Even if Bollywood superstar Salman Khan didn’t live up to the title of his seminal blockbuster ‘Dabangg’ (meaning ‘Fearless’), his co-star Sonakshi Sinha, who played a fierce village belle in the film, seems to be making up for her colleague’s perceived apathy in real life.
In a rare display of bravery, the daughter of veteran actor and politician Shatrugnan Sinha has stepped up to go against the popular narrative being spun by Bollywood heavyweights like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, producer Karan Johar and iconic singer Lata Mangeshkar.
These widely-adored stars from India have been accused by many on social media for toeing the line with a pro-government narrative as they spoke out against international criticism of India’s handling of the ongoing farmers’ protests. The criticism was led by singer Rihanna’s succinct tweet that brought global attention to the people who have been protesting the new farms laws in India.
Following Rihanna’s tweet, many of Bollywood’s top brass, along with sporting personalities such as Sachin Tendulkar and Saina Nehwal, tweeted in quick succession similarly-worded posts about how there’s a conspiracy to derail India’s image worldwide by international celebrities with the collective hashtag #Indiatogether and #Indiaagainstpropaganda.
Kumar, Devgn, Tendulkar and the likes were instantly called out by many on social media for their cowardice; but what was least expected was the gilded stars being called out by their own members of the fraternity.
Sinha, along with several actors of considerable merit such as Taapsee Pannu and Arjun Mathur, weren’t impressed by their virtual gallantry. Sinha issued a warning to her fans through a series of Instagram posts: “To re-iterate, news tonight will try to paint a picture that ‘outside forces’ are trying to meddle in the functioning of our country. Please don’t give in to that narrative. It’s human, standing up for other humans. THAT’S the narrative.”
Sinha, who has worked with Kumar and producer Johar, also schooled her fans about how human rights were being violated systemically as farmers protested against agricultural reform laws around the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce.
“The voices raised are about the violation of human rights, suppressions of free internet and expression, state propaganda, hate speech and abuse of power … Journalists are being harassed. Internet has been banned. Protesters are being vilified through state and media propaganda. Hate speech ...is flourishing. THAT is the issue that’s taken global centre stage,” she wrote.
Sinha isn’t alone in her stand. Apart from the usual suspects such as Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha and director Anubhav Sinha speaking out, a sizeable number of celebrities have shown disdain for the big stars breaking under pressure.
‘Rang De Basanti’ actor Siddharth from South India — who played a rebel and revolutionary student in the politically-charged hit that also starred Aamir Khan — cautioned movie-mad Indians to choose their idols prudently.
“Choose your heroes wisely or watch them fall from grace. Education, empathy, honesty and a little spine could have saved the day. Alas. When powerful people who never take a stand, all suddenly sing the same tune in an orchestrated effort and just tow the line they are told to like pawns, that’s what propaganda is all about. Know your #propaganda,” he wrote.
He also added, “Human rights violations albeit by an elected government must be seen in the same vein as domestic violence or child abuse, and hence, can never be an internal matter.”
Designer Farah Ali Khan expressed her disappointment at big stars in Bollywood cowering and tweeted: “Disappointed with the fraternity tweeting identical tweets that make it more like a marketing gimmick. Whatever their reasons & I’m no one to judge at least u could have tried to make it more original. Now you have given yourselves away. Reel Life Heroes VS Real Life Heroes.”
Filmmaker Onir labelled the support from Bollywood as a tragic puppet show.
“It is so embarrassingly obvious that a whole bunch or celebs who do not value their voice have been sent a set message, which they are modifying a bit and postings. They Do what they have been told to. Tragic #puppetShow #WorldWithFarmers #IstandWithFarmers,” tweeted Onir.
Comedian and actor Vir Das compared India fast becoming that proverbial uncle who beats up his wife and is cruel to the kids, but sees his pride hurt when called out by neighbours.
“Honestly, I don’t think Rihanna or Greta [Thunberg, climate activist who has also spoken out in support of the farmers] have anything more than superficial wisdom about Indian farmers. But gotta say it’s hilarious to see literally thousands of shaky Indian men get mobilised over a tweet, all the while proclaiming how secure they are in their policymakers,” he said.
Actress Taapsee Pannu, who has never shied away from supporting farmers openly, expressed her unwillingness to bow down with a cryptic tweet.
“If one tweet rattles your unity, one joke rattles your faith or one show rattles your religious belief, then it’s you who has to work on strengthening your value system not become propaganda teachers for others,” wrote Pannu.
Actors Sayani Gupta and Bhasker employed a healthy dose of sarcasm to voice their disappointment and their scarily identical tweets that revealed their stand on the issue.
While Gupta wrote: “Aiyooo!... (You know that moment in a zombie film climax, when the zombie was looking elsewhere, and a human was cautiously stepping away, and bam! It suddenly turns to him.) Just got that feeling!”, Bhasker used sarcasm as her weapon. “Aur Bolo [Keep saying] ‘Speak Up Bollywood’, ‘Speak Up celebrities’.”
Actor Arjun Mathur, who stars in Amazon Prime’s ‘Made In Heaven’, was quick to reprimand big Bollywood stars of considerable clout who caved under external pressure. His tweet echoed his utter disappointment at actors, with feet of clay.
“Let us stand together in displaying our utter and complete lack of spine, in safeguarding our hundreds of crore rupees of income and in supporting this military-style mobilisation against the very masses who have practically treated us as gods and to whom we owe everything we enjoy. Let no sane or humane voice interfere, nor influence you.”
Actor Sushant Singh had a more direct question to millions who idolise big stars and place them on a pedestal.
“Why do you make those who are heroes or heroines in films your idols? Heartbroken now,” he tweeted.
All in solidarity
But credit has to be given where it’s due. As early as in December 2020, Priyanka Chopra Jonas — one of India’s leading stars and the country’s beloved cultural export to the West — diplomatically threw her weight behind the farmers’ who are protesting against agricultural reforms.
“Our farmers are India’s Food Soldiers. Their fears need to be allayed. Their hopes need to be met. As a thriving democracy, we must ensure that this crises is resolved sooner than later,” tweeted Chopra Jonas.
Punjabi pop singer Diljit Dosanjh has always been at the forefront batting for farmers and their rights to peaceful protests.
Actress Sonam Kapoor shared a series of protest pictures along with a Daniel Webster’s quote: “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.”
Meanwhile, the heroes with immense clout and popularity like Kumar and the Khans of Bollywood, who play indestructible heroes on the big screen, continue to play cautious.
Strictly speaking: Bollywood stands divided over farmers' protests
COMMENT: It's time to break the collective silence Bollywood
“Not our monkey, not our circus,” has usually been the war cry of key Bollywood players when mocked about being stonily silent on burning issues plaguing their country.
But that self-serving dynamic adopted by Bollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, including Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, faces an avalanche of criticism for not taking a stand on the on-going farmers’ protests.
Their collective silence is being seen as a symbol of their cowardice/insensitivity and it’s their own colleagues who are calling them out, this time around. The warriors who are taking them on are not some disillusioned virtual warriors, but from their own pool.
Bollywood is notoriously clannish and stands together to put up a united front when under fire. Their political voices are mostly muted and pro-establishment.
But actors such as Sonakshi Sinha, Arjun Mathur and actor Siddarth from the South are singing a different tune now.
In a unique display of fierceness, Sinha and a growing list of stars and filmmakers are calling out their own colleagues for not speaking out.
If director Onir has called his out mates to grow a sturdy spine, Sinha has implored her colleagues to stand on the side of humanity. It isn’t often that a bankable star such as Sinha stands up against her own clan.
While Sinha and her burgeoning army of dissenters should be lauded for going against the popular narrative and pro-government diktat, there’s a good chance that they will be penalised for their sporadic show of bravado.
Remember, when Padukone supported protesting students at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru last year in January? There were calls to boycott her then-released film ‘Chappaak’ and vicious smear campaigns were unleashed questioning her integrity and conduct.
Sinha should also brace herself for the backlash and may lose out of movie projects. But she has won our respect, which is better than playing second fiddle to an indestructible superstar like Salman Khan, whose muscles are on display only when acting and their showmanship is limited to the silver screen.