Once upon a time in Bollywood, there was a man called Amitabh Bachchan. For more than a decade, he represented the angst of India over corruption, unemployment, and lawlessness; he played characters that celebrated the secular liberal traditions of India; and preached high ideals from the cinematic pulpit.
At his peak, he was, India’s Angry Young Man, and the quintessential Amar, Akbar, and Anthony. Once in a while he also proclaimed Main Azad Hoon– a sort of war cry announcing freedom from fear of the establishment. Unfortunately, the screen image is seldom the man. And, the reel is rarely the real.
This is precisely why Deepika Padukone’s decision to stand in solidarity with the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is such a pleasant surprise. Deepika has always been a quiet presence in the Indian culture. She has rarely spoken on politics, never participated in any movement or shown any inclination for controversy. The only thing we know about her is that she put up a brave fight against depression and survived to tell the tale. But, nobody ever expected her to speak up on a political controversy, take an ideological stand. If Lady Macbeth were around in today’s India she would have wondered, “Who would have thought this petite woman has so much courage in her blood?”
To call Deepika brave would be an understatement. Her decision to go to JNU and lend support to the protesting students is an example of courage under fire. It embodies the kind of spirit captured in Ram Prasad Bismil’s iconic poem: Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil main hain (I am overcome with the zeal to offer my head). For, in today’s India, speaking up against the establishment, countering the rightwing agenda and its paid trolls requires valour verging on madness.
Because, in today’s India, the rightwing warriors don’t counter courage with courage. Since they don’t have the moral fortitude to look the adversary in the eye, they revel in either hitting below the belt, stabbing in the back from the shadows or inflicting collateral damage through institutions at their disposal. Its trolls don’t counter an argument with a counter-argument, they deal with criticism through the facile medium of lies, subterfuge and bullying. Since they lack the intellectual heft to face the adversary alone in the battlefield of ideas, they send out calls to dozens of wolves and, only when the numbers are adequate, they attack from behind a veil, wearing masks, in aisles where the lights are put out with the help of the establishment.
If you want to understand how the establishment in today’s India counters criticism, look no further than the BJP’s in-house Joan of Farce—Smriti Irani. Once upon a time, Ms. Irani had threatened a mass agitation against the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for his failure to contain the 2002 riots. A few days later, she made a dramatic volte-face and joined the ‘Modi for PM’ brigade. Though she has changed her ideology, her penchant for great theatre still remains.
Responding to Deepika’s gesture of support to the JNU students, she has hit back with the characteristic mix of canards, phrases like “tukde-tukde gang,” specious arguments like JNU students celebrate every time a “CRPF jawan is killed”, and by arguing that the actor is a Congress supporter (which, in the worldview of the rightwinger is tantamount to supporting Pakistan since the only legitimate option available to a patriotic India is his own party). It is hilarious to hear a Union minister label students fighting for saving the Constitution from the BJP’s own tukde-tukde politics as “anti-national,” and call victims of organised violence as supporters of mayhem. But then, Irani has never been loyal to truth or logic (remember her faux rage on Rahul Gandhi’s “rape in India” comment?)
The trolls too have been predictable. They have sought a boycott of Deepika’s latest film and started a campaign of calumny and hatred against her. This is, of course, bluster. The last time they tried to boycott a film (figure out the name), it went on to earn in excess of Rs 350-crore. A few years later, they tried to rally the haters to boycott another film by the same actor. It went on to earn more than Rs 600-crore. The audience in India, thankfully, knows how to separate bad politics from the good cinema.
Truth is, Deepika is a better role model than the power people of India. In a milieu of fear where it is considered more prudent to crawl when asked to cheer, Deepika has shown that not all celebrities are cowards; she has not been deterred by the plight of others who spoke up before her and were subjected to vitriol and calls for boycott and bans. Aware of the high stakes, the certainty of repercussions and victimisation, she has decided to out herself as a concerned citizen of India, a real patriot. She has willingly entered a high-risk ideological battle when she could have easily watched it in silence. Unlike some of the male stars who have nothing to lose, she has declared ‘Main Azad Hoon!’
India has had a glorious tradition of celebrating the valour of women who stood up against powerful rivals, went to battle in spite of knowing they have a lot to lose and sacrificed their lives. We are a country of Laxmi Bai and Padmini, of poets who have immortalised them as “mardani”. Thankfully, the tradition still survives, even if the cinematic “Mards” of India have turned into quislings.