Can We Please Stop Scrutinising Zaira Wasim’s Decision to Quit Bollywood?


Can We Please Stop Scrutinising Zaira Wasim’s Decision to Quit Bollywood?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

If you’re wondering why Zaira Wasim is being shouted about on the evening news, it’s because on Saturday, she announced her “disassociation” from the film industry via a series of lengthy Instagram posts. Considered one of Bollywood’s brightest young talents, Wasim shot to massive fame with her debut in Dangal, in which she played the young wrestler Geeta Phogat. Three years later, she starred in Secret Superstar, an Aamir Khan production in which she portrays a girl from a conservative Muslim family, who defies the strict rules imposed on women by hiding her face behind a niqab to become a YouTube singing sensation. Incidentally, this is also the film that Wasim’s critics have used to point out the irony of her quitting acting and choosing to prioritise her religious beliefs instead. 

In the short span of her career, Wasim, a tremendously evocative actor, has already won both a Filmfare and a National Award. With another release, The Sky Is Pink on the cards later this year, many have naturally insisted that she might have been pressured to give up acting. The pack was led by journalist Barkha Dutt, who extrapolated Wasim’s statement into a commentary on modern feminism, and actress Raveena Tandon, who has since apologised for tweeting that Wasim is “ungrateful” and innocently wondering if she has been forced to quit by “radicals”.

Veteran actor Anupam Kher also said Wasim might have been coerced, while author Taslima Nasreen called her “moronic” and said she has been forced to go under the “darkness of the burqa.” Many Twitter intellectuals took to wholesale condemnation of Islam as a religion that forbids the arts, while others have blamed Wasim for making Muslims look regressive. (Meanwhile, ganging up on a teenager on social media is obviously a super progressive position.) Wasim even had to refute fake news that her accounts had been hacked. 

The prevailing sentiment essentially seemed to hint that Wasim couldn’t have made up her own mind, without the inexplicable force of external influences. Slow clap for all the ACP Pradyumans out there. 

But here’s the thing that these keyboard warriors missed considering: Maybe, Wasim’s decision to step back from acting has nothing to do with anyone else. In her statement, neither did Wasim refer to other Muslim actors nor did she mention that Islam forbids anything. Instead, she spoke of being unable to reconcile her faith with the shallow, worldly measures of accomplishment the industry brought upon her and of finding herself in an environment that disturbed her inner peace and stability. She explained that her perceptions of success and failure had still been developing when she first became famous at the tender age of 15. According to Wasim, she suddenly became a role model for the youth without ever setting out to become one and increasingly felt like she was trying to be someone she wasn’t to fit into this “new lifestyle.” She said that “life is too short yet too long to be at war with oneself”, showing surprising clarity and self-awareness for a girl who has apparently been brainwashed. 

It’s not hard to see that Wasim’s thoughts on religion were no more than a reflection of her own mental turmoil. Is this really the first time we’re hearing this kind of thing from a child star who has been thrust into the limelight? The annals of Hollywood showbiz are lined with the bodies of child stars who crashed and burned after early affairs with fame. Bollywood too can be a brutal place even for grown adults, as the string of #MeToo scandals revealed last year. We constantly complain about the industry being rife with misogyny both on-screen and behind-the-scenes, crime, nepotism, money-grubbing, and general hypocrisy. And we know that actors, especially young ones, face immense pressure in the public eye. Should we be surprised, then, that an idealistic teenager who still sees things in black-and-white has a hard time reconciling her closely held spiritualism with this seedy world? 

She said that “life is too short yet too long to be at war with oneself”, showing surprising clarity and self-awareness for a girl who has apparently been brainwashed.

Wasim has been open about struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal urges throughout her adolescence, when she took a break from social media last year. You don’t have to read between the lines to see that she feels the need to put her mental and spiritual well-being over her career. Maybe Wasim will rediscover Bollywood in a couple of years, or not at all. It would make her no different from countless other actors who quit — or indeed, from all your millennial friends who take gap years, or travel the country, or do basically anything that gets them out of the overwhelming rat race

And yet, astonishingly, Swami Chakrapani, the Hindu Mahasabha chief who said that Hindu actresses should follow her lead, and the Muslim clerics who have waxed lyrical about the evils of acting, haven’t copped even a fraction of the outrage that Wasim has. Nor have the supposed mature adults who casually tore down a vulnerable girl because she chose to express herself through quotes from the Quran. For those who jump to brand Wasim as regressive: The most regressive aspect of this sorry situation is that Wasim’s personal conflict has been dragged through other people’s agendas. Whether that’s conservative Muslims who applaud her for upholding the values of Islam, non-Muslims whose knee-jerk reactions have not allowed them to see past her faith, senior actors who think she’s being a brat, or so-called feminists who believe that giving up a good career is spitting in the face of one’s foremothers, few commentators have allowed Wasim to be her own person. Instead, an 18-year-old girl has been made into the unwilling spokesperson for all of Muslim womanhood. No wonder Wasim is so eager to leave the senseless scrutiny and the spotlight behind.