Why you should care
They're standing by each other despite boycott calls from Hindu nationalists, demonstrating rare solidarity in a cutthroat industry.
Wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, her hair neatly tied in a bun, Deepika Padukone, India’s highest-paid female actor, stood next to students on a cold night last Tuesday as they protested an attack by masked assailants at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Padukone, who was on Forbes’ list of 10-most paid female actors globally in 2018, had a film called Chhappak — about an acid attack victim — due to be released three days later. Yet she appeared at the protest against right-wing attacks at India’s premier research university, aware of the risks to the film and to her.
Two years ago, Hindu nationalist groups had threatened to chop off her nose because a film, Padmaavat, had a scene that included a dream sequence of a ‘Muslim’ king wanting to be intimate with a ‘Hindu’ queen played by Padukone. Mobs vandalized the film’s sets, setting back its production schedule. Such attacks have left Bollywood feeling “vulnerable,” says actor Swara Bhasker. That, in turn, has meant that unlike Hollywood, where actors and filmmakers have spoken out against governments, A-listers in Bollywood — the world’s second-best paying film industry — have largely remained apolitical public personas. Under the current government, in fact, many have even queued up to click selfies with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The JNU attack was the tipping point and that is when the Bollywood women started speaking out.
Swara Bhasker, Bollywood star.
Now, as protests spread across India over a controversial new citizenship law and attacks on students, Bollywood women are breaking with that pattern even as the biggest male actors, such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, stay quiet. In December, police thrashed students of Jamia Millia Islamia university and Aligarh Muslim University who were protesting the citizenship amendment law, which discriminates against Muslim migrants. Priyanka Chopra, the other female Indian actor on that 2018 Forbes list, spoke out. “In a thriving democracy, to raise one’s voice peacefully and be met with violence is wrong,” she wrote on Twitter. “Every voice counts.”
Alia Bhatt, Tapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Konkana Sensharma, Nandita Das, Sayani Gupta and Bhasker are among the other well-known actresses who have — on social media or on the streets — spoken out against the law or the attacks on students. And after supporters of Modi’s ruling BJP party called for a boycott of Padukone’s film because she stood by JNU students, some actors have leapt to her defense — a rarity in the cutthroat industry.
“The JNU attack was the tipping point and that is when the Bollywood women started speaking out,” says Bhasker.
For sure, some male actors — such as Siddharth and Zeeshan Ayyub — have supported the protests, as have a few award-winning directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Anubhav Sinha. But the biggest earners have avoided saying anything. India has a history of banning films deemed provocative. Producers have been forced to apologize for casting Pakistani actors, Bhasker points out. Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan faced calls for boycotts of their films when they spoke about growing intolerance in the country.
India is also witnessing a broader “shift in terms of gender relations, which has meant that there is a certain level of male anxiety,” says Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the New Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth. But while male actors are often expected to take on roles that pander to machismo and themes of nationalism, he says, “the market that the women stars are catering to is different.”
The organic, citizen-led nature of the protests makes it easier for female actors to join without appearing politically affiliated, says Bhasker. Like Padukone, many of them have also faced vicious threats and abuses for their film choices or for speaking their minds in the past — they’re familiar with what the protesters are facing.
Some like Bhasker have addressed protest rallies against the citizenship law in Mumbai. And on the night the masked assailants went on a rampage at JNU with chants of “shoot the traitors of the country,” she broke down while appealing to her 537,300 Twitter followers to turn up at the university gate to help those stuck inside. The attackers thrashed students protesting a 300 percent fee hike, and the teachers supporting them. “They are attacking teachers’ houses now. Obviously, this is very personal for me because my parents live on campus.” [Bhasker’s mother Ira Bhaskar is a professor at the university].
Others like Padukone — who has a brand value of $102.5 million — have let their presence do the talking. During the attack at JNU, the students union President Aishe Ghosh was brutally injured — she had to get 16 stitches on her head and a cast for her broken left hand. When Padukone visited the campus, she didn’t speak but met Ghosh with folded hands, evidently trying to fight back tears.
Will her solidarity with the students affect the earnings of her new film? Government ministers and BJP spokespersons have targeted her on Twitter, helping drive #boycottdeepika and #boycottchhappak. But film trade analyst Girish Johar points out that Padmaavat, for which Padukone received threats, eventually became one of Bollywood’s top-10 grossers of all time. “If Chhapaak turns out to be a good film, it will definitely perform well,” says Johar.
Meanwhile, other barriers are being broken. Bollywood actors and directors compete hard against each other for the same screen space and audience adulation. But actors like Chadha have been active on Twitter, defending Padukone, debunking a false rumor that the makers of Chhapaak changed the identity of the Muslim perpetrator of the acid attack to a Hindu name. “Why do ppl [people] come forward to prove their stupidity every day?” she says in a reply to one Twitter user. “Stop lying.”
The rallies across the country are filled with slogans that start with the words “It’s so bad that,” to highlight how people who previously have stayed away from public protests are now joining in. Bhasker smiles and says, “You know what we need …‘It’s so bad that even Bollywood is out on the streets’.”