Deepika Padukone visits JNU in solidarity with protesting students: Why optics and impact matter more than intent
Deepika Padukone's gesture places her at odds with a particularly vindictive government, known only to sing paeans to constructive debate.
Since the brutal mob attack on Jawaharlal Nehra University (JNU) students on 5 January, facts, screenshots, and loony conspiracy theories have congealed into a cacophonous mess in the capable hands of the Indian news media. In the days leading up, nothing sent affairs into a tizzy the way grainy, blurry images of Deepika Padukone at JNU did; notably ones that had her in the same frame as JNU Student Union president Aishe Ghosh and Kanhaiya Kumar. That alone indicates the sheer magnitude of the decision for the star (and her ecosystem) to make.
Yes, she was in Delhi to promote her latest film Chhapaak, which is also her first production. So it is likely her appearance at JNU was a calibrated move meant to sync with her promotional tour. She chose to be silent at the event itself, giving her media statement later. The pertinent question amid all this is, “So?”
Arguably the biggest star to take a side in the ongoing saga of dissent and suppression, Padukone is no stranger to the fury of right wing mobs hampering her film releases. The biggest film of her career, the erstwhile Padmavati, saw a major delay, bans, fringe furore, a bounty on her nose, tweet-storms: you know, the usual.
This is a difficult time to take a stand - any stand - because the mob is out to get you no matter what. The stakes are higher when you are a celebrity, even higher when you are a movie star, and reach their absolute peak when you are a woman to top it all. The trolling ranges from vicious to downright inhuman. There is no accurate way of understanding just how many are for or against a particular issue, at least through the media, news or social.
To accuse her of taking a stand only to promote her film is disingenuous because she could possibly be doing the greatest harm to her film by taking a stand so close to its release. It also places her at odds with a particularly vindictive government, known only to sing paeans to constructive debate without actually taking criticism on the chin.
No surprise, calls to boycott her film began instantly, and in their wake, so did the hashtags supporting her.
She is a superstar because of her work. Sticking by her professional commitments so close to the release of an important film for her is something she can’t be denied. Particularly when the film is a one that deals with a serious woman-centric social issue and thus has a restricted audience anyway, The fact her film is up against the massy, populist and conformist Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior cannot make things easier.
If she had not taken some sort of stand, she would have been accused of not having a spine. Now that we know the spine exists, the rage is over the choice she made. Should she have made it earlier, should she have made it at all, was what she did enough, and so on. Yes, we are well within our rights to expect our public figures to take a stand. But it is also true that we all do what we need to.
Chhapaak is the story of an acid attack survivor. It is likely she may have found a more receptive audience to the theme of her film at Shaheen Bagh, for instance, with its majority female gathering. She could also just have not spoken at all, and let things pass, her film doing the business it was going to.
The fact is for an industry that has been infamously deemed apathetic towards the lives of the average citizen, the number of celebrity voices joining the fray and taking a stand is steadily rising, simply because the ways and means of this government have demanded it. No amount of moralising and intellectualising from either side of the debate can accurately quantify what it would mean for the average Indian to see a star of her stature to step up and take a stand, how it could possible impact a young girl watching her somewhere, ready to embark upon a journey in this world that believes it can tell her what to do.