JNU Protest: Deepika Padukone is an Imperfect Ally But Also a Powerful One

Social Commentary

JNU Protest: Deepika Padukone is an Imperfect Ally But Also a Powerful One

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas and Aishwarya Nayak

“It’s so bad, even A-list Bollywood is here,” is what my placard would have said had I been at the Jawaharlal Nehru University protest on January 7. That night, one of the highest-paid members of the most exclusive industry in India showed up at an ongoing stir raising her voice against the attack on unarmed students of JNU that took place on January 5. Deepika Padukone arrived at JNU, where former students’ union president, Left politician, and brain tumour of news channels, Kanhaiya Kumar, was also present. While Padukone quietly joined the protesters, her mere presence at the scene set off a series of reactions from both sides of the political fence, propelled by the deafening silence of Bollywood’s biggest names.

While actors with lesser influence like Swara Bhasker, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, and Sushant Singh and filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, and Vishal Bharadwaj refuse to mince words and continue to protest from the front, the more mainstream stars have mostly chosen the middle road. The silence of the Khans – Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan – is often justified by fans: The two have faced public backlash for talking about growing intolerance in the country. But Deepika Padukone, then, has a lot more at stake.

Padukone is not only the lead actor but also one of the producers of Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, which is scheduled for release on Friday. Three of her last four Hindi films – Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018) – have faced the wrath of the right wing. Her last outing, Padmaavat, released two years ago, faced heat for trying to malign our “sanskar” with the Karni Sena and BJP politicians putting a bounty on her head. The film’s sets were vandalised and its release kept getting pushed.

Bollywood, as it is, is a largely patriarchal setup, where films with strong women characters are few and far between. Chhapaak is that exception. It was a given that an appearance at JNU, branded as a publicity stunt by critics, was going to invite the ire of supporters of the establishment. Yet Padukone did what she did, putting at risk her upcoming release. Here, let us give the actor some credit for knowing her mind and for standing up for what she believes in.

In light of all of that, the picture of Deepika Padukone with hands folded in front of an injured but resilient Aishe Ghosh is a powerful message to the Bachchans, Kapoors, and others who are still trying to “inform themselves before commenting”.

Bollywood is a largely patriarchal setup, where films with strong women characters are few and far between.

In an ongoing nation-wide crisis, celebrities are only second to the government in terms of receiving public criticism – the government for being active and celebrities for being passive. Under pressure from social media, both of this year’s National Award for Best Actor (Male) recipients, Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurrana, put up carefully edited, PR-friendly statements that said something and nothing. And yet, there was nothing from the A-list. Honestly, I’d begun to think that the A in A-list stood for “apathetic”. But today I’ll have to mind my snark. Hours after Padukone attended the JNU protest, Varun Dhawan and Kartik Aaryan spoke up and this, I think, might just be the beginning.

The Twitterati, however, immediately got to work – 21 of the top 25 trends at midnight on Tuesday were about Deepika Padukone, #BoycottDeepika and #BoycottChhapaak leading the pack. Somehow, even Ajay Devgn, who last spoke at the sets of Indian Idol many weeks ago, found himself some inadvertent publicity, when his Tanhaji: The Unsung Hero also started to trend.

Yet two days later, the questions and criticism keep coming: Why is she coming out now? Is this merely a promotion strategy? Is she trying to capitalise on the public sentiment? Why is her husband still silent? How can she protest against elements of the very regime that her husband is pally with?

But even if some of that is true, so what? Even if all of that is true, so what?

Three weeks ago, half of our discourse was about why big stars weren’t lending their weight to the movement, and now that one of them has, we want them to do it strictly on our terms – we have a problem with Padukone’s timing, we want to know why her husband is missing in action, we are accusing her of stealing the thunder with her “token activism”, we are accusing her of piggybacking over a legit issue for personal gains.

Women are not extensions of their husbands’ ideologies

There is so much that is wrong with these assertions. For starters – and I’m saying this again for the people at the back – patriarchy is no one’s friend. Women are not extensions of their husbands’ ideologies. And there seems to be a pattern here. Deepika Padukone goes for a protest, Ranveer Singh comes up in discussions. Twinkle Khanna speaks out against oppression of university spaces, she still receives criticism for Akshay Kumar interviewing the PM about mangoes. Parineeti Chopra kept getting asked why Priyanka Chopra Jonas was silent. Last year, Mallika Dua was heckled when her father Vinod Dua was accused of sexual harassment during #MeToo. All of these movements have seen women at the forefront, and this whataboutery is nothing but an attempt to undermine their influence. Yes, let’s agree Deepika’s protest avatar is nothing but a publicity stunt. So what? Imperfect activism is better than systematic oppression.

Even if JNU was a stunt, the simple act of bringing one’s star power to a social battlefield can go a long way. The influence of Bollywood on India’s people cannot be undermined. And if Padukone has urged even a handful fans to sit up and take notice, to question the government, it is worth the fight. If she has made the apolitical lot among us question why an influential celeb would extend her support to bus-burning, university-vandalising hooligans, her activism matters.

It boils down to this – at the time of a national crisis, we can use every additional ally. And while Deepika Padukone may be an imperfect ally, she is a very powerful one.