January 10, 2020 2:16:35 am
In 2018, members of a right-wing communitarian organisation offered a reward of Rs 5 crore for the murder and decapitation of Deepika Padukone because she played a character in Padmavaat which they found offensive. In 2020, Padukone — as herself, exercising her agency as a citizen of India — first praised the young protesters across the country and then visited the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi on Tuesday to stand with protesting students after the brutal attack on them by masked assailants on January 5. She made no statement on campus but she didn’t need to — her presence itself was eloquent testimony to a fundamental shift in the relationship between the film industry and society at large, generational as much as political.
Cinema and politics in India have had a close association stretching back to Independence. Many stalwarts from the South India film industry as well as Bollywood have campaigned for mainstream political parties, especially for the dominant party of the time, and even contested elections. But rarely have they been a part of the civil society’s response to contentious issues in the national conversation. The current moment marks a departure from that trend. Swara Bhaskar, Diya Mirza, Taapsee Pannu, directors Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Kabir Khan and Alankrita Shrivastava, other young actors like Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan have not registered their protest from a partisan political platform. Padukone, for example, did not rail against the government. Instead, she said, “I feel proud that we (the youth) are not afraid of expressing ourselves”.
The new breed of stars is no longer imprisoned in a gilded cage of likeability — of pretending to have no politics or awareness of about what happens outside tinsel town for fear of causing offence. The logic behind projecting an image of being distant from the society at large was two-fold: First, alienating powerful people would mean a loss of work and potential box office revenue — through threats of boycott, producers and distributors being put under pressure, etc. Second, the actor was seen as a blank slate and, unlike in Hollywood, lineage, right connections and affability were more important for getting work than talent and hard work. The new breed is confident of finding their audience through the quality of their work and the neutrality of a deeper market. They are also unafraid to stand up for their beliefs, against perceived injustice. The latter makes them of a piece with their generation at large — the young men and women out on the streets against the CAA among other issues. The protests, first in the aftermath of police violence at AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia and now, with the attack in JNU, have served to politicise a new generation and generated conversations about the meaning of citizenship, constitutionality and fraternity in the Indian context. The young people working in cinema, it is clear, are not immune from that inspiration. Calls to “boycott” Padukone and her films are bound to fail for this reason. Society can’t necessarily change a generation, but generational change can transform a society. Demographic dividend isn’t just about a larger work force — it also means more young people with courage of their conviction. Applaud that.
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