In 2007, when Deepika Padukone made her debut in the Hindi film industry, she was already well-versed in multiple languages, but had yet to learn Hindi – or at least learn it well enough to be able to speak it. For what use is a lexicon and competence if one cannot – or upon occasion, will not – use it to prove something to others?
Like I said before, the actress already spoke several languages, one of which is a rather universal tongue: body language.
As a model, an actor, a public personality, as a figure well-known from radiant toothpaste commercials and other endorsements, even a relatively inexperienced Padukone knew how to sit, walk, smile, listen and how to answer questions.
Thirteen years later, in 2020, I would say she taught a masterclass in body language when she went out on a limb and visited the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in the aftermath of a vicious and unprecedented attack on students and faculty members.
I would say that because I don’t believe the term “body language” should subscribe only to the contextual meaning that is popularly conferred upon it – relegating it to useful tips for a successful interview or checklists to ensure a romantic partner isn’t put off.
The body speaks every single moment of every day, it has its own lexicon and brings with it its own competence, it possesses a separate weaponry whose capabilities we are alternatively unaware and hyperaware of. When Padukone consciously chose to drive out to the JNU campus, she must certainly have been hyperaware of her body’s – and thereby her mind’s – decision.
I, as a layperson, cannot fathom appropriately the weight of this cranial – and therefore physical – hyperactivity that must have plagued her person. Could there have been moments in the journey to the campus, several pressing urges, to ask her driver to stop and turn around? A secretary could easily, almost mechanically, have conjured up an excuse.
This is, after all, a notoriously in-demand film star that we are talking about.
In any case, the driver didn’t turn the car around and the secretary did not place a few quick phone calls. Padukone visited the campus, stood amidst the students gathered outside the administration block, silently observed the ongoings, responded appropriately when spotted and greeted, and then left after some time.
What is particularly sad for me as an Indian who follows actors and filmmakers from other countries, is the fact that I – along with other Indians like myself – have to make a hero out of an actor who chooses to do something we’re all expected to do when we know a language masterfully well: speak it, use it.
What Padukone did was not a heroic act, not when I take a step back and approach it with what I can perhaps call a global skepticism. But in India, yes, it was heroic. It was an act deserving of honourable mention at the Ramon Magsasay Awards. It was unbelievable, it made us fear for her life (all over again), and most importantly, it made us look at her industry colleagues and then in turn at ourselves.
Thank you @deepikapadukone for standing up for students and youth against fascist bullies.
The times they are a changing!
— Umar Khalid (@UmarKhalidJNU) January 7, 2020
In a recent post, a friend of mine stated that she didn’t believe actors and media personalities were obligated in any way to take a stance. I found myself concurring. Nobody should be made to feel obliged to take a stance in situations like the one we currently find ourselves in. It could lead to forced expressions of solidarity among other inauthentic decisions, and as a use of our aforementioned language skills, it would then not have the desired effect.
But what my friend put in words was applicable mostly to those industry colleagues of Padukone, people who were by then being called upon – and called out – by several social media users to speak up, use their voice, express a much-needed, if inauthentic, solidarity.
Their ordinarily resounding voices, now silent, were like pointed forks being dragged across glass crockery. But at the end of the day, I had to look at it as a rather mathematical imbalance: thousands of lay people – students, writers, professors, white-collar workers, homeowners, and others – were struggling to publish their voices and educate as many people as possible. And on the other hand, we had these celebrated media personalities with a billion straining ears glued to their fortified main doors, dying to catch a whisper.
It was simply not to be.
All of these colleagues speak all the same languages as Padukone. They speak Hindi, and they speak English. Sometimes, they speak other languages as well. But this particular competence, of letting your actions do the proverbial speaking, is rare amongst these talented stalwarts. And outside of all idealistic formulations, no one in India would be doing the right thing by criticising these silently twinkling stars for not, let’s say, shining bright (and loud).
These critics would have been ordinarily right – I too would have seen myself and acted as one, but what is unfolding in India is a textbook example of fascist structures razing the landscape of our ‘nation’. I say textbook because I do believe we – like the Germans – are going to make it to the textbooks in another 20 years or so.
And I put nation in quotation marks because I do not believe we are – or have ever successfully been – a nation. A subcontinent, yes. A burgeoning and incredible landmass, most definitely. But one single country? No. And to expect someone – anyone, really, but specifically someone well-known – to take a stance against fascism requires thought and consideration. And reconsideration.
Did Padukone take a stance against fascism? I believe she did. And I believe outside of her visit to the JNU campus, she wasn’t alone in doing so. There has been a meagre sprinkling of others like her, voices we all were quiveringly grateful to hear. But it’s this particular visit of hers that made me think of body language, of the state’s elaborate and lathi-wielding machinery to stifle these speaking bodies and mute their competent language, and of the ways in which we negotiate with silence. How we are constantly arriving at outcome-based decisions, how our consequentialist thinking is depressing but at the same time set firmly in a rationality with which I, at the very least, continue to sympathise.
The comedian Sorabh Pant had this memorable line to say about witnesses in the Nitish Katara murder case backing out faster than sports cars in the Fast and Furious franchise: “You don’t want to be a witness…to your own death.”
Articles in financial newspapers and magazines are already predicting that endorsement deals and other ancillary offers will not be presenting themselves at Padukone’s doorstep anytime in the near future. Some have diagnosed her recently-opened film Chhapaak with disappointing numbers and are attributing it to her JNU visit, which she made only a few days before the film released.
Also read: Who’s Afraid of the University?
The expected onslaught of imbecilic comments has been received by the actress with an expected amount of dignity and composure. But the thing to note is that Deepika Padukone is no newcomer to perceived losses of dignity and composure. She let the whole nation know, a few years ago, how cripplingly unable her clinical depression had made her, how much she had to struggle in this country to even begin to understand why she, as a human, was experiencing what are essentially uniquely human emotions.
Because that is what our society is invested in: it separates us from our bodies and makes them unrecognisable, it obfuscates all possibilities of resolution and leaves us perpetually at the mouth of a black hole, screaming for help. And scream she did. Thankfully, she got the help she needed. She was able to get it.
But for an actress of her fame and ranking (and nationality) to recount how she used to go to her trailer to cry in between scenes is telling. It tells us something about this actor. It tells me that she is unafraid to let people know that she can successfully walk the tightrope, people who form a booing, misogynistic crowd beneath her, threatening not just to let her but make her fall.
Like I said before, I hate to be doing this. I hate to be glorifying an act as simply stated as Padukone’s. But it needs to be done. I’m a student of the German language and I recently assigned myself the task of writing about what’s going on in India right now. Understandably, there were many words and phrases that required careful and head-scratching translation. The peat bog of terminology in which we are trying unsuccessfully to swim is overwhelming in any language – and German – was no exception.
It made me think of a time in the future when this language would no longer be overwhelming, when it would be daily parlance, when it would be policy, when we would have to pat our pockets for our papers like we do for our wallets.
And in the meanwhile, I decided to use my language, just as – but not really in the same way as – Deepika Padukone decided to use hers.
M.S. Palekar is a student of English and German literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui