In January 2020, actor Deepika Padukone did what none of her peers have dared to do till date and took a stand for what she believes in. And this wasn’t your typical Bollywood PR stunt or an ‘unscheduled’ visit with thirty-seven photographers lying in wait.
The actress, who was in Delhi at the time to promote her upcoming release Chhapaak, paid a quiet visit to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus where a peaceful student protest against a fee hike had earlier been marred by mob violence. Goons entered the campus and attacked students and professors alike, while police personnel stood around.
While Padukone’s visit to JNU was seen as a show of solidarity with the students and faculty who were beaten up by the mob and not directly as support to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protestors, who had also gathered in the university, her gesture not only showed an underlying fearlessness of consequences that make most A-listers fence-sitters but a strength of character and conviction that very few people display.
She stayed on to meet with Aishe Ghosh, President of the JNUSU (JNU Students Union), who was injured during the incident and humbly stood among the students during former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s defiant speech.
The actress who turns 36 today was not, however, new to controversy. Just a couple of years earlier, her film Padmaavat drew massive protests from a group called the Karni Sena who believed the film portrayed the subject of the film, Rani Padmavati, in a bad light. The group vandalised the sets and threatened to chop off Padukone’s nose without even having seen the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film.
That the existence of the legendary queen is in itself questionable, the only evidence of the same being a fictional poem by a 16th century Sufi poet, seems to have escaped almost everyone’s notice. Padukone, however, stayed away from the entire controversy refusing to comment or be drawn into what was quite obviously a bunch of fringe elements looking for their day in the sun.
This wasn’t the first time she’s refused to be sucked into a controversy either. Her earlier project with Bhansali, Ram Leela, irked a section of the audience who filed FIRs against her, Bhansali and her co-star Ranveer Singh. But we live in the age of masterstrokes and one such coup was changing the title of the film to the grandiloquent Goliyoon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela.
Padukone, of course, stayed away from commenting on what the idiotverse around her seemed to dish out every now and then, whether it was her cleavage, her choice of tattoos, or the inappropriate lyrics of a song she danced to. And she’s never deigned to respond to the ‘queen’ of baiting too, the one who never misses an opportunity to lash out at all and sundry.
A real queen, after all, maintains a dignified silence and doesn’t engage. It’s almost like Padukone had taken a lesson in royalty out of The Crown and made these her words to live by, “To do nothing is often the best course of action”.
But as is evidenced in the latest season of the show, even the most reticent of people do find that there are times when they just have to take a stand. And the visit to JNU was this watershed moment for Padukone.
What followed, of course, was a huge backlash from those who supported the controversial act (CAA) and saw her gesture as a resounding slap from unexpected quarters. From people calling to boycott her upcoming film Chhapaak to baseless conspiracy theories of her being offered huge sums of money to turn up at the protest, the wheels of right-wing media were set in motion to bring her down. It didn’t end there.
Six months later, as the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide hogged the headlines, Padukone was consistently trolled online for her posts on depression.
As someone who has spoken about her own struggles with depression, she’s been arguably the most famous voice in this country on the importance of mental health. And it’s not just empty words either, having founded the ‘Live Love Laugh Foundation’ to raise awareness levels and destigmatize the illness.
The junta, however, would rather believe the outlandish theories being fed to them by opportunistic television news anchors than the premise that a young, successful actor might suffer from depression. The irony that Bollywood’s biggest female actor admitted to suffering from the same malaise just got drowned out in the raging noise of a supposed fanbase baying for blood. And it didn’t end there either.
What then followed was a foray into the homes of the bold and beautiful by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), an investigation so thorough that it even found trace elements of banned substances in hitherto unheard-of places.
Given that the investigation was to probe the links between Bollywood and the drug mafia, it’s only natural that it focused on female actors only. Padukone’s name cropped up amongst others and she recorded her statement with the NCB. A month or so later, her manager’s house was raided where the above-mentioned trace elements were discovered.
While there’s nothing to link Padukone to any of this, the rumour mills were set in motion again. Padukone had, however, gone back behind her wall of silence. Because that’s what queens do.
In retrospect, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that Padukone won’t be allowed to forget that visit to JNU so easily. That she’s never really gotten support from industrywallahs through most of these incidents says a lot about her walking a road less travelled and walking alone.
While a few people like Anurag Kashyap came out and praised her for displaying courage, most industry experts likened it to a death wish and called it career suicide. Given that there wasn’t a peep out of anyone in the industry when there were ‘nose-chopping’ threats being issued to her prior to the release of Padmaavat, this really comes as no surprise.
But that quiet, unassuming figure dressed in black standing quietly among the students also left an indelible mark on those of us who still think there is hope for the future of this country, for those of us who believe in a notion of India that’s inclusive and diverse.
Happy birthday Deepika! May your ilk grow.
(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.)