Why Are Indian Celebs Silent on the CAA Protests? Ask Sushant Singh

Bollywood

Why Are Indian Celebs Silent on the CAA Protests? Ask Sushant Singh

Illustration: Arati Gujar

India is burning, as protesting students from across the country gather for a third day to raise their voice against the establishment, and its recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Act. And the clampdown that has followed since, has been brutal. Just a quick browse through the videos showing policemen hitting students with lathis in Delhi yesterday should be enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine. The ferocity used by the officers as they storm the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University is frightening and rage-inducing in equal measure.

Faced with these alarming visuals, Indians from all walks of life have banded together, and have been venting their anger and frustration on social media — with protest hashtags regularly finding a place in the top trends. But in all this, one can’t help but wonder what one highly influential section of society – Bollywood – has to say about the CAA protests.

Unfortunately, you aren’t going to find much in this regard. There have been a few posts of solidarity — Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Ghaywan, Anubhav Sinha, Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chaddha and Manoj Bajpayee have all tweeted in support of the students. Meanwhile, actor and TV presenter Sushant Singh (the former Savdhaan India host) went a step ahead of playing armchair revolutionary and joined the protests on the ground, at yesterday’s gathering at Mumbai University’s Kalina campus.

So, considering the scale of the protests, how come none of the “A-listers” have made official statements yet? I find it baffling that while almost the entire country has focused its attention on the protests, that all top-brass B-town superstars have decided to remain tight-lipped. Or, have decided to offer milquetoast critiques of the violence – not against students of universities across India, but against two unfortunate buses in Delhi. Exhibit A. Exhibit B. Exhibit C.

I mean, the people of India treat their stars like demigods. We flock in numbers to watch our favourite film stars in action, and stand in line for hours in the scorching heat to get a glimpse of them. We latch on to what they wore and where. And today, when the very people who enabled them to attain their super-stardom, are in need of the support of their icons and role models, very few are ready to speak up.

Bollywood

TV presenter Sushant Singh (the former Savdhaan India host) went a step ahead of playing armchair revolutionary and joined the protests on the ground, at yesterday’s gathering at Mumbai University’s Kalina campus.

Photo by Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

And then, a little later in the day, my phone pings and I read the notification. “Sushant Singh Quits Savdhaan India Amidst CAA and Jamia Protests.” Suddenly, the silence started making more sense. It’s clear now that over the years an implicit understanding has developed between superstars and those in power — either toe the line, or you’ll have to pay.

Remember back in 2015, when a statement from Shah Rukh Khan (a Jamia alumnus) created a huge furore? Usually known for his laid-back demeanour, SRK had said quite seriously on the issue of Pakistani artists in India, “There is extreme intolerance. Intolerance religiously… not being secular in this country, is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot.”

For the next few weeks the actor faced severe political backlash, and was labelled a Pakistani agent. There were also calls from various parties to boycott his film Dilwale.

A similar scene played out when Aamir Khan spoke out about India’s growing intolerance toward minorities. The 50-year-old superstar had said that he was considering leaving the country because of the growing religious discrimination, and immediately had to face the backlash of protestors, who demonstrated outside his residence and smeared black ink on his posters – and basically, proved his point. They downvoted Snapdeal, the online shopping platform he used to endorse. That day, Aamir Khan, too, was labelled “anti-national”.

Since then, the two Khans have mellowed down immensely. The other “A listers” seem to have consequently either fallen in line, or gone to the other end of the spectrum, like “nationalist” actor Akshay Kumar. So, absurd as it sounds, for now the only real celebrity our entire country can rely on, is Hollywood actor of 2012 fame, John Cusack, to pledge his solidarity with student protesters.

Within minutes of taking a stand, even remotely different to that of the establishment, you are branded “anti-national” and a ticket to Pakistan is booked in your name.

Cusack is, of course, from a country that has some respect for freedom of expression. Last year, when American President Trump imposed an obnoxious ban on the entry of Muslim from select countries into the US, conglomerates from Microsoft to Google and from Apple to Facebook, were allowed to vehemently oppose it. Celebrities like Kirk Franklin, Ellen DeGeneres, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, among others, openly opposed it.

In fact, some of the biggest names in Hollywood — George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep — have never hesitated or minced words when it comes to their opinion of the establishment and its policies. And they regularly get away with doing so because the repercussions are not so severe. Back home, we’ve seen a stark contrast.

Within minutes of taking a stand, even remotely different to that of the establishment, you are branded “anti-national” and a ticket to Pakistan is booked in your name. Apart from the monetary impact this has on actors’ careers, they must also deal with character assassination from all quarters.

So it’s clear that the likes of Sushant Singh have a clear choice: Speak up and run the risk of getting sacked, or earn their bread at the cost of a clean conscience. But maybe, we can stare hopefully at a third, more optimistic horizon — one where the film industry, the country’s intelligentsia and the civil society are gutsy enough to put up a united front. We need it now more than ever.

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