Support for Iran Protests Highlights Indian Celebrities’ Predicament

There are costs for speaking up in the current political climate

Support for Iran Protests Highlights Indian Celebrities’ Predicament
Priyanka Chopra speaks onstage in New York City, 2022. Photo by Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images for Fast Company

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Last year, when American pop superstar Rihanna tweeted about the internet shutdown during the farmers’ protest in India, all hell broke loose on the internet. It was followed by similar tweets by climate activist Greta Thunberg and attorney Meena Harris, who is U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece. India’s external affairs ministry issued a statement saying that “vested interest groups” were trying to mobilize global support against India. Soon a barrage of Indian celebrities, including actors, filmmakers and sportspeople, started posting identical tweets in support of the government, accompanying them with hashtags such as #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether.

I worked for a newspaper in India at the time. My editor wanted me to call filmmakers and actors vocal on Indian politics to collect their reactions. The only person who picked up my call was Hansal Mehta, the award-winning filmmaker who has given India some of its finest social and political films, including “Shahid,” “CityLights” and “Aligarh.”

The moment he realized the purpose of my call, he started berating me. “Why do you single out those who speak up? Why don’t you ask others to comment?” he said. He expressed his annoyance a bit more and hung up. I do not blame him. There are only a handful of celebrities who are critical of the current regime in India and shoulder the weight of speaking up on the behalf of the Hindi film industry, popularly known as Bollywood.

Different camps have emerged in the Indian celebrity landscape in the past few years: those who actively speak up against the politics of hate; those who speak for the government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and those who are “apolitical” and remain silent. They ask whether it is a part of their job description to address political issues or whether it is simply to entertain. There are also those who had spoken up in the past and are now silent because of the vilification that followed.

There is another kind lying somewhere in between, which was highlighted recently: those who speak on international issues but remain silent on issues in India. Many would argue that Indian actor-producer Priyanka Chopra, now based in Los Angeles, is a leader of this camp. A United Nations goodwill ambassador, Chopra was criticized by a section of the society, including activists and journalists, for her “selective outrage” and “double standards” as she expressed support for the hijab protests in Iran while maintaining silence on the attacks against India’s Muslim women for wearing the hijab earlier this year.

Earlier this month, the 40-year-old actor, named one of the 100 most influential people by both Time and Forbes magazines, took to Instagram, where she has 83 million followers, to express how she was in “awe” of Iranian women. “To ensure that this movement will have a lasting effect, we must hear their call, understand the issues and then join in with our collective voices. We must also get everyone who can influence others to join as well. Numbers matter,” she wrote. Back home in India, Chopra has not supported or joined any recent protest movements.

Around the time of her post, in early October, news reports and videos made the rounds on social media of Muslim men arrested for allegedly disrupting a Garba dance event during Navratri, a nine-day Hindu festival, in Gujarat’s Kheda district. They were tied to a pole and flogged with canes by the police as the locals gathered around to cheer. This incident, like many others, drew no responses. Maybe because Chopra already knows what backlash in India looks like. In 2018, her American TV series “Quantico” sparked controversy after an episode featured villains who were Hindu nationalists plotting against Pakistan.

In 2020, several Indian celebrities, including A-list actors Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor Khan as well as producer-filmmaker Karan Johar, were similarly criticized for showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. but not doing the same for minorities in India. Their silence was also noticed during the farmers’ protests in India in 2020.

However, there are costs for speaking up in the current political climate in India. Among the first to speak on the rising intolerance was Aamir Khan, a leading star in Bollywood since the ’90s. Invited to present the Ramnath Goenka Awards — the most prestigious prize for journalism in India — by The Indian Express in 2015, the actor said in a panel after the ceremony that the “sense of fear” was increasing and that his wife, Kiran Rao, a filmmaker and producer, thought they should move out of India.

“Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India,” he said. “For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day.” The Muslim actor, married to the Hindu filmmaker, made the comments in response to questions about the decision by prominent writers to return national awards to protest rising intolerance in India.

Khan, known for his thought-provoking cinema, was heavily trolled on social media. Many branded him “anti-national” and said that he was “welcome to leave India” and “go to Pakistan,” India’s Muslim-majority rival. The actor was dropped as the brand ambassador of Incredible India, the government’s official tourism campaign. Fearing backlash, Snapdeal, an Indian e-commerce company that he endorsed, distanced itself from him. Khan’s statement divided Bollywood too as many spoke up in his support, while a few criticized his remark. He responded by saying that those who were “shouting obscenities” at him were “only proving” his point.

The ghosts of this controversy have been haunting Khan since then. In 2016, Hindu nationalist organizations, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, launched protests against his film “Dangal” and #BoycottDangal trended on social media. It was expected that the campaign would affect business, but “Dangal” emerged to be one of the highest-grossing films in Indian cinema. In the biopic, Khan essayed the role of Mahavir Singh Phogat, the Indian wrestler who trained his daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari to become India’s first world-class women wrestlers.

However, Khan could not escape the backlash when his latest film “Laal Singh Chaddha,” the official Indian remake of the iconic 1994 American film “Forrest Gump,” was released in August. Dedicated campaigns ran for several weeks asking people to boycott the film, which prompted Khan to make a rare statement requesting people watch it. However, it bombed at the box office and its release on Netflix earlier this month was muted.

The trolls also wanted to shun the film because it starred Kareena Kapoor Khan. An A-list actor, she is married to Saif Ali Khan, also a leading star. The interfaith couple was heavily trolled for naming their children Taimur and Jehangir. After Taimur’s birth in 2016, many mocked the celebrity couple for apparently naming him after the 14th-century Islamic ruler Timur, who had invaded the Indian subcontinent. Later, Saif was forced to clarify their choice and said that Taimur is an ancient Persian word for iron, signifying strength. The couple was trolled again at the birth of their second child Jehangir in 2021. That is the name of the fourth Mughal emperor, who ruled the Indian subcontinent in the 17th century.

The biggest superstar of them all, Shah Rukh Khan, known as the Badshah or the King of Bollywood, popular not only in South Asia but the world over, has not been spared either. His appeal cuts across class and religion and for many, he represents the “secular soul” of India. (His wife, Gauri, a film producer and designer, is also Hindu.) In 2015, Khan, who often weighed in on political issues, had also spoken about rising intolerance in India. Like Aamir, he was trolled with tags such as “anti-national” and “go to Pakistan” making a comeback. Since then, he has also kept silent.

Despite that, an episode last year was perceived as the targeting of the Muslim superstar for not aligning with the Modi government like several others in the film industry. Last October, his son Aryan, 24, was arrested with two of his friends from a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai by officials of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) for alleged drug consumption. That the case was not routine became apparent when charges leveled by the agency seemed specious, including contact with an international drug racket, to oppose his bail. Rejected twice by the lower courts, he was released from jail after 28 days on bail by the Bombay High Court. He was exonerated by the agency earlier this year.

Aryan’s case was one of many by the NCB against Indian celebrities in the past two years, which had become a way of targeting Bollywood and discrediting the film industry that represented India’s secular ethos. As per news reports last week, irregularities and lapses have been found against some NCB officials by a vigilance committee set up to probe allegations of illegal arrests and extortion in several cases, including Aryan’s. It also said that the superstar’s son was “deliberately targeted.”

Among those who have been summoned by the NCB include the A-list star Deepika Padukone. The actor-producer had visited the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in January 2020 to express solidarity with students attacked by a masked mob. Her visit created a stir as it had come at a time when most in Bollywood had kept silent on the protests against a contentious citizenship law and attacks on students on university campuses. As expected, she was heavily trolled. This happened during the promotions of Padukone’s maiden production, “Chhapaak,” about an acid attack survivor. It performed moderately at the box office, and many cite the boycott as one of the reasons for that.

The drug cases had also become a subject of prime-time debates on TV news for months which contributed to the vitriolic hate against Bollywood. This led to a rare moment when industry bigwigs including Johar, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn broke their silence and filed a defamation suit against right-wing news channels Republic TV and Times Now, who ran “media trials” leveling serious allegations against celebrities without any evidence and used terms such as “dirt,” “filth,” “scum” and “druggies” to describe them.

The hate was so over the top that even Kumar and Devgn, who are known to be loyalists of the BJP government, joined in the lawsuit. Kumar, who has been known for action and comedy films since the ’90s, is now considered the poster boy for Indian nationalism in Bollywood. In fact, Prime Minister Modi, who has never held a press conference since he took office in 2014, gave a rare interview to Kumar ahead of the general elections in 2019. He is often snubbed as “Canada Kumar” on social media, as he had given up his Indian citizenship in favor of Canada in 2011.

It is not unusual for actors in India to join politics, campaign for political parties and stand for elections. In fact some have even led ministerial portfolios and state governments. However, the sharp political fault lines are a recent phenomenon. Since what they say has started to affect their lives and the business of their films, actors, filmmakers and producers are compelled to take cautious decisions on what they say in public.

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