On 5 January 2017, Akshay Kumar posted a video message condemning the molestation of women in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve. In the message he compared the attackers to ‘beasts’. The video wild-fired its way across Twitter and Facebook. The reactions on my timelines though, ranged from ‘Akshay Kumar should not comment on gender issues’ to ‘actors only take a stand on social issues for publicity’.
On the morning of 9 January 2017, Meryl Streep made a blistering anti-Trump speech at the 74th Golden Globes without mentioning the President-elect. During her acceptance speech for the Cecil B DeMille Awards, she called out Trump for mocking a disabled person and warned that the press would need to be defended. As expected, the same people who laughed at Akshay for using a public platform to address a societal issue lauded Meryl.
Bollywood actors are always criticised for not taking a stand on issues that are relevant and volatile. It’s just that when they do address an issue, their opinions are ridiculed and their motives questioned. And, don’t forget what happened to Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan when they spoke up.
Celebrities in our country don’t have basic freedom of expression. They are both expected to have and not have any opinions. If they do express an opinion, they shouldn’t have ever done or said anything contrary to that opinion. Also, they shouldn’t have a film releasing around the time of the said opinion being shared.
A friend pointed out that Akshay has Jolly LLB 2 releasing next month so obviously this video was a PR exercise. She added, “When he does films like Rowdy Rathore and Housefull where women are objectified, how can he expect his audience to respect women?” Last year, Katrina Kaif spoke about gender equality and violence against women during a conference in Delhi. The first reaction I heard was "How can Katrina talk about gender empowerment when she dances suggestively in skimpy clothes to 'Chikni Chameli' and 'Sheila ki Jawani'?".
Apparently, actors like Akshay or Katrina have no right to speak about gender issues. ‘Every job is a job’ does not apply to Bollywood’s actors. The argument is that actors have a large sphere of influence. Hence, we expect our actors to be actor-activists. And, that brings us right back to the backlash they face every single time. Ever so often the repercussions go beyond abuses online or being topics of discussion on primetime news. If Bollywood is too scared to speak up, it’s because their statements could (and have, in the past) harmed the industry financially. This is not a fear that Hollywood lives with.
During the Actress Roundtable of 2015, Kalki Koechlin was spot on while explaining an actor’s social responsibility. “People always say that actors have a responsibility… an actor has the responsibility to deliver in their job as an actor, just as much as a banker in theirs. For every actor to be an activist on every topic is ridiculous,” she said.
Every time we look to our celebrities to use their influence to impact large scale societal change, it is important to remember that they are only human. Like us, they are bad, and at times lazy activists. When a celebrity speaks out, it’s out of sheer frustration and anger at what is happening in the country. Again, that reaction is no different from how anyone of us would react.
Most of us don’t have the bandwidth to comment about everything. What an actor chooses to take a stand on comes from a personal space. It has nothing to do with his/her movies. In his video message Akshay said, “I am ashamed to be a human being today. I was returning from my New Year's vacation with my four-year-old daughter in my arms when I learnt about the molestation incident in Bangalore (sic). I don't know how did you all feel about it, but my blood started boiling. I am a daughter's father but even if I was not one, I feel if a society cannot respect its women, it doesn't deserve to be called a humane society. What's most disgusting is that people have the guts to justify such shameful acts by criticising women for their choice of clothes.”
Everything Bollywood does is not for publicity. Among the many causes he supports, Akshay, along with Youth Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray, has been involved in the Women’s Self Defense Centre (WSDC) in Mumbai where women are given free self-defense training. Launched in 2014, WSDC offers a course that lasts for a month after which women have the option of enrolling for free advance classes. There are plans to open 100 more WSDCs across the country in the next five years.
Akshay Kumar doesn’t need a video message or a WSDC to generate publicity for his next release or for himself. Nor does Katrina Kaif need to speak at a women’s empowerment conference to generate work. Like you and me, Bollywood celebrities are not obligated to be activists. They do it because they are concerned citizens.
The only people we need to question about social responsibility are our elected representatives. They are the only ones who directly benefit from airing their views. So, leave Bollywood alone.