A top-flight Bollywood actress standing with folded hands in front of a person who is not readily visible: this image, which flashed across the globe in less time than it takes to type this sentence, captured a moment.
Deepika Padukone’s unannounced mid-week visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — where she greeted the injured student leader Aishe Ghosh, and then stood quietly, one amongst the sea of faces behind Kanhaiya Kumar — was unaccompanied by a statement. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. She was there. In solidarity. In empathy. Right there, right then, Big Bollywood was standing up, speaking up.
New voices a break from past
Cynics and online trolls, who slammed Padukone’s JNU visit as a “publicity gimmick to promote” her new film Chhapaak, couldn’t really be blamed. It’s been a long-standing PR-marketing practice, to dig up a convenient controversy just ahead of the release of a film, which is allowed to as conveniently die down, once it has made sufficient noise.
But what these vitriol-drippers were forgetting was that there are a million ways for an A-list star to attract public attention. Padukone could have gone anywhere, and she would have managed to get a crowd swarming around her. She chose, instead, to stand up and be counted, at a student-gathering at JNU, a place which, if you believe the vicious narrative woven around it, is full of “desh ke gaddar (traitors)”.
The question that came tumbling out in the aftermath of that unprecedented moment was this: would the biggies of Bollywood break their silence? The Khans, the Kapoors, the Bachchans, those who rule the film industry, and those who have chosen to resolutely keep quiet, despite the grave recent provocations, including attacks on students of Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and JNU.
It isn’t as if there had been radio silence till then. Over these past few years, actors Swara Bhasker and Richa Chadha have consistently been vociferous in their calling out of troubling issues (lynchings, rapes, misogyny), leading to a shower of online abuse. Sonam K Ahuja and Sushant Singh have been standing tall as well. Anubhav Sinha’s Twitter feed is an entertaining compendium of speaking out, or fending off of trolls. But what really changed the tempo, and upped the game, was Anurag Kashyap’s return to the social media platform, which he had famously quit a few months ago.
“I think I got back (to Twitter) because I was just so angry when I saw the violence (on students of Jamia Millia in December, when police went on the rampage inside the library and lobbed tear gas shells on the campus) and no one was saying anything. I had been made vulnerable a few times before, and had retreated (from Twitter), but this time the anger was so much that I threw away the fear,” says Kashyap.
Since then, there has been a constant barrage of combative tweets, not just from Kashyap, but also from a whole host of film personalities. Some have been vaguely worded (Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal); others have been sharply critical of the government and police, arraying themselves alongside the protesting students in universities around the country, and the regular folk who are coming out in support of the protesters, especially the women of Shaheen Bagh, near Jamia. “I was there (at Shaheen Bagh) on January 1, and felt so charged,” says Alankrita Shrivastava, who took on patriarchy in her Lipstick Under My Burkha. “And it’s wonderful how they don’t feel persecuted or victimised. It’s the students of India who have shown us the way.”
For Kashyap, “the sacred line was crossed when students were violated: earlier we dissented but we also knew we had a Constitution and Supreme Court and police. Now it is not so. Everyone is colluding and the sense of justice has eroded”. He has kept up the momentum with his tireless, relentless take-downs of the powers that be.
“Speaking up is important and the only right left that we should exercise,” he tells The Sunday Express. “Dissent should not have to be an act of courage.”
Why do you think some from your community are not speaking, I ask him. Is it the fear of retaliation, or is it that they are apolitical, and couldn’t care less about how things are as long as their interests are taken care of? “I think silence is also a statement,” he says. “Not attending dinners and not endorsing the government is also a statement. No one is apolitical. I also believe that the three Khans are not speaking because they will be ‘othered’ as very rich Muslims.”
Sinha echoes the sentiment, albeit from a different tangent. “When Shah Rukh spoke of intolerance (five years ago), he was attacked without mercy. His car was stoned, his life was threatened. Aamir’s statement (to The Indian Express, taking off from what wife Kiran Rao had said) was taken out of context. Did anyone stand up for them then? I think the problem with celebrities coming up front is that attention gets deflected from the issue. It’s a complex thing.”
But the argument has been that bona fide celebrities have power. And shouldn’t that be harnessed to highlight just causes? “As long as the focus remains on the students, and the issues they have been fighting for — fee hike, free-to-think-and-act-campuses, democracy — any or all support is fine. The problem with big stars is that they take that attention away,” says director Sudhir Mishra.
So how would he assess Padukone’s visit to JNU? “Deepika chose to make a film like Chhapaak. She has challenged the very notion of what a Bollywood heroine should look like. That’s also a kind of protest, no?” he says. “And her going to JNU was in continuity with that same sentiment, no? I don’t think it was a stunt.”
That rhetorical “no?” is a yes, of course. It seems particularly appropriate to speak to Mishra at this juncture about students, protests, and rebellion — the volatile mix in his striking debut feature, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin (1987), as well as Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (2004). As befits someone who has been around for “35 working years”, as he puts it with a laugh, he strikes a cautionary note when it comes to the incessant demand that the silent amongst them (especially the Khans) speak up.
“Sometimes, not speaking is braver than those who are speaking, because they know that it will become about them,” he says. “Every single party, not just the BJP, should be listening to what the young are saying. It is the students who have inspired Bollywood, not Bollywood that has inspired them.”
Mishra tells me he has taken this present situation personally. “I am a professor’s son, and grew up on campus. If you destroy the idea of education, you are destroying everything.”
Is that why he is re-making Yeh Jo Manzil Toh Nahin? Well, not really remaking, but re-visiting, because that’s how I ended my film in 1987, and I was forced to ask myself, have things not changed at all?”
The protest has also stepped off the safety of a digital platform and into the real world, even if momentarily. On January 6, a bunch of Bollywood folk gathered on Carter Road in support of the JNU students. In the crowd were, among others, Kashyap, Chadha, Vishal Bharadwaj, Anubhav Sinha, Hansal Mehta, Rahul Bose, Dia Mirza, Zoya Akhtar, Taapsee Pannu, Neeraj Ghaywan and Swanand Kirkire. “The whole thing (the gathering) grew organically and came together over a period of just a few hours,” says Sinha, whose past couple of films, Mulk and Article 15, have shone a light on religious and caste divides. “We deliberately kept it free of name-calling. It was our way of showing that we care, that we are with you ( the students).”
There was protest poetry (Bharadwaj brought the house down), song, and high spirits. When Kirkire sang ‘Baawra mann dekhne chala ek sapnaa’, that immortal song that embodies youth and rebellion and hope, everyone joined in. And when he recited his poem, the cheers took a long time to die down. “I penned my poem because it reminds me of Gandhi’s India,” says Kirkire, “the poem says that even if you do violence, we will come back with love”.
The ‘crowdfie’ at Carter Road may not have been as neatly produced a visual as the infamous selfie taken early last year by actors with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but what it showed, in its higgledy-piggledy seating arrangement, and the air of just having gathered, was that Bollywood was out there, and joining in with the real world.
How do you think this will pan out, I ask Kashyap. “The protests are definitely giving courage and perspective to people. Also putting pressure on the government. But keeping in mind the egos we are dealing with, we are in for the long haul.”
But then almost everyone in Bollywood asks: “Why just us? Enough movie people have spoken up. Why don’t sportspersons and industrialists and other icons speak up?”
with inputs from Ektaa Malik and Suansha Khurana
This article first appeared in print under the headline Here’s looking at you