CAA to Farmers’ Protests: Bollywood & the Sound of Silence
It took just six words from Rihanna - “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” - to set fire to Indian social media.
It took just six words - “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” - to set fire to Indian social media on Tuesday, 3 February. This one tweet from Rihanna bringing the Indian farmers’ protest to the notice of the world was then countered by the gatekeeper of our patriotism, Kangana Ranaut. She and her troll army made merry for a few hours, questioning Rihanna’s interest in the whole matter and going all misogynistic on the Barbadian pop icon by digging out old pictures of her being abused by Chris Brown.
The furore was further fuelled by Indian news channels who floated conspiracy theories of Rihanna being paid by the opposition to tweet. This is Rihanna, mind you, with a net worth of over $600 mn that we’re talking about. None of these news anchors, of course, questioned the spate of tweets that dropped yesterday from the usual pro-establishment celebrities sharing similar language and the hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. But then, it’s never been their métier to question an establishment whose biggest achievement till date has been their record-breaking advertising spends. Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and let the country die.
Anyway, what all of this was, was just a typical day in India, and on Indian social media. Till another bunch of hashtags began trending.
The hashtag, #SpinelessCelebs, has been trending on Twitter since yesterday and only seems to be gathering steam with sister hashtags like #SpinelessBollywood and #AntiNationalBollywood.
In part, this is a reaction to those curated celebrity tweets that dropped yesterday, but it’s more to do with the stony silence from most quarters of Bollywood.
One of the reasons why people look towards celebrities in India to take a stand against injustice of any kind is a belief that they can mould opinion and spread awareness amongst their large fan bases. And also, because the world has been a witness to its effectiveness in the west. In the last four years, we’ve seen Hollywood take a stand against the Trump administration. Robert De Niro famously got a standing ovation at the Tony Awards in 2018 when he said ‘F**k Trump’; Lady Gaga often spoke about everything, from all the sexual harassment allegations against the former President to his administration’s decision to ban transgenders from the military; JK Rowling compared him to Voldemort and NBA superstar LeBron James publicly talked about how Trump was dividing America.
The difference between the two countries, however, is the complete selling out of our mass media and our compromised institutions. There are countless cases of journalists and stand-up comedians being slapped with cases of sedition, purely for questioning actions of the government. Freedom of speech has become something that is inconsistently being applied, with the benefit of doubt often going only to people who are not critics of the ruling regime; while those opposed have to satisfy a much higher threshold of innocence before they get relief, if at all. In that light, can our celebrities really voice dissent? It really is a question of how much they stand to lose. And the more they have, the more they lose.
In a roundtable conducted by The Quint last year (Bollywood's Role in India's Heated Political Environment, Jan 2nd 2020), director Anubhav Sinha had said, “We saw what happened to Shah Rukh when he used the word 'intolerant' or to Aamir when he was telling a benign story about his wife, and people selectively picked up one half of the statement. I am not even talking about them losing contracts, which is fine. They can afford to lose those contracts. Only people who get trolled that viciously will know what it means. Suddenly, you are identified with your religion.”
Which also brings up the role of intimidation in muzzling those celebrity voices that can really make a difference. And no one probably knows this better than Deepika Padukone. As someone who seemingly was a magnet for controversy, Padukone stayed quiet and refused to get sucked in, even when a fringe militant group threatened to cut off her nose for portraying a mythical queen in a manner that didn’t suit them. Last year though, Padukone paid a quiet visit to the JNU campus to stand in solidarity with the students and professors who had been peacefully protesting against a fee hike, but were roughed up by goons as the police stood by and watched. The right wing troll army was quick to brand her visit as a show of support to those protesting against the highly divisive Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the intimidation began.
What started out as a call to boycott her upcoming film soon escalated to rape and death threats. It didn’t stop there though. The long and bitter campaign against Bollywood that started a few months later took on the guise of a drugs investigation by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). That the investigation would come knocking at Padukone’s door came as a shock at the time but hindsight has a way of bringing new perspectives to things. While they couldn’t nail her for anything, her manager was then targeted.
Is it really surprising then, that voices of dissent from Bollywood’s A-list have petered out one by one?
Anushka Sharma, who was very vocal on Twitter about causes she was passionate about, has in the past couple of years gone quiet. While her reasons might not be political, it can’t be easy having to deal with millions of trolls waiting for the next opportunity to blame her for her husband’s failures on the field.
Alia Bhatt, who has mostly stayed away from ever talking about politics, finally reached her tipping point last year after what happened at Jamia. When she put up a shot of the preamble of the constitution in her Insta-stories, with the message 'learn from the students,’ what followed was enough fodder for an entire treatise on the misogyny that exists in our society.
It’s not just about a person’s religion or gender anymore when it comes to the targeting of Bollywood. When television news anchors bay for ‘Bollywood’ blood 24X7 in the midst of a raging pandemic and incursions from neighbouring superpowers, you’d be daft not to see that they make for the softest targets to distract an entire population. And in light of this, keeping a low profile is probably the most prudent course of action for an actor on whose shoulders rest the entire fortunes of a film. A film, after all, is a team effort and the future successes of an entire crew are at stake when an actor takes a political stand.
Why then, do we as fans continue to look towards these people to legitimise our causes and battles?
In that same Roundtable last year, Swara Bhaskar had asked a pertinent question. “Why do we need causes to be legitimised by celebrities in any way? What is this culture where a cause will only come to light and be discussed if a celebrity lends a name to it? And it happens everywhere in the world. Suddenly the Tibetan issue will be talked about because Richard Gere tweeted about it. Or Palestine becomes something because Rihanna said it or the Armenian genocide because Kim Kardashian wrote about it. But that’s problematic, right? I would go to the extent of saying, ‘don't depend on us; don't ever depend on actors’. I’ll run away the day I have a film release. We should think about causes for their own merit.”
Since 2014, every time there have been lynchings, rapes or injustice of any kind, liberals have looked towards celebrities and icons to add their voices and to amplify their cause. And every single time, their silence or worse, their complicity, has failed us. Their reasons are their own and they’d have their consciences and no one else to answer to. Maybe it’s time we stopped expecting and moved on. And, more importantly, to start celebrating and supporting those who do stick their necks out.
(Karishma Upadhyay is a journalist and author of ‘Parveen Babi: A Life’. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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