side. He fasts for four days, to ‘reboot his system’. In one he jumps into the icy cold waters of Finland. In another, he has to walk across two incredibly tall buildings in Sydney across a pole. Apart from the thrill factor that Aronofsky has built into this series, it’s the element of Hemsworth doing battle with his own doubts and fears that makes it stand out. Capturing a movie superstar’s inner journey is difficult and actually refreshing to watch. That Hemsworth would show his vulnerability and work on it, is nothing short of remarkable.
Showing vulnerability, and telling the world just what it is like to be a celebrity from childhood to adulthood is the sensitive documentary My Mind and Me. Selena Gomez is at the centre of this moving story about a young girl’s battle with illness, anxiety and depression. Gomez is a global superstar and music icon and a household name with her early Disney TV shows. Her music tours were huge draws worldwide. In the middle of the Revival tour which was on to it’s 55th show, Gomez found out she needed help with her mental state. Her depression and anxiety had become global news; but the star decided to turn it around. What was meant to be a puff piece on her with cameras following her around while she travelled in Kenya became an in-depth documentary on her life, her inner battles and her choices. It stuns the viewer that a young girl has had the responsibility of being a star through a lifetime, without ever having had a shot at a normal life. She has offered up her deepest most private thoughts for the camera here, battling with public perception, preconceived notions, and most importantly, self-set limits in this series. In the end there is recognition of her abilities and true potential, leaving one optimistic. While episodes of depression and anxiety are commonly heard around celebrities including those in India, rarely does one get to see such a true to life side of it in a star’s life. Director Alex Keshishian has captured a vulnerable, humane portrait of a very likeable young woman who will hopefully survive the pitfalls of fame.
While we’ve had some that delve into the complexities of ownership, guardianship and control for celebrities (Britney vs Spears), a current take on one of television’s most loved television couples, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, stands out for it’s poignancy. Amy Poehler, a celebrated comic herself, pays indirect tribute to the irreverent and iconic Lucille Ball and her TV relationship with her husband Desi Arnaz in ‘Lucy and Desi’. ‘I Love Lucy’, to a certain extent, mirrored the real-life romance and humour of this couple, to the point that theirs was the first picture along with their first child to be the cover of TV Guide magazine. Ball and Arnaz reigned television for decades before their divorce concluded a relationship that had begun to disassemble. Through the eyes of their contemporaries like Bette Middler and Norman Lear, through conversations with their children and a lot of unseen archival footage, ‘Lucy and Desi’ brings insight into their relationship and the immense pressure unequal success puts on a celebrity marriage. Lucille Ball, a legend on TV, never considered herself a good actor or a talented performer. She believed her hard work, consistency, and her ability to believe in just about anything, no matter how bizarre, that her character is dealing with, made her stand out. Arnaz had his own challenges in showbiz, although together they have created incredible films under their studio Desilu. Yet to see their actual feelings and the love that they always felt for each other makes this documentary a tender viewing experience that reminds us of one single truth- no marriage is ever equal and no performer is even secure.
With OTT the documentary format has renewed itself with vigour. Be it the House of Hammer on Discovery Plus which collates the interplay of abuse and power in the Hammer clan, or pop detective assimilations like The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, there’ a lot of archival, undisclosed material that is popping up in documentary formats. They have made controversies and true crime stories accessible. When these serve the purpose of throwing insight into the difficulties of being celebrities, they also fulfil the role of social awareness. Being a star might not be all that much fun- that’s a lesson that one takes back from these raw, honest documentaries.
Archita Kashyap is an experienced journalist and writer on film, music, and pop culture. She has handled entertainment content for broadcast news and digital platforms over 15 years.
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