Social commentary of celebrities had long moved from occasional bytes and interviews given to media to posts that they themselves write or professional social media teams help them articulate. Some celebrities use such commentary to elevate their social and political stature and appeal. However, such free commentary come at a huge cost for some others. Take for example, the manner and haste with which actor Sushant Singh was booted out of the TV show ‘Savdhaan India,’ which he has been hosting since last seven years. His fault: joining the student protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Celebrities across the world had to make professional and personal sacrifices for frankly expressing their opinion or speaking truth to power. At the same time, there are many examples for the unholy nexus between celebrities and those in power. Hollywood’s co-opting and collaboration with Hitler and the Nazi party is notorious in this regard. The Hollywood studios at that time altered scripts, censored films, removed the cast and crew who were Jew and did whatever they were asked to do because Germany was a huge market for them. A heartbreaking story was that of the head of MGM Studios in Germany, Frits Strengholt, who was asked to work on their orders, ended up divorcing his Jewish wife on the orders of the propaganda ministry headed by Joseph Goebbels. After ending the marriage, she was sent to a concentration camp.
In 2011, the whistleblower Wikileaks released a long list of musicians and celebrities who performed privately for the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his sons, before the Arab spring consumed him. The tyrant and his megalomaniac sons were big music fans who had a huge collection of albums in their possession and reportedly had personal contact with many Hollywood celebrities and international stars. Musicians Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, and Enrique Iglesias were among those who had performed at various concerts organised by the Gaddafi clan in exchange for undisclosed, obscene sums of money and royal hospitality. If these were largely private affairs, back home, Amitabh Bacchan showed the way for the likes of Akshay Kumar years ago by endorsing the Gujarat government through advertisements at a time when its chief minister was widely accused of abetting riots that killed thousands of Muslims. History has many examples of celebrities pandering to rulers of the time, but to me, Walt Disney who entertained billions of children worldwide with his fantasy films, tops the list because of he openly endorsed Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party inside the United States.
On CAA in particular, some celebs took weaker stands betraying their insensitivity and cowardice. Akshay Kumar who wears the mask of a nationalist and a strongman on screen, meekly wrote a tweet apologising for ‘accidentally liking’ a tweet about the protest by students of Jamia Millia Islamia against the CAA. Most of us know that he has much at stake, including government patronage that he uses to come up with jingoistic films at the drop of a hat. Anurag Kashyap who returned to social media after a break, took a jibe at the actor by retweeting a comment that said it must have been very difficult to practice martial arts without a spine. He also continued his strong criticism against the government in a series of tweets without hesitating to call them fascists.
Akshay’s wife, Twinkle Khanna who is an actress and blogger, spoke her mind hitting out hard: “oppressing the voices of our students by using violence and we have crawled even further into the dark tunnel. I stand by a secular, democratic India where peaceful dissent is our (right)” Huma Qureshi, the star of Anurag’s ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ was equally critical of the police action. She wrote tagging the prime minister and the home minister: “This is unreal. We are a secular democracy. This violence that the police have shown in dealing with the students is terrible. Citizens have the right to peacefully protest. Or that is not an option anymore??”
A lot of celebs wrote on social media about the issue just to say that they weren’t silent or clueless. Vicky Kaushal, the hero of ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’, for example, sounded confused at best. The talented actor of ‘Manmarziyan’ and ‘Maasan’ seemed to be carrying the ‘How is the Josh’ baggage on his shoulders when he took a superficial stand and carefully chose not to target the government or police for the violence. A disciplined soldier does not criticise his own government, you see!
Sayani Gupta of ‘Article 15’ posted prime minister Modi’s selfie with Bollywood stars and called up on them on behalf of the students of Jamia and AMU that she “request at least one of you to tweet or message Mr.Modi condemning this act of police brutality and violence against students. The time has come to speak up. Yes? No? May be?” Not everyone seem to have got the message. A couple of them indeed respond, but with plain vanilla condemnation without naming the oppressor or the oppressed.
We must give full credit to those stars who descended on the streets from social media and joined protests. Actor Siddharth and singer TM Krishna were among the hundreds of people arrested in Chennai for joining the protests. Elsewhere, actors Farhan Akhtar, Huma Qureshi, Parvathy Thiruvothu and others protested on the streets.
Celebrities owe their demi-god status to fans and audience who shower immense love and admiration seeing their onscreen performances. Fans who take them as role models often look forward to what their favourite hero or heroine opines about issues that matter to them. Before the last general elections, a news website had published an expose in which many Bollywood celebrities were seen working out deals with agents of the ruling party to endorse them on social media for a price. Needless to say, such unethical acts break hearts and erode credibility. Lakhs and crores were on offer for putting out tweets or Facebook posts endorsing the party and its leaders in a way they instruct them to. The stars who do not fall for this kind of lure and pressure and stand up for the weak and the oppressed truly deserve respect.
Stars-turned-chief ministers NTR and MGR catapulted themselves to power by replicating their onscreen image on the political stage. Their fans voted for them attributing the same values and ethics that their onscreen characters espoused. We cannot demand that a celebrity must comment on every social development but if they are indeed making their stand clear, they will be asked questions, asked to clarify their stand, and ask them to be ethical. Celebrities play a big role in educating people about their rights and the value of free speech, among other things that concern the society at large. With great power comes great responsibility. In this age, with great power comes immense pressure, threats and the lure of big money that no one can simply refuse or ignore. But thankfully we have a number of celebs like Sushant Singh who have the spine to say, “I sell my talent, not my conscience.”
(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)