Pallavi Joshi on being trolled for Rafale Video: Actor claims she is apolitical, but in tone that isn't quite neutral

Long before the age of ubiquitous star presence on multiple platforms, dilution of branding and abundance of choice, Pallavi Joshi, National Award Winning television and film actor, was a constant presence in every home where Indians hungrily consumed scant state programming. Much of what was on large screens was schmaltz. But on Doordarshan, when Joshi appeared as cadet Nikita Sachdev in navy drama Aarohan in the '90s, it was easy to see that she was a natural.

Joshi’s early works belonged during TV programming’s finest hour — led by giants such as Avtar Gill, Rama Vij and Girish Karnad. Those who remember her from TV’s golden years were taken aback when a video popped up all over the news recently, featuring Joshi and a subject that is proving to be a PR nightmare for the government.

A video was posted last week on the YouTube channel ‘I Am Buddha’, of the same name as the platform started by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri to mentor talent in “unconventional filmmaking”. A few seconds into the video, Joshi, who is also married to Agnihotri, is seen sitting comfortably with a coffee mug in her hand, casually explaining a defense deal with an analogy so over-simplified that it goaded the Congress Party into launching their own counter-narrative.

Pallavi Joshi in a still from her Rafale video explainer. Youtube screen grab.

In a series of videos titled ‘Easy Hai’, similar in look and feel to the ad campaign of 2014, ‘The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind’, that explained the Scottish referendum in easy terms, Joshi attempts to break down government decisions for people out of the daily circle of news and debate. The series is a home production by the couple under the trust ‘I Am Buddha’.

In the current one, she takes on the Rafale deal — an agreement between India and France's Dassault Aviation for the purchase of Rafale fighter jets to replace India’s ageing fleet.

Where does Joshi, a television and film artist and definitely not a trained defense expert, come into the picture? Why would she feel the need to back a narrative that sounds and feels like a public relations line for the government? After appearing in similar videos breaking down GST, surgical strike and black money, Joshi uses the metaphor of her building’s security system to explain the deal. And things get interesting.

“The old building secretary kept talking to a company who would give us password protected locks,” she says. You immediately see where she is going with this. “So when I became the building secretary, I realised that there’s no use in buying locks if it doesn’t also come with the latest video door phones,” Joshi says breezily.

The moment the video landed on Twitter and Facebook, a barrage of comments from users pointed out, among other things, her political slant and lack of experience in tackling a matter out of the purview of her expertise. Some of the comments dragged in Agnihotri, who is largely perceived to be ideologically affiliated with the current dispensation. Since Joshi is not on social media, she’s unaffected by the outpouring of outrage against her.

She speaks to me about the unexpected heat after she posted the Rafale video, unlike any of her other work in the past in the same format.

“For a housewife who does not get the time to watch news, how will you explain a jargon-riddled, complex, socio-political issue? Through the ‘Easy Hai’ series I simplify such issues and then the viewer can take an informed decision about topical matters,” Joshi says from Mumbai over the phone. But in the video, she’s not just explaining the deal from a layperson’s point of view, she’s extolling it. Both Joshi and the Congress take sly shots at each other in their respective videos over the deal.

According to the original agreement with Dassault, 18 aircraft were to be purchased off the shelf and 108 manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), based in Nasik in Maharashtra, following a transfer of technology. When the deal fell through, the opposition Congress accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government of hiding behind a “secrecy clause” to pull off a scam and claimed it the biggest “failure of the Make In India campaign” initiated by this government.

If Joshi’s video is an explainer, the tone she sets isn’t neutral.

“Who said I’m neutral? This is my opinion. I do these videos, with a bit of humour in it, using analogies so that those who follow me can make their own decision,” she says. “Look, I’m not a political person at all,” she adds. The video on GST, she says, was liked by the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s Office so much that they featured it on their website. She says the Rafale video was "picked up" by the Prime Minister’s Office. The BJP government didn't pay for the making and promotion of the Rafale video, she says. “They simply liked it and hence shared it on social media, that’s all. It's part of our home production series.”

At the end of her monologue, Joshi slips in a sly comment about the former building secretary’s ‘aloo ki factory’ - a reference to a bit from Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s speech at a rally. The Congress on the other hand snidely refers to the “chowkidaar” — a potshot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In her recent trolling, Joshi has been called a right-wing stooge and a “Sanghi” — a term used to deride those affiliated with the far right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP — for her association with Agnihotri who tweets often in favour of the government. Joshi doesn’t think much of these allegations. She says she exercises her own agency in everything she does.

“Vivek doesn’t have to decide my opinions for me. I am completely apolitical, I don’t know what is meant by ‘right wing’. I come from a deeply socio-politically aware family. My grandmother was very close to YB Chavan (the first Chief Minister of Maharashtra and a Congress leader). My family has voted for the Congress in the past. Why should people try to position me in ideologies? I do not support any political party,” she says. Although she has in the past moderated a discussion arranged by the BJP in Mumbai ahead of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections.

She doesn’t believe in the “Communist way of thinking” either. “The Communist ideology is not good for India,” she says. It’s a subject close to the heart of Agnihotri, who has written a book titled ‘Urban Naxals’ — on the experiences of shooting for his film Buddha In A Traffic Jam and those who, according to him, use institutional platforms in cities to sympathise with Naxal ideologies and wage an ideological war against the state.

For someone who repeatedly insists she is completely apolitical, Joshi feels strongly about the leadership of Congress President Rahul Gandhi. I ask her if she endorses the BJP. If not, where do her political beliefs lie? Joshi abruptly poses a counter question: “Do you think Rahul Gandhi is fit to be PM of India?”

She sounds slightly agitated. “If you do, I will stop this interview right now and hang up,” she says. I remind her about her claim only a few minutes ago of being politically neutral and ask if she’s seriously inclined to end an interview based on a reporter’s political stand. She repeats that she is.

“I don’t mind whether the Congress comes back in power or the BJP does. I’m not a dumbhead. I have my opinions. I know who I don’t want to see as PM. You can quote me on this. Do we have a choice right now?” she says, adding that it's the idea of the Congress President as a PM candidate she has a problem with, not the party.

Can artists be vocal about their political opinions in the current climate? Should they? Women actors such as Swara Bhaskar and Raveena Tandon, who take a strong political stand, often face abusive trolling online, no matter what their political positioning.

“Look I’ve never faced trolling. Probably because I’m not on social media. I don’t know if they should or shouldn’t voice their opinion, but I know that they have every right to. People have always spoken out, but now with so many new platforms and a large young population, it’s expected that every opinion will have a counter opinion,” says Joshi.

“By the way, I’m an actor, not a ‘woman actor’,” she says.

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Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 13:48:20 IST

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