Deepika Padukone, Bollywood superstar and India’s highest-paid female actor, became a trending Twitter topic this week, after a strategic visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University – a center of ongoing anti-government protests.
In India’s volatile political climate where a huge debate ensued, and protests are raging over a new ‘anti-Muslim’ citizenship law, Padukone added fuel to fire by stepping into the premises of the university in New Delhi, which has become a “symbol of resistance” against an allegedly “fascist government,” to express solidarity with the protesting students.
Padukone, whose latest film is released on Friday, knew exactly what she was doing. The Left is politically irrelevant in India but its hold over educational institutions such as the JNU, or JU (Jadavpur University) make it possible to fight pitched battles from fortresses where disaffected students serve as tools for the ‘larger cause.’
In an era where news is a spectacle, the creation of unrest becomes a way for the Left to stay politically relevant. The fact that impressionable minds are pressed to the cause gives the Left’s political fight a moral veneer.
While stepping into this cauldron, Padukone took a calculated decision to harness the raging political controversy to her star power for a fail-safe publicity cocktail. The Bollywood megastar, who has worked with actor Vin Diesel in a Hollywood film, did not speak during her brief visit, but she didn’t need to.
In attending the public meeting called by Leftist students and a section of teachers protesting against Sunday night’s incidents (when rival student groups clashed and allegations of mob violence inside University premises surfaced), and in appearing alongside a student leader who was injured in the violence, Padukone earned plaudits from the millennial woke crowd, critics of the government and political opposition. That’s a useful ally to have when one’s movie is about to get released.
But here’s where the situation becomes a little complicated. While the Left-affiliated students and some teachers have claimed victimhood in the violence and have blamed Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing ABVP for it, the rival group too has leveled charges of violence against the Left.
The student leader, whom Padukone greeted, has been named in two FIRs (First Information Reports, usually the first stage of a police investigation) by the Delhi Police for causing vandalism on campus and associating with “masked goons.”
Violence is condemnable regardless of political affiliation. But in showing solidarity with the ‘right kind’ of victims (and thereby endorsing one violence over another), Deepika’s apparently ‘apolitical’ move was a deeply political act, and she earned instant liberal approval for it.
The BBC wondered if ‘Bollywood has found a political voice,’ apparently enthused by the fact that a superstar in a movie-crazy India has sided against its pet peeve – a ‘right-wing Hindu nationalist government.’
Some in Indian media called her the “face of a new, braver Bollywood” while some of her peers, also staunch critics of the government, have expressed “mad respect” for her. Padukone’s astute move was a ‘win-win’ proposition.
On the one hand, she became a woke champion by merely lending her brief presence in a polarized polity, on the other she triggered a wave of frenzy and counter frenzy where competing Twitter trends either called for a boycott of her upcoming film, or a show of resolve to fill the stands in support – strictly along partisan lines. In both cases the efforts were being driven by youth – the prime moviegoers in India.
Padukone, a megastar and a consummate professional, understands the game of public relations. She knew the potential of her ‘guest appearance.’ Her ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of the outrage and support would have resulted in a realization that it is ‘net benefit’ for publicity.
She has apparently added 40,000 new followers on Twitter in the few days her twitter handle and hashtags like #BlockDeepika have been trending. The controversy over the new citizenship legislation has been raging for nearly a month.
The student agitation, too, is not a new phenomenon. It is curious that Padukone chose to visit JNU only during her movie’s release week. Her well-timed appearance at JNU has achieved what no amount of campaigning could have done.
Since she is also the producer of the film, it was indeed a smart move. Any publicity, after all, is good publicity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Padukone’s promotional tactics before release, but it is a bit rich to claim a moral high ground over a cynical attempt at boosting sales of her movie.