Zaira Wasim quits Bollywood: An 18-year-old's decision should not be milked to score ideological brownie points

Sonali Kokra

Jul 03, 2019 09:12:26 IST

“Zaira Wasim ne sanyas le liya?” (Has Zaira Wasim turned into an ascetic?) My mum hollered at me from her room yesterday, mostly incredulous, somewhat indignant. My mum, for a few confused minutes, truly believed that the “sweet girl from Secret Superstar” (her words, not mine) was turning into a teenage yogi.

Mostly because may mum’s primary source of Bollywood information is Hindi news channels, and she heard more than one anchor scream ‘sanyas’ into the microphone, highly offended by Wasim’s admittedly strange choice to go into a self-imposed Bollywood exile. Sure, Wasim is leaving Bollywood for more religious pastures, but to equate it with taking sanyas is stretching the truth like Boomer Bubble Gum is stretched in that lurid pink and blue ad from the early naughts.

 Zaira Wasim quits Bollywood: An 18-year-olds decision should not be milked to score ideological brownie points

Zaira Wasim in a still from Secret Superstar. YouTube

Over the last couple of days, Wasim has been criticised with passion. Sometimes with grave head-shaking, more often with venom lacing the words. Raveena Tandon declared her views regressive. Anupam Kher, though empathetic in his response, thought Wasim’s decision was “tragic”. Barkha Dutt was “disturbed” by the “indoctrination of religious conservatism”. For every person who took to social media to scold Wasim, there was one who champion, ready and willing to defend her choice. She is only exercising her agency, after all. What is so wrong about leaving a workplace that makes you feel uncomfortable? 

The validity of both arguments aside, I cannot believe we are mounting a national conversation about religion, choice, and women’s empowerment on the back of a tediously long Instagram post by a person still in her teens. I mean, Wasim is probably just about learning how to drive right now, can we all stop acting like the world has come to a screeching halt? No? Okay, for all those brooding over what a somewhat famous and seemingly talented young woman’s decision to switch careers due to a perceived religious conflict, let me remind you what being 18 is like. 

At 18, I was convinced that the my college boyfriend was going to be the father of my babies. I would support his dreams on my Rs 1,500 pocket money until he made his first film and won awards, and we would make magazine covers, inspiring young lovers everywhere. That lasted about four months.

At 18, I used to spell lye dis n thot it was v cul n efficient. I also believed Orkut was the best thing to have happened to the world since sliced bread and that it would last forever. Every book I read — even the bad ones — had a profound impact on me, and every good orator — and I attended a lot of talks and heard many, many speeches — had the power to make me parrot their convictions. 

At 18, I was going to be a journalist; no, a book writer; no, a publicist (what can I say, I always liked Samantha more than Carrie); no, yes, an NGO worker (until I found out it paid even lesser than journalism and writing); a stylist… The list was long and constantly changing. 

Sounds familiar? Of course it does. Eighteen is the age when you have all the conviction in the world. It is the age when you are sure about every decision and every thought. It is the age when you are surest about who you are and what you want to be. It is the age when you are loyal to everyone and no one, when you believe everything and nothing. It is also the age when the kindest thing the world can do is to roll its eyes and ignore you. 

Zaira Wasim

Zaira Wasim

So why do we have our collective panties in a twist about Zaira Wasim? She is behaving like most 18-year-olds do — convinced of her importance, offering long-winded explanations justifying her decisions when in reality, hardly anybody would have noticed or paid attention if she had just quietly done what she intended to do anyway. I remember making impassioned speeches about my future plans to my unimpressed parents several times at that age. Thank god there was no social media around to make reneging on them impossible. I can happily feign amnesia if anyone in the family tries to recall my cringe-worthy utterances from a lifetime ago. 

So can we all take a deep breath and stop terrifying the poor woman by making it seem like the fate of women’s empowerment rests on her young shoulders? She is not even legally allowed to drink, so it is not even as if she can go take a few fortifying gulps of beer to blur out the circus around her. It is as likely as it is not that somewhere, while travelling the distance between 18 to 30, she might realise that when mortgages pile up and the loan officer comes collecting: Bollywood, with its staggering financial windfalls, holds more appeal than religious satisfaction. For all its (many) shortcomings, it is, after all, one of the few industries that is by and large neutral to religion, never identifying its members on the basis of the god they pray to. If we really cared about not losing women to religious gobbledygook, we would leave her some room to come back — if or when she decides to — without feeling like a traitor or a charlatan.

Is it important to discuss women and their choices in the context of religious indoctrination and the never-ending guilt trips that religions — all religions — force its followers, especially the women, to take? Absolutely. Is it disturbing that even today, religion can create such strong friction between ambitions and values that someone might choose to give up on a very promising career in order to escape the dissonance? Undoubtedly. And yet, as regressive as it might seem, it is a civilised, secular society’s duty to uphold said individual’s right to make that choice, and to accept it with dignity and grace. As public figures, actors and their choices are bound to become inflection points for society and arouse debates about the trajectory of our collective intellectual growth. But using a teenager as a whipping horse to score ideological brownie points? Yuck.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 09:12:26 IST