All it took to change the conversation across newsrooms and drawing rooms in India since the evening of 7 January was one person standing silently with students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University for a few minutes: Deepika Padukone. The Bollywood star’s one act of solidarity rattled the ruling BJP so much that its leaders called for a boycott of her new movie, Chhapaak, which released in theatres Friday.
The BJP’s IT cell also got down to work, sharing screenshots of the ‘tickets’ that were booked and later cancelled in support of the party. (It’s a different matter that every screenshot of the movie boycott that was shared carried the same ticket for the same three seats for the same show at the same theatre in Vadodara. Perhaps the IT cell needs some lessons in photoshop.)
Union Minister Smriti Irani on Friday hit out at Padukone for standing with the “tukde tukde gang” and “those who celebrate every time a CRPF jawan is killed”. She also called into question Padukone’s “political affiliations” by referring to a 2011 interview in which the actor had expressed her support for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
In a country that is dealing with issues ranging from growing unemployment and a tanking economy to violent crackdown on democratic protests, for a Bollywood actor to suddenly become the news with her mere presence makes her the obvious choice for ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Not your average star
Some have questioned Padukone’s motive for being at JNU, calling it a publicity stunt for her new movie. Others have argued that as someone who has not only acted in the film but also produced it, Deepika Padukone has more to lose than gain from the backlash that she knew she would get. Actors have done far stranger things for the publicity of their film – fake relationships with co-actors, wave ABPV flags or visit the Bigg Boss house.
Deepika Padukone isn’t always known for sticking her neck out on controversial political issues, but she isn’t a fence-sitter either. She has set up a foundation that works on mental health issues, run a campaign to support physicians who treat patients with depression and anxiety, and been the brand ambassador for the Indian Psychiatric Society. Padukone had also participated in the 10K Bangalore Marathon in 2009 to help raise funds for NGOs. She is not the average Bollywood star, having even invested in a Bengaluru-based space tech start-up.
Recently, in a conversation with Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra that also featured actors Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Vijay Devarakonda, Manoj Bajpayee and others, Padukone spoke about the responsibility that comes with being an actor in India. “In our country, whether we like it or not, cinema and cricket are the two most influential things. And you have got to do that responsibly – or not. I think that’s a choice each one has to make individually, how you want to use the opportunity you are given, how you want to use this platform. But you cannot deny that cinema has a huge influence on society,” she said.
Padukone’s presence at JNU is important not only because of how it has clearly shaken the BJP, but also because it has led to a wider conversation in a country where the superstar celebrity class (Bollywood and cricket) has largely remained silent or pliant.
While Swara Bhasker, Taapsee Pannu, Aditi Rao Hydari and some other actors have attended protests and been vocal on the issue on social media, many argue that they are not as popular or even well-known as Padukone, Akshay Kumar, the Khans, and the Kapoors. A few big names, like Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, did speak up on social media, but only in the past few days, while India has been on the boil for over a month now.
Also, a tweet or a story on Instagram doesn’t quite generate the same impact as the image of Deepika Padukone standing in front of injured JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh, head bowed and hands folded, does.