Should celebrities avoid political activism?
As the risks of speaking up are lower today, they should be less worried about their fan following
Over the past few weeks, several actors have spoken out against the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Population Register-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NPR-NRC) as well as the attack on students and faculty in Jawaharlal Nehru University. In a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam, actor Parvathy Thiruvothu and campaign adviser Dilip Cherian discuss why so many celebrities are suddenly speaking up and whether their voices make a difference. Edited excerpts:
Parvathy, activism is not new in the film industry. We had film personalities protesting during the Emergency. Many also speak up about specific issues – you, for instance, have consistently been critical of misogynist dialogues in films, among other things. However, what is different today is that so many film personalities are speaking up across regions, which we have rarely seen in recent times. What do you think has pushed them to speak up against the CAA-NPR-NRC and the violence in JNU and other universities?
Parvathy Thiruvothu: The magnitude of the repercussions that may befall us is very scary. What has been happening in Assam and Kashmir and the lack of information from these places has really pushed their buttons. Even before debates began over the CAA, conversations within the industry had already started changing during the communications shutdown in Kashmir. When we all got together, whether at a dinner party or a casual meeting or even a work meeting, we would start talking about what was happening and what could happen next. I have to say that these kinds of conversations are not new in the Malayalam film industry; talking politics is not new. I’ve always found actors and directors discussing current affairs that affect our cause, within the industry. But whenever I stepped out of the Malayalam film industry, I found that current affairs had nothing to do with industry politics. That has changed this time.
Dilip Cherian: I think the issues are getting more relevant for all of us. What started out as small issues have become issues that fundamentally affect everybody. The reason more people — whether actors, students, or doctors — are stepping out of their comfort zones is that the issues are more visceral.
Two, the big difference from, say, 10 years ago is that today, whether it’s actors like Parvathy or celebrities like Deepika Padukone, they have very sensitive audiences beyond their films. And by this I mean their social media audiences. So, these audiences are talking back to them and they are able to listen to these voices, not just the coins of the box office. Malayalam cinema has always been hyperconnected to reality, but Bollywood is now feeling the change.
Three, some years ago if an actor was critical, he or she would stand out like a sore thumb. Today they find many voices joining them. Whether it’s Swara Bhaskar or Richa Chadha, there are people at the forefront.
And four, for the first time you have a serious agitation in the country which is being led by women. The voices of women are not going to shut up, I think, whether it’s in Shaheen Bagh or elsewhere. They are making a big difference.
Mr. Cherian, on the one hand, when there is a burning issue, you have people criticising actors saying they don’t speak up. On the other, when they do speak up, they are hounded for expressing an opinion that some may not like...
DC: Times have changed. Even five years ago, the risks of speaking out were higher. But today the risks are lower. If I were to advise a star on this issue, I would say that if you want to speak with conviction, there is room for it and there are enough people who will support it. Today the rules of engagement have changed. In fact, there is bigger danger in your being seen as someone who is either scared or unable to articulate an opinion. There are advantages to being seen and heard.
Parvathy, in what way does speaking up affect your career, personal life and image?
PT: Speaking up and the impact it creates is directly proportional to your popularity. When I spoke up 6-7 years ago, I felt that I could speak, go to work, and it wouldn’t matter. But once my movies started becoming successful, everything that I said got more airtime. That then started getting misinterpreted. My only paranoia was that I needed to be quoted right. Eventually more questions started coming in from my family and friends, and it all led to the creation of the WCC [Women in Cinema Collective]. Once that was formed, I felt support in speaking up that was never seen before in the industry. Of course, then you just don’t get the kind of opportunities you got before the Collective was formed and that was too evident to not notice.
Regarding this particular cause, friendships are ending. This is such an inhumane act, a state-sponsored act, it’s impossible to have a conversation with people who don’t see that at all. I believe this is the biggest — I can’t even call it a loss — revelation for me: how many people have suddenly realised where they stand. There is uneasiness in families too. If it comes to a state of Emergency, where would you stand?
As an actor, I have never had an image consultant. At any point, for all the causes that I’ve stood up for, I have always felt, if not this, I’ll do some other job. When Bollywood had maintained its silence for a long time, except for some consistent voices like Swara and Richa, there were few who asked me, aren’t you scared that if you speak out about the industry, which I did a while ago and about the films that were made, you will [lose opportunities]? And I said, that ship sailed a long time ago.
You said Bollywood had not spoken for a long time. Does the State where you work make a difference? For instance, the Pinarayi Vijayan government is also opposed to the CAA-NPR-NRC, so do you think it would be harder to speak up if, say, you’re an actor in a BJP-ruled State?
PT: Definitely. There have been arrests in Kerala as well, which is not commendable. However, I feel very insulated in Kerala speaking up than when I’m outside. It definitely makes a difference if a government is very clearly and vocally against… it gives you a little more strength in standing up. I have friends in Bengaluru who are scared to step out. We have to see how far that goes though. Allegiances change, anything can happen. But the public is holding the government responsible; they are watching.
Mr. Cherian, do you think the government could have done anything differently to protect its image this time?
DC: As far as the content and intent are concerned, they have been consistent and there is not very much they could have done. But it would have truly helped if they had a willingness to listen, instead of talking only in absolute terms that there is no compromise on this. If you do that, the image you’re creating is that of a hard-nosed government, one that is unflappable, one that does not want to be influenced by contrary opinions. The belief that the government is working with is this: we won with a landslide majority, therefore most of the public is with us. They don’t recognise that their [NDA’s] vote share never went above 45%. If the government was conscious about its image, it would trot out people with a more conciliatory tone, not confine it to just the hardliners who are speaking out.
The government did host a dinner for celebrities to discuss the CAA.
DC: The fact is that they opted for that route after a lot of protests had happened. Sometimes, too little, too late can be detrimental rather than actually helping your cause. Talking to relatively junior voices is not going to [reduce] people’s fears or anxieties. When emotions are high, you need to be able to placate people with a suitably senior voice.
Parvathy, does it help a cause when celebrities speak up or do you think it’s just a passing phase since the news cycle too keeps changing?
PT: Yes, the news cycle keeps changing and it breaks my heart. But that is not something celebrities should be thinking about. Their voices have to be consistent. Cinema and celebrities have a huge influence in our country. I have spoken up not just against harassment of women, but also the rampant Islamophobia that is being shown in popular culture. That is seen as okay; it is not discussed at all. That’s added to the collective psyche of a lot of people. They keep saying, “But Muslims this, Muslims that…” So, we have to give the spotlight to an issue again and again. We may not be able to step out on the streets every day, but the virtual revolution is impactful in the long run and we need to keep that momentum going. It’s all or nothing at this point; there is a lot at stake and you need to be able to put everything at risk.
DC: There is a danger that the news cycle may shift but I think celebrities play a big role in ensuring that an issue comes back into the picture. Celebrities have the power to change dramatically the visuals of what’s going on. Today we are no longer in an age where commentary or the written word is dominant; it is visuals. An actor turning up at an event changes the entire dynamic of its being reported and people on social media watching it. Twitter warriors are almost as relevant as anybody else. Also, you’re talking today of being able to keep a big issue in focus and I think that as long as there are people protesting on the street, there is a role for everybody else, including the media, to keep it as something that is worth covering.
After Deepika’s visit to JNU, her Instagram profile was full of disappointed and angry comments. Others on Twitter threatened to boycott her film. For an actor, especially before a film, the most important people are their fans. What would you say, Parvathy, to actors who are perhaps scared of losing this fan base?
PT: The fact that a woman is speaking up becomes an issue. If she is not speaking about something related to vanity or her body, or her likes and dislikes, she is criticised heavily. By speaking up constantly on mental health, Deepika has really changed the stigma surrounding the issue. Deepika is followed for her outfits, airport looks, her films and in that manner she has very effortlessly carried her followers to JNU. All the people who used to follow her for that are very uncomfortable because they have probably been turning a blind eye to the issue. But now they can’t. This discomfort will definitely generate a lot of ire among her followers. There will be a lot of filtering. But I feel that it is better to have a well read, well aware, politically aware fan following than the other way round. Very slowly the numbers of those fans will increase. Initially, when I was speaking up, there were very few supporting me. There were theories floating about me then. But when I kept speaking up, what became clear was that I am speaking up for the cause. That eventually gets you your fan following back. Entertainment isn’t something that people are going to let go off very easily. I wish for people who have spoken up to just wait till that filtering stops.
Dilip Cherian is a communications consultant and a political campaign adviser; Parvathy Thiruvothu is an actor who works predominantly in the Malayalam film industry