Would Deepika Padukone have turned up at Jawaharlal Nehru University if she wasn’t in the city to promote her film Chhapaak which releases this week? It’s probably safe to assume she wouldn’t.
You didn’t hear her when the Indian government blacked out every mode of communication in Kashmir (there’s still an internet blackout), you didn’t hear her last month when the Delhi Police dragged out students from libraries in Jamia Milia Islamia and threw them into lock-ups, you didn’t hear her when we shouted #NotInMyName and protested against lynchings, you did not hear her when Rohith Vemula died and this very JNU erupted in protests.
In fact, during an interview, when a reporter asked her why she was always quiet on social issues like lynchings, she said, “Then I’ll have to stop acting and become a full-time activist for lack of a better word.” She argued that she devotes a lot of time on mental health as well. Deep in your heart, you know Padukone’s argument doesn’t quite hold true. Taapsee Pannu, Richa Chaddha, Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhaskar all have full-time jobs as actors and have showed up when needed, taken on trolls on the internet and have stuck their necks out, without a film release in sight. She did not also turn up at Shaheen Bagh, where some of the protesting women actually belong to the economic demography of the character she plays in Chhapaak.
During an episode of Koffee With Karan, when the attacks on Padmaavat, especially targeting her were brought up, Padukone said she ‘understood’ why Bollywood couldn’t come out in public to support her.
So is she co-opting a protest led by young students who don’t have even a sliver of the privileges she has? A protest led by poor women who have spent nights out on the street in Delhi’s coldest winter, a protest which landed septuagenarians in jail? Protests which blinded, injured, maimed her audiences while most of her brethren stayed quiet? While she too, kind of, stayed silent?
At this moment in the country — when goons can go on a rampage inside a popular university in the heart of the country’s capital — there is no easy answer to this question.
In the past few years, every time a woman has chosen not to speak up against the government or its herd of foul-mouthed social media mafia, I’ve not held it against her. Every time Swara Bhaskar tweets, a hundred bots descend on her mentions to mention masturbation, or simply post the middle finger emoji in the comments. A BJP spokesperson tweeted at her saying ‘why are you doing ah ah ah looking at my picture’? Raaj Shaandilyaa, a Bollywood director who clearly has more A’s in his name than respect for women in his being, called Bhaskar ‘sasti’.
A few days ago, when a young woman I follow on Twitter posted photos of herself in her underwear to claim her right to exist on the internet and be proud of her body, her replies were flooded with women and men posting emojis of pigs, and rhinos and virtually retching at the sigh of her body. Writer and activist Rana Ayyub’s face was morphed onto a pornographic clip and shared widely for being critical of the Modi government. My friend, a political reporter, was sent pictures of penises on direct messages on Twitter after she reported on Kashmir, tirelessly.
I still remember the first rape threat that landed in my Facebook inbox after writing a political opinion for a website. I was 27, so you can say I was old enough to have normalised suggestions of sexual violence to an extent that it’s effect didn’t last longer than two angry curses. That day, however, the three line, crudely worded message in Hindi remained stuck in my throat in a way that made me afraid to take a deep breath for one whole day. It stung the first time. And then my body swiftly learn to live with it.
For every woman out there, the internet is a battlefield. A place where nameless, faceless entities with access to a keypad tirelessly attempt to virtually dismember our bodies, assault our personhood to basically feed their pathetic egos or further the schemes of their political masters.
“Did she know she was walking into a hellfire of virtual hatred? She probably did.”
You post a photo of a cup of coffee? You’ll probably wake up to a text hoping you scald your tongue and never be able to speak against the great achievements of the man. You simply type ‘democracy’, you’ll probably be told you’re lucky you can type that and ideally should be gangraped in a busy public place. You protest? You’ll spend the next week reporting handles that graphically describe how your body should be violated, while Twitter’s automated response tells you they did not find anything wrong with those tweets. If you are a woman, you can only exist on the internet if you can frequently mentally disconnect yourself from your body. Yeah.
Spokespersons for the BJP have found their quota of work for the day, set the wheels of their bot machine rolling and have openly exhorted people to chastise Padukone. If you’ve been around on Twitter, you’ve guessed the nature and language of tweets directed at her by now. That’s why it is significant that she turned up at JNU.
Would she and her team have envisaged this? Absolutely.
Did they perhaps think of the possibility that there will be jobless vandals waiting at theaters to disrupt screenings of a film she has sunk her money in and therefore cause her financial damage? Most definitely.
Did she know she was walking into a hellfire of virtual hatred? She probably did.
Yet, Padukone was there. When some of the biggest male stars of the industry chose to not invite the barrage of hatred that comes with having a voice, Padukone waded right into it. She could have issued a ‘let’s-keep-politics-out-of-colleges’ kind of lightweight PR statement, but instead she stood with a bunch of students violently vilified by the BJP and its machinery as ‘Urban Naxals’ and vandals. She did not gleefully join the perfumed fence sitter’s club and that is worth something in these times.
Yes, she has a mini village of people who’ll probably help her stay calm through the barrage of hate. Yes, there is no possibility that a goon will crack her skull with a lathi. Yes, the police which breaks students’ bones will probably be forming a circle of protection around her.
“She did not gleefully join the perfumed fence sitter's club and that is worth something in these times.”
There are at least two dozen people in Bollywood and sports in the country with similar or more privileges who couldn’t cough up a single word in the past few weeks, so clearly she was among the few who decided to take on these soft challenges of having a spine. Pretty late in the day, but at least, we are here.
Richa, Tapsee, Deepika, Zoya, Dia, we will remember, did what the Shah Rukhs, Hrithiks and Ranbirs couldn’t. Please don’t mention Akshay Kumar now, my eyes may fall off from rolling at you.
A popular sentiment against Padukone when she spoke about depression was also that it was a public relations strategy. Well then, I am all for PR strategies that, even if mildly, diss oppressive regimes that survive on human beings with privilege and power not owning up to their spines. Because you know, in the industry she comes from, making films singing praises for semi successful government projects, taking selfies and interviewing the Prime Minister on remedies for flu comes with rich benefits.