Cost of Speaking Up: Why is Bollywood So Spineless in Taking a Stand on Caste or #DalitLivesMatter?

Social Commentary

Cost of Speaking Up: Why is Bollywood So Spineless in Taking a Stand on Caste or #DalitLivesMatter?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Movie theatres are gearing up to re-open at half capacity this month, after seven months of cancelled theatrical releases. And yet, there has hardly been a day when Bollywood and its stars have been absent from the news cycle since the tragic suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14. The controversy surrounding his death has drawn lines in the sand that have become heavily political – a fate that now befalls every opinion from and about the Hindi film industry.

On one hand, Bollywood celebrities usually shy away from commenting on politics. While some, especially the ones known for doing indie films, frequently speak their minds, mainstream Bollywood A-listers usually maintain their silence when it comes to contentious issues. A notable exception, however, is when international causes start to trend abroad, leading to at least one hashtag that no celebrity with any social media clout ought to miss out on.

When a video of George Floyd being brutally murdered at the hands of the police in the US circulated earlier this year, social media exploded in outrage. Stars like Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, and Disha Patani tweeted about #BlackLivesMatter, a hashtag that was supported by most of the American entertainment industry as well. Ariana Grande, Jamie Foxx, and Ryan Reynolds didn’t just stop at paying lip service; they turned out to march in solidarity.

Meanwhile, Bollywood celebrities who jumped onto the #BlackLivesMatter movement were roundly called out for what was seen as opportunistic behaviour. Actors Abhay Deol and Kangana Ranaut pointed out that many of the actresses who endorsed BLM also did ads for fairness creams, promoting colourism and racism in India. Social media also tore into Bollywood for piggybacking onto American social movements as if they’re fashion trends, while ignoring issues that affect Indians.

And now, an even more egregious example of Bollywood’s hypocrisy is on display. The horrifying rape and murder of a Dalit woman in UP’s Hathras occurred on September 14, exactly three months after Rajput’s death. When the news broke, celebrities and ordinary people alike were outraged over the brutal crime. Many stars condemned the heinous act, but they stopped short of using #DalitLivesMatter, or drawing attention to the caste-based motivations behind the attack. And this refusal to recognise casteism has had real and devastating consequences.

Bollywood celebrities who jumped onto the #BlackLivesMatter movement were roundly called out for what was seen as opportunistic behaviour.

No skin in the game  

Of late, the narrative has undergone a sinister change, as the Hathras case is being covered up at the highest level. State CM Yogi Adityanath has called Hathras an international conspiracy to shame UP, a task that the state has accomplished very well on its own, when UP Police burned the victim’s body in the dead of night as her family begged for her return.

Now, the UP government is trying to spin the incident as a case of “honour killing” and not a caste crime. Even though the four men named by the victim are of the Thakur caste, an important voting bloc for the BJP, and local BJP leaders, as well as representatives of the Savarna Parishad, held a rally to defend the Thakur community following the horrific gang-rape case.

The atrocity against a Dalit woman is impossible to ignore. Still, when the vast majority of Bollywood – from those who tout their “apolitical” leanings, to “woke” political commentators – stopped short of identifying it as a casteist crime, it becomes that much easier for governments to legitimise their own agenda of stifling the caste angle.

So why are Bollywood stars so spineless when it comes to taking a stand in their own country? Being privileged enough that few issues really affect their lives, perhaps they, like too many of us, would rather look out for their own skin.

But it’s also worth remembering what happens when they do dare to raise their voices. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan — both global symbols of Indian culture — learned the hard way when they raised the alarm over rising intolerance, and were told to move to Pakistan by an army of trolls. Nor are they the only ones to face unwarranted harassment and abuse for expressing themselves in a way that the right-wing IT cell doesn’t approve. Deepika Padukone received an avalanche of hate for standing with student protestors in January; recently comedian Agrima Joshua was forced to apologise for using Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s name in a set two years ago.

Bollywood’s new nationalist agenda has been explicitly espoused by PM Modi, and enthusiastically taken up by a host of celebrities.

The life of an online mob

The latest victim of this troll offensive is megastar Akshay Kumar, who released a Twitter video defending Bollywood against the allegations of widespread drug abuse. For months, the media has shouted itself hoarse about a supposed Bollywood drug nexus, an idea that has taken hold in the right-wing imagination.

Kumar, known in the industry as a clean-living fitness freak, implored his fanbase to understand that not every member of the fraternity is a drug addict and to not destroy reputations on the basis of such sweeping speculation. Actor/MP Jaya Bachchan had earlier said the same in Rajya Sabha when she objected to the wholesale maligning of India’s most famous cultural industry. Bachchan faced a backlash then, and Kumar, despite his carefully cultivated government-friendly credentials, is no different.

Under the current administration, Kumar has become the most bankable star in the business. His viral interview with the presser-averse PM, which featured such hard-hitting questions as “Do you like mangoes?”, was widely panned for its sycophancy. Bollywood’s new nationalist agenda has been explicitly espoused by PM Modi, and enthusiastically taken up by a host of celebrities: Kumar, whose patriotic monologues are as much a part of his brand as action stunts, is a leader in the field. After doing countless nationalistic campaigns and becoming a mouthpiece for the ruling administration, speaking up could be the death knell of even Kumar’s massive, state-sanctioned popularity.

It’s no wonder that Kumar also failed to mention casteism in his condemnation of the Hathras rape and murder. Sure, celebrities haven’t signed up to be activists. But that is the price of being an artist, or even a citizen, in India today. Who else is left to make a noise for the woman from Hathras?