When Celebs Call Out For A Cause!

Football came by accident. I was more interested in politics. I always had my eyes turned to the social injustices in the country. I just happened to be good at football, which gave me entrance to a very different and privileged environment…If people do not have the power to say things, then I will say it for them.
–Socrates, Brazilian soccer legend

Do celebrities, writers, artists, filmmakers, celluloid superstars, sports icons, among others, have a special social and political responsibility towards their life and times? Are they located in history despite their wealth, success and fame? Can their fame, success and prosperity make their own societies, and their own world, a better place?

This uncanny question came back with its bitter ritualism soon after pop star Rihanna Tweeted only six words, referring to a CNN report on the peaceful, relentless farmers’ struggle in India. Her six words were amplified by a 100 million fan base, and reamplified by tens of thousands. The global sky virtually opened up with social media messages backing the farmers. The medium became the message.

This was followed by Greta Thunberg’s tweet, along with a forthright message by lawyer and author Meena Harris, the niece of American Vice President Kamala Harris.

The ruling establishment in Delhi was rattled beyond words. This led to an avalanche by its troll army using all predictable means: vile, foul, sexist, vicious threats, including against a British female MP. Two other jarring notes quickly followed, both leaving a bad taste in bad faith, as a sycophantic public spectacle.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a long-winding statement in response to Rihanna’s Tweet, replete with nationalistic, ‘bureaucratese’, with the hashtag #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. This was followed by a handful of Bollywood actors and Indian cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, putting out identical hashtags and look-alike statements.

Sachin wrote: India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India. Let’s remain united as a nation.

In the first instance, seasoned journalists who have covered the MEA would be utterly shocked! How come the ministry chose to react with such a lengthy, burdensome response, to a six-word post by an American pop star – this is unprecedented! Does it reflect the abject loss of diplomatic finesse and protocol in terms of foreign policy, or, indeed, is the ground beneath their feet really slipping?

Since Sachin is an icon, he faced the brunt of public criticism. It all became more jarring because of his ‘speechless’ record in the Rajya Sabha as an MP, and his eternal refusal to utter one word ever on any public or controversial issue in the past.

The farmers were hurt: how come Sachin had not spoken about their non-violent struggle, the 200 dead under the open-sky, the internet ban, concrete barricades, the siege, the long nights for over two months in this freezing cold? How come his love for India and its sovereignty did not include the thousands of farmers and their families peacefully protesting, while he chose to ride the ruling regime’s hashtag bandwagon?

ALSO READ: ‘Rihanna, Greta Amplified Voice Of Farmers’

It is bitter realism that most Indian celluloid superstars and sports icons, with their huge fan-following, either keep wilfully mum during a national crisis, never take up a cause for public interest, express no angst or anger against gross injustice or human suffering, or, instead, choose to toe the pro-establishment line. Their silence often borders on complicity. For our cricket heroes, former and current, apart from cricketing jargon, the cat seems to have got their tongue in all circumstances.

Compare this to those who inevitably stand up to the powers-that-be, speak the truth, take public positions, aware of the risks involved, unafraid of the consequences – the likes of the (late) UR Ananthamurthy, Mahasweta Devi, Rajendra Yadav, Soumitra Chatterjee or Girish Karnad, among other greats. Or, Sharmila Tagore, Amol Palekar, Aparna Sen, Anurag Kashyap and Naseeruddin Shah, among others. Even Deepika Padukone, a mega star, had the guts to stand in silence and solidarity with student protesters in JNU, after they were brutally assaulted by the armed goons of BJP’s youth wing, with cops watching in tacit alliance.

This follows a noble tradition among the greats in the Indian artistic domain, including cinema. Salil Chaudhury, Ritwik Ghatak, Kaifi Azmi, Munshi Premchand, Rabindranath Tagore, Sahir Ludhianvi, Balraj Sahni, Utpal Dutt, stars of our aesthetic firmament, firmly stood against fascism, and injustice, and aligned with the poorest of the poor. This was reflected also in their cinema, literature, music and lyrics. During the Emergency, Kishore Kumar and Dev Anand openly defied Sanjay Gandhi’s diktats and Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship.

Outside India, Socrates lived his political life as a soccer legend in full defiance of the military dictatorship; Diego Maradona openly flaunted the tattoos of Che Guevara on his body, as well his comradeship with Fidel Castro; Pablo Neruda became ill after his close friend, Salvador Allende, elected president of Chile, was killed in a CIA-backed military coup; Vaclav Havel led the Prague spring against the ossified ‘Communist’ dictatorship; Mohammad Ali defied the US government and refused to go to war and kill the people of Vietnam. This is a long and illustrious history.

American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench while the US national anthem was being played in a pre-season game on August 26, 2016. Why? To protest against police brutality and racism. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” he said. Later, he started ‘taking the knee’, which has been followed by athletes, celebrities and ordinary people in support of the Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the murder of George Floyd when a cop suffocated him with his knee.

ALSO READ: Many Celebs Spoke For Indian Farmers

During the Vietnam War, a huge section of Hollywood marched with the anti-war protesters. George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, Matt Damon, Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, among others, opposed the Iraq war, calling the WMD scare fake. Award-giving ceremonies and public functions were used to protest against the Iraq War and George Bush. Said Gael Garcia Bernal, famous for his role of Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, “If Frida (Kahlo) were alive, she’d be on our side, against the war” even as he presented a song from the film about the famed Mexican artist.

In the contemporary era, the BLM movement has galvanised almost the entire Hollywood and entertainment fraternity, with celebrities like Michael B Jordon, Tyler Cameron, Matt James, Madonna, Sophie Turner, Jo Jonas, Vanessa Hudgens, Ben Affleck, among hosts of others, marching on the streets and taking categorical position against racism.

Jennifer Lopez wrote on Instagram: “Max (son) told me a few days ago: ‘You know mom, since you have a following like some of my YouTuber gamers and they ask us to support things and we do, you should do that for George Floyd.’… I said, ‘Funny you say that baby, I am planning a few things. Do you want to help by making a sign?’” The singer added: “And they did!! We talked about how if one person doesn’t have justice then no one does. That this country was built on the belief of freedom and justice for all. We must take a stand for what we believe in and fight against the injustices in this world. So, we continue to peacefully protest until there is change.”

Deepika Padukone – Choosing Conscience Over Caution

Being the richest Bollywood woman actor for three consecutive years, with several hits and recent entry into matrimony could have made Deepika Padukone cautious. But she has chosen to be conscientious and, no matter which side of India’s growing political divide perceives her, controversial.    

She went unannounced to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’s campus, in turmoil after unprecedented violence, one wintry evening. Dressed in black, she stood tall, literally (1.74 m) and otherwise. Her hands folded, she expressed solidarity with agitating students and teachers, some of them injured and in bandage.   

She did not speak a word. Her presence was electrifying, going by the media reports next day. That was just the beginning.

ALSO READ: JNU Is Not Going To Crawl, Or Bend

For someone outspoken but not known for political leanings, she went to “ground zero”, well beyond candle lights and solidarity speeches at Mumbai’s Gateway of India and New Delhi’s India Gate. She stood out even over those few from Bollywood and those of other filmmaking hubs who have chosen to speak up.

Unsurprisingly, bouquets and brickbats came, perhaps, in equal measure. Wasn’t she doing this to promote her latest movie Chhapaak (Splash), her critics demanded to know. Their call went out: boycott her and the movie.  

Deepika may well be the most-trolled person. Her critics include women, despite the movie being about acid attack on a girl who rejects overtures from a much-older suitor. It is based on a real-life story – indeed many stories – as it highlights a common issue across South Asia.

ALSO READ: ‘JNU Violence Has Left Deep Scars’

In visiting the JNU, she had exercised her “personal choice”, the film’s director Meghna Gulzar said. It is interpreted as the director distancing herself for fear of the movie losing at the box office. But Kangana Ranaut, another outspoken Bollywoodian, perceived as Deepika’s rival, has said the same thing. Ditto, Union minister Prakash Javdekar. Asked if his government endorsed the boycott call, of the film or the actor for going to the JNU, he said this was her democratic right.

Post the JNU visit, the film’s viewership rating on IMDb suffered. The website was flooded with single stars awarded by viewers, causing suspicion of foul play. Whatever the truth, Chhapaak has ‘crashed’ at the box office, trade reports say, despite heaps of praise in film reviews. Did she fritter away the empathy the movie’s theme and her sterling performance have generated?

Being candid and courting controversies are not new to Deepika. When the set of her film Padmavat was attacked and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was slapped two years ago, she spoke out, unlike the male actors, including Ranveer Singh whom she later married.         

She and Ranveer who began dating in 2013 were very discreet about their relationship. But Deepika has never hidden her past relationships, either with actor Ranbir Kapoor or with industrialist Siddharth Mallya whom she briefly dated.

Sometime in 2014 when her career was swinging up, she was diagnosed with depression. For her to speak openly about it, despite being a huge star, was remarkable. She not only battled it but has championed the cause by setting up a foundation to help others. She spoke about it at Davos, Switzerland, this week.

Protesting a caption to her photo, she challenged the country’s biggest media house: “Yes, I have breasts… and a cleavage… any problems?” It caused uproar. There were attempts to defend it as freedom of expression and argue that movie actors were “public property” and must bear such comments sportingly. She did not yield ground and earned a veiled apology.  

Stardom comes at a price. But she has been lucky, too, being ranked the first-ever woman among the top five richest celebrities in India. She was placed fourth in the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list in 2018 with her earnings assessed at Rs 112.80 crore.

Deepika’s journey in Bollywood (and as much in public life) has been a mix of self-belief and some luck. Before her entry into Bollywood, she played badminton like her champion father Prakash Padukone. Debuting on the ramp in 2005, she was among India’s top models. All models are tall and slender, but she is remembered for her 100-watt smile. Her 2006 Kingfisher Calendar pictures remain a benchmark. She also did the Liril, Limca and Close Up ads during that period.

Thanks to these early successes, Bollywood director Farah Khan gave Deepika, then one Kannada language film old, her Bollywood break in 2007, casting her opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om. Her career slumped soon after, with just a dance number with SRK in Billu. Unafraid of soiling her star image, she sat among the SRK fans in a reality show and asked when he would again work with her.   

From badminton to Bollywood to Hollywood, working with Vin Diesel, she has trudged on. My own favourite is Piku. In a power-packed performance, she excels as a head-strong architect living with her ageing hypochondriac father, played by Amitabh Bachchan. She matched another seasoned actor, Irfan. With Piku, the woman of substance had arrived. A small film, Piku made three times the money invested. The Bengali character this southern lass played got then President Pranab Mukherjee to host the film’s show at the Rashtrapti Bhavan.

For now, we will not know if Deepika is in trouble, or out of it. Media reports have darkly suggested that she could lose some brands she endorses. It is probably a warning to her and her likes in the world of entertainment. Perhaps, that is the price to pay for political activism, especially when the protests she associated with are continuing, now into second month and are spreading to smaller towns.

At Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia campus, the other “ground zero”, thousands, including women with babies, braving biting cold, are protesting against the Modi Government’s controversial citizenship law. Their collective determination is mind-boggling. But how long will this sustain?   

Media reports are not uniform – they cannot be. The PM himself complains that the ‘maadhyam’ (media) is one-sided and alleges that rallies supporting that law are being “blacked out.” He asked partymen to “reach out.” Counter-protests are now becoming frequent, some even violent. No let-up.  

Some of Mr Modi’s allies are nervous over the citizenship row. Asked to stick by, Punjab’s Akali Dal, an alliance partner, has boycotted elections to Delhi Assembly. Legislatures of some opposition-ruled states have passed resolutions opposing the law. In this no-holds-barred confrontation in India’s winter of discontent, we have to watch if Deepika will remain just an event or there will be more Deepikas coming forward.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com