Did you notice the irony of the moment? When Deepika Padukone stood behind JNU student leaders, the verse Kanhaiya Kumar was leading the protest with was Azadi. The original Azaadi, the one he performed one March evening in 2016 to the delicious organic rhythm of human hands clapping and fingers snapping and feet tapping. Padukone’s husband Ranveer Singh rapped the jazzed-up, studio-smoothened version of Azadi that erased the sassy political commentary of the original in Gully Boy.
Singh has not commented on the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that began in December or the savagery that the government has unleashed in response to the resistance. In fact, there are two images of him that come to mind most often in these charged times—one where he is hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi exuberantly, and another, a selfie, where his thrilled visage is at the bottom left of the photograph. They were taken in December 2018, soon after Singh and Padukone tied the knot. It had seemed odd even then: Padukone had been the target of bizarre threats, including one that involved cutting off her nose, for dancing to a song in the film Padmaavat that raised the hackles of several groups that aligned themselves to the savage Hindutva ideology of the BJP.
The female of the species is, and was, and will always be the strongest of the two #DeepikaPadukone . Chhapak first day all shows . Let’s all those who stand against the violence go to @bookmyshow and show them. Make our silent statement which will be the loudest .
— Anurag Kashyap (@anuragkashyap72) January 7, 2020
Why so much Singh in a piece that should be about Padukone? Because she highlights the contrast between the men and the women of Bollywood beautifully. Like Singh (whose box-office returns now merit the title superstar) his superstar colleagues Ranbir Kapoor, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and the trio of Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan have not addressed the protests at all. Aamir and Shah Rukh recently posed with PM Modi at a function to celebrate a film on 150 years of MK Gandhi. Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan have issued statements that try so hard to be balanced that they read like nonsense. The Bachchans, father and son, tweeted namaskar and victory emojis on 6 January, the day following the JNU attack. (Amitabh Bachchan infamously excused himself from comment with a tasteless joke, when asked about Tanushree Dutta’s complaint of sexual harassment against Nana Patekar.)
Sidharth Malhotra tweeted in support of the students of Jamia on 16 December, right after what was frankly the more horrifying attack. But clarified that he was against any violence or vandalism so swiftly that it washed down his original pluck. Sure, you are against violence, but it has been clear which side has been violent in its intent—students reading in the library were brutalised in Jamia Milia Islamia by the Delhi Police, which takes orders from central Home ministry under Amit Shah. *If* anyone was violent in self-defence, then that is completely different, isn’t it?
Why so much Singh in a piece that should be about Padukone? Because she highlights the contrast between the men and the women of Bollywood beautifully. Like Singh (whose box-office returns now merit the title superstar) his superstar colleagues Ranbir Kapoor, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and the trio of Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan have not addressed the protests at all.
As against this, the women have spoken (and acted, as in Padukone’s case) without caveat. Several women precede Padukone’s emotive gesture of support. Swara Bhaskar, Konkona Sen Sharma and Richa Chadda speak politics so often, so articulately, and typically against the establishment, that we count them among the usuals. Taapsee Pannu, who can claim to be a bone fide 100-crore lister, tweeted on 16 December after the attack on Jamia with an affecting comment on “irreversible damage” going further than loss of life and property. Priyanka Chopra Jonas tweeted an unequivocal statement in support of the students of Jamia on 19 December 2019, where she wrote, “In a thriving democracy, to raise one’s voice peacefully and be met with violence is wrong.” Her sister Parineeti Chopra echoed her clarity. Huma Qureshi has been a constant voice of support to protesters through her Twitter handle from 16 December, when she called the police reaction to protesting students “unreal”.
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Powerful and timely conversations can bring about change and this was one of what we hope will become a regular conversation. Meeting the Honorable Prime Minister @narendramodi today was an incredible opportunity. As a community, there is a huge interest to contribute to nation building. There is so much that we want to do. And can do and this dialogue was towards how and what ways we can do that. When the youngest country (in demography) joins hands with the largest movie industry in the world, we hope to be a force to reckon with. Together we would love to inspire and ignite positive changes to a transformative India. The film industry would also like to send a huge thanks for the GST reduction in movie ticket prices that was implemented recently! Thank you so much for your time, Sir!
Sonakshi Sinha tweeted the Preamble of the Indian Constitution on 17 December, three days before her film Dabanng 3 released. Alia Bhatt instagrammed the same on 18 December, except she shared the Preamble prior to the 42nd constitutional amendment that inserted the word ‘secular’. But her caption clearly spells it out in favour of the students. Interestingly, these comments came after the Jamia violence, three weeks before the JNU attack.
On 6 January, Sonam K Ahuja tweeted with her trademark chutzpah, asking for ways to block the BJP’s IT cell from her timeline, and issued a statement through her Instagram account the next day. On January 7, the evening before Padukone’s appearance in JNU, Pannu, Chadda, Dia Mirza and a large number of film directors such as Anubhav Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Sudhir Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti among other notables turned up for a strike on Mumbai’s Carter Road. Alia Bhatt, who has laughed at herself for her lack of interest in current affairs, Instagrammed in support of the students the same day. Even Kangana Ranaut was unambiguous in her stand. She supported the government’s crackdown on protests because India’s tax base is too slim to afford buses being burnt. Say what you will, at least, she did not waffle.
Bollywood has a history of being political, not just in its cinema, a legacy I have written about here, but also in the personal stances adopted by its influential personae. The Bombay film industry of the 1940s and 1950s drew substantively in talent and ideas from the Indian People’s Theatre Association and Progressive Writers’ Association, both anti-imperial collectives with Communist leanings. In other words, the post-Independence film industry was shaped by artists with strong political commitments.
There are those who opposed the Emergency: the late Dev Anand formed the National Party in opposition to Indira Gandhi’s Congress. Kishore Kumar turned down Sanjay Gandhi’s request to sing at a function for the information and broadcasting ministry, and was punished with a ban on his songs playing on All India Radio. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, director Mahesh Bhatt was sharply critical of the BJP. Aamir Khan sat in on a Narmada Bachao Andolan protest in Delhi in 2006 and criticised Modi’s government in Gujarat. His film Fanaa was not released in the state.
The Modi government is especially keen on Bollywood’s approval, and on at least three occasions since 2014, actors have spoken clearly in favour of the Prime Minister—the so-called surgical strike in Uri in 2016, Notebandi (also 2016) and the second surgical strike in Balakot.
The difference between the tipping points from the past and this moment is obvious: the women. The women in Bollywood have spoken out against the government clearly, without qualifiers and right from the start of the CAA protests. Aside from a bunch of socially-conscious directors, the men have waffled, kept quiet or shared selfies and emojis on social media.
Why does it matter what Bollywood says? There’s no doubt who the real stars of this moment are–the mothers in Shaheen Bagh, the intrepid girls across Delhi’s campuses, the Congress leader Sadaf Jafar who was the only woman arrested in Lucknow. Bollywood shouldn’t matter. But Bollywood and cricket enjoy enormous reach in India, the historian Rama Chandra Guha has written. It means validation, momentum, and this unmistakeable feeling that the scales are tipping, the equilibrium shifting, the ground is beginning to move underfoot.