Three days ago, Priyanka Chopra posted ‘I can’t breathe’ on her Instagram account. These words, uttered by George Floyd moments before he was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, have sparked an uprising against systematic racial oppression in the US.
Priyanka Chopra, like many of her American counterparts, condemned the act and extended her solidarity to George Floyd’s family. She wrote, “I am praying for you.”
However, the comments section was full of people calling out Chopra for her selective solidarity and hypocrisy.
So why can’t people let our ‘Desi Girl’ grieve for a black man in peace? Well, Priyanka Chopra’s inconvenient track record makes it hard to do just that.
The protests against the murder of George Floyd are eerily similar to the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and anti-National Register of Citizens protests that started in India in December 2019. Campuses such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University were attacked by state machinery, and students were inhumanely beaten up and arrested.
Two months into the protests, Delhi witnessed full-blown riots for the first time since 1984, this time against the Muslim community. The violence, which started in North-East Delhi, left 53 people dead and many more are still missing.
Despite the lockdown, the stamping out of dissent has continued with the arrests of various activists and students. Safoora Zargar, a student activist who is over three months pregnant, has been in jail for two months now. Natasha Narwal, another activist, was recently taken into custody. Both have been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which makes it nearly impossible for them to get bail.
I decided to go through Priyanka Chopra’s Instagram feed to find traces of solidarity to those protesting in India – in case I had missed something. During the period her home country burned, Chopra was busy gracing red carpets at Grammy and Golden Globe Awards – while celebrating the amassing of 50 million followers – and there were some quotes about shattering the glass ceiling. She even visited India during this period to play Holi with the Ambanis.
The way Chopra has turned a blind eye towards the injustices in India, it’s hard not to call her a hypocrite. However, it’s the opportunistic celebrity culture in India that makes it so easy for Priyanka Chopra and her ilk to be hypocrites so openly.
Hypocrisy in the world of Indian celebrities isn’t a vice but a virtue. Indian celebrities thrive on it because it frees them from the baggage of sticking to a cause. Many Indian actors who are posting about ‘Black Lives Matter’ used to, or are still, endorsing fairness creams. Nothing like earning those big bucks from endorsements and still earning those brownie-woke point.
Priyanka Chopra is obviously not the only one, but considering the fact that she is the second most followed Indian on Instagram, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and talks about gender discrimination on multiple high profile women’s rights forums every year – it becomes increasingly difficult to write her off as just an attention-seeking celebrity whose actions should not be held accountable.
Two years ago, she visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh as part of her engagement with UNICEF and spoke about their plight. A year after her visit, the Indian government rolled out the NRC, which rendered 1.9 million people stateless in Assam while detention camps were being built for those who were no longer considered citizens of India. Meanwhile, Chopra was busy launching Bumble and cheering Serena Williams from the stands. Last year, she even produced Paani, a film on water conservation, which won a national award – but she has never openly supported any environmental movements in India. Not to mention her cheering an incident that very likely could have led to war and her shutting down of a young Pakistani origin activist who questioned her.
Even though the anti-racial discrimination protests happening in the US are similar to the recent protest in India, one thing sets them apart – the response of the film industries of the two countries.
Multiple actors and production houses in Hollywood have come out in support of those protesting and are helping raise funds. The prestigious Academy, which hosts the Oscars, has added its weight behind the calls for justice.
Imagine some of the Indian film awards doing something like that? It might be worthwhile to remember that 65th Filmfare Awards were held in Guwahati in March this year, only a few weeks after Guwahati was put under extreme curfew after anti-CAA protests erupted in the city. Three people, including two minors were killed, more than 50 people were injured and many more were arrested. But none of this mattered to Bollywood celebrities.
Meryl Streep, an actor par excellence, openly criticised Donald Trump in her Golden Globe receiving speech in 2017. Can we imagine an Amitabh Bachchan speaking truth to power?
Do we expect too much from our celebrities? Aren’t they just doing their job and not be forced to have an opinion on everything?
This argument is inherently flawed because it’s not people but the celebrities who positioned themselves as role models. They don’t shy away from having an opinion on anything that can be capitalised. They have become self-appointed advisors on almost every aspect of our lives. What shampoo we use, what cream we apply on our cheeks, what clothes we wear, and where we should head for our next holiday.
They have permeated into the most trivial and also the most intimate parts of our lives. They have exploited all apparent and deep seated insecurities to accumulate wealth and fame for themselves.
So, is accountability too much to ask for in return?
On January 7, Deepika Padukone decided to visit the JNU campus in Delhi, a day after students were brutally attacked by a mob. She stood beside injured student union president Aishe Ghosh for a few minutes before leaving. It was heartening to see a mainstream star standing up against the violence inflicted on students. Deepika was lauded for standing up against injustice even though her film Chhapaak was about to release in a few days.
Many Bollywood personalities came out in her support. Director Anurag Kashyap, who is among a few in Bollywood who are more vocal, applauded Padukone. One of the tweets in her support said, “Let’s not forget she is also the producer of the films… stakes are even higher.’
Also read: The Language of Deepika Padukone
I beg to differ with Kashyap here. The stakes for Indian celebrities are never higher than those who are risking their lives on ground fighting one of the most brutal governments this country has ever seen. Padukone losing a few crores on a movie can’t be compared with countless men, women and children who are brutally assaulted, jailed and are even murdered by the State. We must stop mollycoddling our celebrities and making heroes out of them for doing the bare minimum.
The fact that Padukone didn’t make any public statements post her visit makes me wonder how low the bar has been set. Those ten minutes she stood next to Aishe Ghosh made her a bigger hero than Sadaf Jafar, an actor and activist who faced police brutality for days while in prison.
I am not taking away from the courage shown by Deepika Padukone by showing up at the JNU campus that night, but her continued silence post the visit – especially when the State continues to march on with its agenda – makes it hard not to shrug off the incident as an anomaly for the actor.
But showing up is not a bad place to start as long as it is followed by a call to action.
Dear Indian celebrities, I have been waiting since eternity for your call to action against all forms of injustices. Exercise your privilege and don’t look only for instant gratification and rewards every time you do so.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.