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Healing Space | Goodbye Dilip Saab. Goodbye Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao. Why celebrity lives affect us

How our mourning of Aamir Khan’s divorce and Dilip Kumar’s passing is rooted in our anchoring bias, cultural identity, and social currency.

July 10, 2021 / 07:39 AM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

You glimpsed the love of your life as you entered college, and your hand immediately went to style your floppy hair, which you had an abundant crop of then, hoping she would notice as your mind was playing Ude jab jab zulfein teri. Today, with veteran actor Dilip Kumar's passing, what you mourn is not only his talent and life, but the sole witness of an intimate Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthmoment of your hope and vulnerability. What you felt then is unique but it also ties you to the common experience of your group, and is distinguished from that of other groups, i.e., say, a Western dating culture. All of this finds expression through this song and others like it, which is why each generation has their defining music. This becomes key to formulating your cultural identity. Later in life, we may discard elements of our cultural identity, but with a universally-accepted symbol of it, which an actor often is, the loss becomes personal. Collective mourning reaffirms this belonging and is stronger in non-resident and migrating ethnic groups for this reason.

When Aamir Khan sang Papa Kehte Hain, his then-wife Reena Dutta whom you would later learn that he had eloped with, was slipped into the song. This became an anchoring image, shaping the idealism against rigid structures that prevented such boundary-crossing love. It validated an inner idealism at a developmentally formative time. The promise of that cross-boundary romance is what is now the foundation for our anchoring bias. The disproportionate anger that the promise has now been broken, twice over with his divorce from wife Kiran Rao now, spills over. Its failure feels personal, like you were given a false hope. It represents your own broken idealism. Thanks to the bias, you will always measure Aamir Khan against the initial promise forged with you as viewer. This is also why people make mistakes on stocks, because they are always evaluating stock price against the anchor, and not its intrinsic value.

We hope with and mourn for our actors because they are anchors of our cultural identity. This vital pillar in an increasingly globalised world defines how we locate ourselves within a shifting developmental framework.

A young Indian-origin student who is in Germany for her studies and feels out of place will attempt to be as neutral as possible in her clothes, accent, and ways of functioning. This self-effacement is a process of assimilation to a threatening environment known as psychological acculturation. Newcomers shed original identities gradually as they adopt the characteristics of their host culture. An integrated individual has a little bit of both, their own culture and the host culture. An integrative society also participates in this two-way process. When there is this failure of integration, separation and marginalisation occur. Therefore, this exchange of cultural value is critical for individuals to feel safe in a new environment. We need a communicable cultural currency.


One currency of integration is fashion; clothes, textiles, patterns. Recipes are another easy medium of exchange. One of the most fluid currencies is music and film. This is why NRIs or Indian students overseas are deeply attached to Bollywood music. Even within India, many who have migrated from small towns anchor themselves with regional language cinema. Many will tell you it is what sustained them when they first migrated.

Not only does the actor become an ice breaker, he helps you identify other members of your group. Further, his music, dance, and films cut across translation and offer a conflict-free exchangeability; while you may have to defend other practices like arranged marriage, or vegetarianism. You also don’t have to go anywhere to access it, it is on your personal playlist and is mobile, available even in the heart of an alienating environment like a workplace. Thus, it tethers you to emotional anchors, revitalises intimate personal histories and locates you within group belonging when you are most threatened.

In a world that is changing rapidly, from destabilised promises of integration to pandemic-related loss, actors hold the threads of our identity. Even when the places we are from have changed beyond recognition, actors retain our primal memory of them. And through their lives, our belonging is protected.

Healing Space Dilip Kumar Aamir Khan Box
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]

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