A simple act of solidarity or a cynical publicity stunt? Political tourism or a politically aware gesture? A woke gambit or a tactical disaster?
Deepika Padukone never fails to make headlines in the entertainment sections. She will now be enshrined in the opinion corner for dropping by the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi on Tuesday evening. On Sunday, a masked mob had swarmed into JNU and brutally assaulted students who had been protesting against an increase in hostel fees, and teachers who had been trying to keep the peace.
Padukone was in the capital to promote her new movie Chhapaak, which will be released on January 10. According to reports, the Bollywood star went to JNU at around 7.30 pm and attended a protest meeting by students. Dressed simply in black with her hair swept back into a bun, Padukone was flanked by her publicist and her manager. She left without saying a word after around 15 minutes, leaving the rest of the world to interpret her actions.
The calls to boycott Chhapaak emerged swiftly from the right-wing ecosystem, countered by tweets and statements in Padukone’s support. On Monday, the star had asserted her right to free expression, telling NDTV, “I feel proud that we are not scared... It is nice to see people are coming out on the streets to voice this and express [themselves]. Because if we want to see change, this is very important.”
Bollywood stars rarely tread into political waters on the eve of a major release, especially not when they are promoting movies in which they have invested money. Chhapaak, directed by Meghna Gulzar, stars Padukone as a fictionalised version of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. It is Padukone’s first release since Padmaavat in 2018. Padukone is also one of Chhapaak’s three producers, and the movie is a prestige project for her whichever way you look at it.
The extreme view on Padukone’s visit can only be cynical: look at the lengths to which Bollywood folks go to promote their films! A related opinion maintains that Padukone is trying to piggyback on a legitimate cause in the hope that it will make her look conscientious and fearless, just like the character she is portraying in her latest movie.
There’s no end to the spin cycle if you put your mind to it. One of Padukone’s closest competitors in the film industry is Kangana Ranaut, who has aligned herself with the government’s policies. For those who complain that Bollywood stars peddle pablum at all times, there is Ranaut, who has a point of view on social and political topics and is never afraid to express it. Whether you agree with her or not is secondary – Ranaut speaks up when she feels strongly about something, unlike most of her peers. By showing up at JNU, it can be argued, Padukone has finally revealed that she too is mindful of what is going on around her.
Bollywood royalty likes to position itself at a remove from the woes of the commoners. Sometimes, the A-listers’ idea of political engagement translates into agreeing with power rather than speaking to it – demonstrated by the photo-ops with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other political leaders and the resounding silence when the country’s rulers seem to be turning against the citizenry.
And yet, there appears to have some kind of a shift in recent weeks. A point seems to have been reached where silence is no longer possible. The protests raging against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which, critics argue, discriminate against the Muslim community, have found the support of sections of Bollywood.
On Tuesday, several prominent film personalities including directors Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Vishal Bhardwaj, and actors Taapsee Pannu and Richa Chaddha attended a protest on Mumbai’s Carter Road.
On Tuesday, Padokone became the biggest Bollywood name to show her support. Some might say that she has lost it, while others will argue that she has actually found it – her conscience, if not a spine.
Should we call this phase Star Wars: A New Hope? Fans who want their idols to open their mouths only to parrot dialogue or list the attractions of their movies will strongly disapprove of this straying beyond the brief. Political-minded filmgoers who want their favourites to state their positions on burning issues finally have something real to debate. Establishment types who want Bollywood to stay in its corner will be most upset. Dissenters who believe that the presence of entertainers causes needless distraction from the matter at hand will be equally dismayed.
Either way, nobody will be allowed to forget the backdrop for Deepika Padukone’s visit – the attack on the JNU students.