Most of us can tell the good from the bad and ugly, but we still seek approval from certain higher-ups to reassure us of our own opinions. We need a hero’s seal of approval to validate our thoughts. Just think of the public authority that celebrities command – health workers rely on logic and evidence to prescribe vaccinations for new-borns, but it takes an added push from someone like you – Amitabh Bachchan – to actually turn polio vaccination into a success. You occupy every sphere of most Indians’ lives – you even stamp your approval and presence on regular household items like our beloved Maggi. In politics too, we remember that you won on a Congress ticket in 1984. That’s the omnipresent nature of your celebrity – you’re everywhere, from our exalted screens to our kitchens. You’re the hero for so many Indians.
Most of what you tell us about the products your endorse – Maggi, the state of Gujarat, insurance policies – we already know, yet your name adds weight to these opinions. And, as you remind us often, you are an actor by profession and endorsing these products is just a purely commercial activity for you. For example, we should not expect you to voice an opinion on Tanushree Dutta’s allegations against Nana Patekar and Vivek Agnihotri. Just because you advocated for women’s autonomy and explained consent in a much-cited scene in Pink, doesn’t mean you actually imbibed any of that information yourself, right?
I felt compelled to write this open letter to you after watching your dismissal of Dutta’s accusations. So here’s what I want to say to you:
We, the people who have invested so much of ourselves in your movies and given so much of our money to the products you endorse, want you to be the agent of the change we wish to see in the world.
We want you to acknowledge the wrongs that occur in your own industry, in the society and nation we collectively inhabit. To choose a specific example, you could have shown some sensitivity towards Dutta’s precarious position in Bollywood – your industry. You could have called for an investigation the way Aamir Khan did. But to say that you couldn’t comment on it since you are neither Dutta nor Patekar amounted to making light of a serious problem.
Older generations may not have expected celebrities or Bollywood stars to take public stands on social or political issues – but you’ve put yourself in that position by endorsing every product that comes your way, effectively imposing your opinions and preferences on millions of Indian households. It’s not a privilege that you can use selectively.
Since it’s Gandhi jayanti today, I ask that you “be the change” and tackle sexual harassment and assault in Bollywood if you want to see a world free from it.
Vikas Singh Sai is a PhD candidate in management research and tweets @vikassinghsai.