Anti-CAA protests have been prosaic moment of truth for Bollywood

Bollywood filmmaker Zoya Akhtar during a rally against the amended Citizenship Act and NRC, at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai
In the neatly arranged world of Bollywood stars where every hour is accounted for or tweeted about, there is little room for politics. Their life is all about love and movies, fitness regimes and couple goals and feeling blessed on social media. So the past week has been an unholy mess.

Rallies, protest poetry and defiant songs have replaced the usual feel-good baubles that put the sparkle into starry conversations. Many are speaking up, marching in protest and stepping out of their safe zones or sometimes, simply retweeting information about sit-ins and marches.

On her Instagram timeline, Alia Bhatt wrote, “When students, teachers and peaceful civilians become victims of physical assault on an ongoing basis, it’s time to stop pretending that all is fine. We must look truth in the eye and acknowledge that we are a house at war with itself.”

Deepika Padukone, whose movie released this Friday, said after participating in a rally in Mumbai earlier this week, “It’s nice to see people coming out on the streets. I feel proud that people are voicing their opinion whether on the streets or from their homes.” Her defiance went beyond words when she lent her support to the students beaten up at Jawaharlal Nehru University and stood with the protestors.

Anurag Kashyap and other Bollywood celebrities at anti-CAA protests
Vishal Bharadwaj who rarely speaks about anything, but his films and music, read out a poem on Mumbai’s Carter Road at a rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and violence against students, asking protestors to keep their faith as it is always darkest before the dawn. While there are many more at the barricades-Anurag Kashyap, Varun Grover, Swara Bhaskar, Javed Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar and Jaaved Jafferey, among others-this protest is marked by the emergence of many who have stayed away or held their tongue, in the past.

Actors are not just speaking up in support of the protesters, many are swinging for the ruling dispensation too. Juhi Chawla took up the cudgels in favour of the citizenship Act at a rally organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party  in Mumbai. Ajay Devgn has said that he would rather wait till the facts emerge. Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan are among many other popular industry icons who have been eloquent with their silence.

For an industry that has always managed to walk dry, in the midst of the most torrential storms, such engagement with a political issue is unprecedented. Sanjana Kapoor, co-founder of Junoon, a platform for promotion of arts and theatre, says, “I am given courage to face the onslaught on our freedoms by the resilience of the student movement and the public ‘coming out’. And it is so good to feel that one is not alone, or silenced.”

Farhan Akhtar
Speaking up takes courage says Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). There are commercial implications of raising one’s voice-it could mean a producer losing out an entire opening weekend or an actor being forced out of work. There are other concerns too, especially for those endorsing brands and causes.

Movies and products are fragile commodities that bear the brunt of an individual’s actions. Medlife, an online pharmacy and a brand that Padukone endorses, has been fielding abusive rants and threats of its app being deleted on its timeline ever since she visited JNU. Her movie Chhapaak has also been at the receiving end of boycott calls while she is the subject of abuse and vitriol.

Priya Lobo, CEO of Ormax Consumer Compass, says that we do not have an environment that encourages people to speak out—neither in our schools nor our homes and offices. “The larger issue is that social media in India is about trolling people and I think people just don’t want to get into it,” she says. It is easy for an actor to lend her face to causes such as climate change (or girls’ education and water conservation) as many have done in their support of government-led programmes. But political and ideological issues are a different matter altogether.

Bollywood actor Sushant Singh addresses the media during a rally against the amended Citizenship Act and NRC
The conflict, say many, arises because even though art is political, commerce is not and Bollywood has long abandoned the former for the latter. Unlike theatre, where the protests for and against discriminatory policies has been raging for far longer. Sunil Shanbag and Sapan Saran, co-founders of Tamaasha, a theatre group based in Mumbai, said that the artists’ fraternity in theatre are in solidarity with the students, singing songs, writing poetry, sitting on night long dharnas and so on. The turnout this time around, they say, has been far greater than ever before.

The CAA and the brutal attacks on students have been a tipping point. Tanuja Chandra, one of the early women directors from the industry believes that a sense of outrage and disgust is bringing many like her out on the streets. “It is the continuous authoritarian and unlawful manner in which students have been attacked, peaceful protesters have been detained and innocent lives have been lost in these last few weeks. I’m shocked at the impunity with which the administration has moved to shut down this civil resistance and I imagine, people in the film industry would be equally shocked and infuriated,” she says. 

Women at the frontline

As Bollywood finds its voice of dissent, it is the film industry's leading women who are amplifying it. Be it an Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone who have lent their considerable on-screen clout to the protest or actors such as Richa Chadha, Tapsee Pannu, Swara Bhaskar, Konkona Sen Sharma who have been posting protest timings, posters and retweeting every bit of news emerging from across the country. Chadha wrote, “If it were possible to change thoughts by breaking skulls, there’d be no need for propaganda.” Zoya Akhtar has been at the rallies held in Mumbai and is exhorting others to lend their voices in support.

Twinkle Khanna, whose husband Akshay Kumar is being trolled for not saying anything against the violence against students, tweeted, “India, where cows seem to receive more protection than students, is also a country that now refuses to be cowed down...”  Women protesting, through their words, by standing up to cops or singing fearlessly and sitting out all night in the cold are images that have come to define the entire movement.

One of the early protest images against the CAA came from Guwahati, of women holding up flaming torches to mark their dissent. Since then there have been many such pictures that tell poignant stories, of women framing the courage shown by students across campuses.

Take the two students at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Ladeeda Farzana and Aysha Renna, protecting their male friend from Delhi police or the JNU students’ union president Aishe Ghosh speaking to crowds with a bandaged head. The large group of elderly women sitting at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and burkha-clad women marching down the streets of Malegaon, near Mumbai-these are all indelible and inexhaustible charge points in the memory banks of the protest. 

Women’s participation must not be seen as something new or unusual, however. In Manipur women have been leading the protests against atrocities inflicted upon the state by the State. According to an essay by Mandakranta Bose, (Faces of the feminine in ancient, medieval, and modern India), Professor Emerita and Director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, “A vital part of the history of women in India is that, denied the authority of public presence, they nonetheless left their mark, sometimes faint but often strong, in the form of poetry.” Make that art too, as Chennai’s now famous kollam (rangoli) protests showed, where women (and men) used an age-old form of ritual art to dock their dissent.  

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