Celebrity folk from Hindi cinema love to get clicked and strike poses, but so far, have been loathed speaking up on pertinent issues. A couple of years back, the Khans- Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman- did speak out against rising intolerance of divergent opinions and politics in India. They earned severe backlash, and ever since, went back to toeing the neutral line on almost everything. Except for a few voices that often raised themselves, sometimes sounding illogical, like Anupam Kher, Bollywood’s big names would rarely speak up. 2018 will go down as the year when this changed, hopefully, forever.
It began with Padmaavat. While still being made by Sanjay Bhansali, a rather incoherent voice from a fringe, trouble making Right wing raucous section within Rajasthan and parts of North India raised a storm calling it dishonor for their holy queen. Aside from oral histories, there is no archaeological or textual evidence that a Rani Padmavati, who took the plunge into a funeral pyre for her honor along with thousands of women from her kingdom, lived. Yet, Bhansali was physically assaulted, sets were vandalized. The worst part came when the film got a threat of not releasing in key states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In a visible muzzling of the freedom of expression and an artist’s universal freedom to interpret life, surprisingly, relevant ministries from the central government didn’t step in. And then death threats were issued to Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Bhansali. Deepika stood out when she said that threats of death don’t deter her from doing her bit as the leading star in a worthwhile film. Deepika’s stand found support from the film fraternity, with multiple voices from direction standing up for Bhansali. Often scared of fringe elements causing damage to their property and families, film fraternity usually goes mum when one amongst them suffers. This time around though they stood by a thought leader in cinema. And when the film released, it turned out to be exactly what the filmmaker and his team were stating all along- Padmaavat saluted Rajput courage and culture, (rather regressively I think). Deepika’s courageous voice set a standard for leading women.
Following in her footsteps, in fact, was the most cantankerous critic of Padmaavat, Swara Bhaskar. Bhaskar hated the film so much that she considered it giving her the feeling of just being a vagina. Her misplaced hyper reaction aside, Bhaskar bore the brunt of the crudest form of trolling and shaming on Twitter for her role in Veerey Di Wedding. In the film, she masturbates in a scene. Humiliating her on Twitter, on what can only be logically concluded as a fringe conservative, right-wing element online, they made a silly spelling error of the keyword (read masturbation). Swara took them on with humor, and film folk, as well as regular people, joined her in ridiculing inane attempts at thought control by the element of holier than thou quasi-political thinking. Bhaskar’s most vocal advocate is her friend Sonam Kapoor. Despite her extreme points of view, Bhaskar is a rare, educated, opinionated voice in a space like showbiz where banal sweet nothings dominate from women. Trolling her became a habit when her father, security and strategic affairs expert, Uday Bhaskar faced the same. His insight regarding the Supreme Court’s verdict on Article 377, and homosexuality, earned him a crude tweet where a person posted a screenshot of Bhaskar’s self-pleasuring scene and asked about her in a sleazy manner. The actor took this person on, and many people joined her in giving it back. The Delhi lass with sass set the reverse trend on Twitter this year- of celebrities kicking ass when some people cross the line of civility.
Taapsee Pannu, another strong-willed girl from Delhi, has been dealing with trolls with her wittiest, firmest voice this year. Pannu began to face the heat of social media trolling in a personal, malicious and menacing manner right from 2017 when she posted photos of herself in a bikini from the film Judwaa 2. Each time, she has shut down those that remark dirtily with smart witty retorts. To one who called her the ugliest actress in B-town and someone he never wants to watch onscreen, she sharply replied that while she has 3 upcoming films, she has signed up for 2 more. The troll, therefore, must deal with her being around for some more time. As recently as this month, Pannu gave it back to someone who said he liked her body parts. She said she loves her cerebrum the most. Clearly, this is a young, smart self-made movie star who will not be humiliated just because of her celebrity status. Like her co-star Abhishek Bachchan from the film Manmarziyan, when people turn indecent or simply nasty without reason online, Pannu will speak up. Kudos to her!
Just before one starts wondering if the part of speaking out has come upon women alone in filmdom, the most refreshing change have been the young male stars of this generation and their stand on the #MeToo movement. Ranbir Kapoor, the year’s bona fide superstar, took a major misstep early on while promoting his money-spinner Sanju. When asked about the casting couch, Kapoor joked, saying, he hasn’t faced it. His reply smacked of privilege and the infamous protection that the film industry’s inner circle provides. Reportedly he has corrected this by firing his talent manager, the aggressive social butterfly Anirban Das Blah and prime accused of #MeToo In India. Disappointingly, Kapoor has still not spoken out in favor of the campaign publicly, as he is ostentatiously absent from social media. But his colleagues- Varun Dhawan, Ranveer Singh, the Badshah Shah Rukh Khan spoke up in favor of Tanushree Dutta, the first woman to ignite interest in this worldwide campaign in the Hindi film industry. Some others like Farhan Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap got burnt when they spoke up, but they still stuck it out. Kashyap apologized for not doing enough for a victim, and Akhtar continued to support women that were stepping out with their stories of abuse or harassment. Men in Bollywood tend to speak about their female colleagues or other female staff only in jocular or semi-derogatory terms during promotions and events. That so many spoke up on a burning social issue and supported their female colleagues indicates a very positive change in mindsets. Finally, they are beginning to acknowledge the value a woman brings to a film- both onscreen and behind the scenes. The current generation of filmmakers too, spoke up often in favor of women and prejudices that they suffer in the course of the #MeToo movement.
Not so surprisingly, Naseeruddin Shah finds himself without support from the film fraternity when he expressed concern about the state of politics in our nation. His remark that the death of a cow is given more importance in some places over the death of a cop, and worries over secularism versus religious identity around his children, got him ire from the Right-wing fringe yet again. Unlike Shah’s fate, Priyanka Chopra got overwhelming support from her colleagues in Bollywood when the New York Magazine supplement, The Cut, published a spiteful article about her marrying a younger man. Sonam Kapoor, Arjun Kapoor and Sona Mohapatra reacted sharply to this discriminatory article as many others, including journalists of Indian origin in the USA joined in. Once again in a refreshing show of support for a colleague without vested interest, a voice with an opinion stood out.
When Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, along with co-actors Swara Bhaskar and Shikha Talsania spoke out against the shocking Kathua rape case, their actions were read as a publicity stunt. Perhaps, these were to an extent. But they were also brave and positive in a space where vacuous pitches to audiences rule. As a journalist who has tracked cinema for television news for a decade I wish I were on field everyday in this period. We would struggle to draw water from a stone when it came to getting reactions from Bollywood stars on relevant socio political issues. Today, they do react, and say something, in the process making a lot of sense. Now it’s up to us as a democratic and freethinking society to not lynch them and let them speak instead.