India found a hero to celebrate last week on social media. And the hero was Diljit Dosanjh. This week there is a villain to target — the Khans. And the reason why social media is questioning Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir is because they are not Diljit Dosanjh.
But not everyone can be like the Punjabi singer and actor. He could spar with Kangana Ranaut over the farmers’ protests because of the support ecosystem he has — a whole state backed him. Remember what happened the last time any of the Khans spoke out in Narendra Modi’s India?
The Khans were also under fire for not speaking up during the Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests. Shah Rukh Khan faced much online fury for keeping mum on the violence in his alma mater Jamia Millia Islamia last December.
What is quite peculiar, though, is that public wrath has been directed mostly at the Khan troika for keeping silent, even though the Bachchans and the Kapoors haven’t yet uttered a word.
Why single out Khans?
Megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who has been involved in several government drives such as the polio vaccination, has never chosen to voice his opinions on important national issues. Some on social media even called him the ‘Manmohan Singh of Bollywood’. The same holds true for the Kapoors — the ‘first family’ of Bollywood — which has historically shied away from speaking up on public matters.
Bollywood’s ‘patriotic’ hero Akshay Kumar, known for starring in hyper nationalistic movies and Singh is Kinng, has also steered clear of talking about the farmers’ protest.
So, why are only the Khans our punching bags?
This pressure on Muslim actors, film-makers, women or even Kashmiri celebrities to always speak up disregards the struggles they have gone through in the industry every day against systemic and institutional bias, and what it took for them to become big. The double burden of representation and activism is unfair and illogical.
The fact also remains that the Khans didn’t receive any backing from the film fraternity when they tried to raise their voices. Be it when Shah Rukh had penned an article in 2013 in which he wrote about how he “sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India”, or in 2015, when he said, “There is extreme intolerance. Intolerance religiously, not being secular in this country, is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot.” Or be it when Aamir said in 2015 that his wife Kiran Rao suggested leaving India amid rising intolerance. The retribution against them has been severe. And has costed them.
Also don’t forget how filmmaker Karan Johar was forced to say on camera in 2016 that he won’t work with Pakistani actors after Raj Thackeray’s MNS and other political parties threatened to stall his movie, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan.
How many industry stalwarts lent their support to Johar and the Khans publicly then? Diljit, on the other hand, had an entire community and a state backing him in his support for the protesting farmers.
Khans are entertainers, not activists
I struggle to wrap my head around the argument that influencers need to advocate for social issues. Why? We Indians don’t always listen to our parents, teachers or people we know in real life. What can celebrities say that will change us?
When Shah Rukh extended his support to the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, he was merely using his celebrity status to highlight the importance of cleanliness, and consolidate his image and brand value further.
Similarly, when Aamir Khan hosted Satyamev Jayate, which focussed on social issues such as domestic violence, ‘honour’ killing, sexual abuse, he was leveraging his celebrity status to highlight social problems and make money.
They’re artists at the end of the day. They can do social activism if they want. That’s not a part of their job description. It’s an active choice. Diljit Dosanjh taking a strong stand is good and shows he’s socially aware — a bonus in a celebrity. It needs to be lauded, but it can’t be demanded.
Indians have miles to go
The argument that ‘if celebrities in the West can choose to voice opinions on public matters then why can’t our celebrities’ is a classic example of false equivalence.
In the West, an actor’s movie release won’t be halted or theatres burnt or their livelihood threatened for expressing a political opinion. But we all know what can happen in India if a celebrity’s opinion or even a movie (read, Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat) goes against the popular sentiment. And if the actor happens to be from a minority community, the backlash is way worse. India hasn’t yet developed into a mature democracy tolerant of criticism — no matter which party is ruling.
And even then, there are celebrities who speak up. Sonu Sood, Tapsee Pannu, Priyanka Chopra, Parineeti Chopra, Preity Zinta, Mika Singh, and Swara Bhasker are among those who didn’t shy away from voicing their support for the farmers. So, instead of slamming the Khans and Bollywood for not taking a stand, amplify those voices who are speaking up. Ultimately, the onus lies on society to create an environment conducive enough for all of us to express opinions freely and fearlessly. Only then can we have more celebrities speaking up.
Views are personal.