Behind the Scenes at Delhi’s Madame Tussauds

POV

Behind the Scenes at Delhi’s Madame Tussauds

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I

am wearing a paper bracelet and walking down a red carpet in the middle of Connaught Place. I’m not in one of those shady middle circle drinking holes, where live music gigs serve as a sorry excuse to serve underage teens alcohol. Instead, what I am about to enter is far more sinister. It is the newest Madame Tussauds in the world, the wax museum’s 23rd iteration, and it is right here in the heart of the city where the historic Regal Cinema once used to be. My eyes zoom in to register either the moment’s vanity, or the weirdness. Hell is other people’s eyes, I realise. How did I talk myself into this?

The museum opened a few days ago, with the promise of 50 wax likenesses of Indian celebrities. Inside, a flurry of red, the kind I last saw when Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining imploded into a sea of blood, piques my senses – and Valentine’s Day feels like the imagination of a painter with a jaundiced eye or hypothermic abdomen. Out of my blind side Salman Bhai bears down on me on a rickshaw. There is Sachin – twice – that I kind of get, and Kapil Sharma – thankfully once – that I still don’t. At least they get Cristiano Ronaldo’s bust right, I think to myself. Milkha Singh, though, who is perhaps more accessible in real life, is more Farhan Akhtar than Milkha himself.

After a brief walk upstairs, three gloomy faces, all of them alive and guarding the non-living, greet me with the kind of grin that mates bafflement with an enviable quota of You-Won’t-Believe-The-Kind-Of-People-I-See. I’ve already spotted a few specimens. And I have a feeling that the sphincter of the world will shut at Madame Tussauds today.

Why does one go to a Madame Tussauds at all? The cult of celebrity drives many of us in this country, but what convinces us to spend money (the admission price is a steep ₹960) to indulge in what I can only explain to myself as necrophilia of the eye?

I leave, but not without a few uneasy thoughts about someone trying to grope Jennifer Lopez’s behind, squeeze Madonna’s highlight reel for her, or Jacksoning Michael down there.

A fascinating Vanity Fair essay titled “Just How Does a Wax Museum Survive in the Digital Age?”, sheds some light on the subject. The author describes how “each slightly abashed museum patron captured the moment via camera phone. It seemed strange at first, watching as they exercised this most Instagram era of impulses with the most analogue of attractions.” The essay goes on to surmise that, we are in “an era in which celebrities are proving themselves more and more fallible, more human than any idols in history. They’re online right alongside us, and symbolic celeb-fan interactions are more prominent than ever – a favourite or retweet from Nicki Minaj might be more exciting than a selfie with her statue, but you can’t put your arm around a tweet. These inanimate pillars allow us to aspire to the fiction of celebrity in peace (provided no one else walks in to stare, that is).”

At the Delhi museum too, a middle-aged man forced me to take three of his four photos, with a DSLR no less, feeling mortified at having to cosy up to Asha Bhosle in the company of a near-pornographic Lady Gaga. Tussauds – though it has a more earnest and critical history – is a little like a metaphor for our age, that is dominated not by substance, but by pure glitter. The spectacle is the value. It is a vortex of indulgence, where the powerful, the wealthy, the entitled, and the privileged continue to be in those bubbles. When we deify people, we turn them into gods, and places like Tussauds into temples where pathological complexes and doubt play ping-pong with our self worth.

By the time we are done with two levels of nausea and sleep-depriving, dead-in-the-eye stares, I’m at the end of my patience, at the limit of my bravura and a little below 11 minutes on the watch. I leave, but not without a few uneasy thoughts about someone trying to grope Jennifer Lopez’s behind, squeeze Madonna’s highlight reel for her, or Jacksoning Michael down there.

A Tussauds can be many things but it can never be a library, a museum, an art gallery or even a cinema – places that centre you. But if this 23rd version is any indication, something tells me that the franchise and its poorer cousins will only grow. They are already mushrooming in Maharashtra and Karnataka. At the altar of self-evaluation, if all we crave for is a little stardust to rub against us, who can really stop them from becoming a landscaping hazard all over the country? I wonder what it says about our sense of worth if we find happiness in the shredded glow of others. Being fans or followers is one thing, but to aspire to second-hand proximity is a little, well, disappointing.

 

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