Bollywood's 'Usual Suspects' Spoke Up For Rhea. What Would Others Lose If They Did As Well?

Why should the collective burden of standing up against State repression always fall on Swara, Richa, Taapsee, Anurag, Anubhav and co?
Taapsee Pannu, Anurag Kashyap and Swara Bhasker
Taapsee Pannu, Anurag Kashyap and Swara Bhasker

On January 7 this year, Deepika Padukone showed up on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Two days before her visit, students on campus had been attacked by an armed mob of masked men and women — several of whom were subsequently identified as members of various right-wing groups associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

At JNU, Padukone stood beside a wounded yet determined Aishe Ghosh, the student President whose forehead was wrapped in a white dressing that covered the 15 stitches she needed after she was struck during the attack.

Outside campus, the country was in ferment: Thousands of Indians had taken to the streets to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – controversial laws that assign citizenship on the basis of religion and could disenfranchise millions of Muslims.

It was a powerful image: a major star on the campus of a university that has been systemically vilified by the Narendra Modi government, at an intensely political moment.

For a moment it felt as if the Hindi film fraternity would finally rise up and publicly say what many had been privately whispering to each other — that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was asphyxiating Indian democracy. That never happened.

Some of Padukone’s fence-sitting colleagues posted #Respect on Twitter. But none of the industry’s biggest stars spoke up. Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana, Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan — Bollywood’s young and restless — were suddenly invisible save for tokenist tweets that shied away from condemning the violence or showing support for the protests.

Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir — the Khans who once ruled the box office – were conspicuous by their absence. Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young iconoclast of the 1970s and 80s – has spent the past decade doing advertisements for Gujarat tourism.

Meanwhile, a whole section of upper-caste Hindu men and women in the industry has aligned themselves with the ruling dispensation (Hello, Akshay Kumar).

The fence-sitters are fence-sitting again in September: And this time it is as actor Rhea Chakraborty has been arrested after a months-long media campaign that has been so well coordinated across government-friendly television channels that it certainly feels orchestrated.

Ever since Chakraborty’s partner Sushant Singh Rajput tragically died by suicide on June 14, the BJP’s favourite television channels have whipped by anti-Bollywood campaign so vociferous that the Producers Guild has had to issue a statement that is as pitiful as it is self-serving.

“The last few months have seen relentless attacks on the reputations of the Indian film industry across all media. The tragic death of a promising young star has been used by some as a tool to defame and slander the film industry and its members. A picture has been painted of the industry as a terrible place for outsiders to aspire to; a place that treats those who dare to enter it with contempt and derision; a murky den of substance abuse and criminality. This narrative is salacious enough for the media to exploit to great effect in order to boost its rating, readership, and page views.”

Bollywood’s Modi selfie gang – Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal and sundry other industry insiders – have learnt that taking photos with authoritarian politicians on the eve of elections doesn’t buy you safety once the results are in.

Modi's infamous selfie with Bollywood
Modi's infamous selfie with Bollywood

The Unfairness Of Being The ‘Usual Suspects’

It is worth noting that Padukone didn’t say a word at JNU. She stood silently as the students around her shouted slogans. She left without giving a quote to the gathered cameras.

So it fell on the usual suspects — Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha, Zoya Akhtar, Taapsee Pannu, Anubhav Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Ali Fazal, Konkona Sen Sharma, Nandita Das — to speak up, something they have more or less consistently done since Narendra Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014.

Some of the others include Dia Mirza, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sushant Singh, Shashank Arora, Sayani Gupta and directors like Alankrita Srivastava, and Onir.

Among the ‘star kids’, it’s actor Sonam Kapoor who has consistently voiced her opinion, and has often been at the receiving end of systematic trolling.

Ironically, a majority of these artists are Bollywood’s true outsiders — the kind of strugglers and strivers that those tweeting #JusticeForSushant claim they support.

Their parents don’t own production companies, their nephews don’t run movie studios, their siblings aren’t prominent filmmakers. They aren’t among the industry’s highest-paid actors and do not have the resources to fight legal cases, hire bodyguards or top publicists to offset the hate comments that populate their Instagram and Twitter feed and potentially jeopardise influencer-driven marketing work.

They are the ones losing film roles, endorsements, and contracts for speaking their minds, especially since they’re so few in numbers. Several of the actors HuffPost India spoke to agreed that it would be a much different scenario if there was a collective spirit within the industry.

Swara Bhasker, who has been a vociferous critic of the current dispensation said that a skincare brand dropped her from an existing contract. Her termination letter said that she had ‘brought disrepute’ to the brand by participating in the CAA protests.

There’ve been times when, the actor said, her so-called ‘nuisance value’ has been discussed before considering her for a role.

“The last film (Veere Di Wedding) I did earned 100 crores at the box-office but since then I haven’t had a major film. No release in 2019,” Bhasker said over a phone interview. “The streaming platforms are ways in which we can still survive but I know for a fact that my name has been dropped off in studio meetings for being too political. Nobody, it appears, wants to trigger the hate factory.”

Bhasker equates Bollywood’s culture of silence to that of a patriarchal Indian family conditioned to protect the patriarch and avoid confrontation.

“Silence is considered as an etiquette that’s woven into our familial fabric. It’s not just fear of retribution from the State, which is of course there, we have a culture of avoidance. It’s considered ‘dignified’ to not engage,” she said. “But for how long? Right now, we’re facing an existential threat. If you don’t stand up for your own interests, who will?”

In the sort of self-referential arc that Bollywood movies revel in, Bhasker actually spoke up for Padukone when Surajpal Amu, a prominent member of the BJP, literally put a bounty on Padukone’s head for her role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat.

“When I wrote about my problems with the climax of Padmaavat, a lot of actors called me to say that they agree with my perspective but that I shouldn’t have said it publicly,” she said. “It tells you a lot about why many choose silence over taking a stand.”

Another actor, requesting anonymity, pointed out that some of the top stars have several layers of privilege guarding them as opposed to the relatively less powerful outsiders who endure the maximum burden. The wall of resistance created by the few vocal members of the fraternity protects and insulates everybody else without them having toiled for it.

“I know for a fact that Varun Dhawan is a liberal guy. He gets things. What does he stand to lose if he puts his weight behind issues that matter? Your father has a production house, your brother is a director, you are Karan Johar’s apple of the eye ― what are you going to lose?”

Anurag Kashyap had a different view.

He said, “The industry is very scared. It’s because of the way the government is and the way they come down on dissenters. I wonder that if even the most vocal celebrities in Hollywood would speak up, had they been Indians in India . It’s years of conditioning that makes us not speak up to power. I get these lectures on daily basis from friends and family.”

The Politics of Being ‘Apolitical’

The past six years suggest that decision makers at Bollywood studios and creative leads at advertising agencies object to a very specific type of politics. Only those who speak against the government, or even vaguely suggest that our din aren’t as acche as one would expect, are described as “political”. Those who tom-tom the virtues of the Prime Minister are considered bankable stars. (Hello, Akshay)

Two of the country’s top stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, who are Muslim, spoke out in 2015 against the growing intolerance. The ensuing backlash ensured they have since been silent.

“I have stopped commenting on these issues and that, I admit, is unfortunate,” Shah Rukh Khan told me in an interview in July 2016. His film, Dilwale, had released in December the previous year amidst protests and calls for boycott.

As for Aamir Khan, Snapdeal, the e-commerce company, dropped him as their brand ambassador after he spoke out.

One person who seems to have threaded the needle of speaking up, yet somehow avoiding the inevitable backlash is Taapsee Pannu.

Over the past year, Pannu has been calling out right-wing trolls, speaking up her mind on a spectrum of issues and even marked her presence at the Carter Road protests held in solidarity with JNU students that were attacked.

“Many people tell me that I am risking my career by saying certain things but it’ll be a very awkward thing for me to stay quiet over issues I strongly feel about,” Pannu said.

“In fact, some brands approach me because they think of me as an opinionated, strong-willed woman. I’m not ashamed of that image, In fact I want my audience to know how I think,” she said.

The other thing Pannu points out is the specific manner of her criticism.

“Perhaps because my ways of expression aren’t as extreme as some of the others who share the same viewpoint. I see things from the point of view of the crime, the problem,” she said. “I’ve always condemned the sin, instead of the sinner. This is why I feel things have not backfired for me.”

Pannu said that the reason it falls on the select few to speak up is because Bollywood is a huge industry with people who may not share a unified world view and that’s a problem.

“As a fraternity, if we had a more united stance, it wouldn’t have come to a situation where the industry is bad mouthed the way it is,” she said. “I don’t think we’d have reached here. Individually, people do fight but when we fight together, the power is so much more.”

People need to keep their personal grudges aside to come together, Pannu said.

“Remember, if the industry starts to become irrelevant, the internal rivalries won’t matter. Nobody will survive as an individual star. Everybody will go down if they choose to pull you down.”

HuffPost India sent detailed messages to the young male stars of Bollywood - Vicky Kaushal, Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana seeking a comment on their reasons for maintaining a stoic silence.

To our utter surprise, none of them responded.