The letter war: When celebrities choose the wrong over the right

By appealing to the Prime Minister to stop mob lynching in the country, were celebrities voicing their faith in the PM’s ability to do so? Or were they holding him personally responsible?

The letter war: When celebrities choose the wrong over the right

Sujata Anandan

Some years ago, when Amitabh Bachchan was launching a perfume in his name, he told us an interesting story about why he had moved away from politics or association with any one political party. As a newly-elected Congress member of Parliament from Allahabad, he had been asked by his party to campaign in Assam which at the time was seeing insurgency and extreme violence.

As the aircraft carrying the Congress leaders landed at the Gauhati airport, they found themselves surrounded by agitators who simply would not let them off the plane. Somehow, they managed to touch down on the tarmac but there was so much insurgency around them that it was simply not advisable to enter the city and address election campaigns.

They decided to reboard the aircraft and take off, aborting their schedule and further programmes in the state. Just as Bachchan was about to enter the aircraft, one of the agitators came charging at him – but only to shake hands. However, he left behind a note in Bachchan's palms. Bachchan was stunned out of his wits when he read the note after the aircraft took off.

It said, “Mr Bachchan, I am a great fan and never miss any of your films. But lately I hate to see them because every time you come on screen, I can't help thinking of you as a Congress MP. Don't do this to us. Please be just who you are, and don’t make us take sides while watching your films.”

According to Bachchan that is when he realised how damaging it could be to a film star to associate with any political party and in a few months, he resigned his Lok Sabha seat and returned to being a full-time star with no political affiliations.

Perhaps that experience soured him against taking stands, for although he is now largely seen as one of the earliest supporters of Narendra Modi, he has refused to come to the support of even his own industry colleagues, men or women, who have been under various pressures, political, social or even personal.

But I understood exactly what Bachchan’s fan had felt all those years ago when an actor I greatly admired, Anupam Kher, descended to the support of bigotry and violence against minorities after many celebrities and litterateurs began returning their government awards in protest against the lynchings and cow vigilantism that had overtaken the country during Modi's last term in power.

When he organised a protest march against these protesters, I ceased being a fan and vowed never to see another film with Kher in a significant role – for how could a sensitive actor be so insensitive to the miseries and life and death threats that certain human beings, albeit minorities, were being subjected to with such frequency?

I now feel the same about my favourite Bharatnatyam dancer Sonal Mansingh, who I tried to emulate during my own experiments with Bharatnatyam, and Prasoon Joshi, who I have watched since his days with an advertising agency through to his interview of Modi during the latter's London visit three years ago.

If I thought Kher was sucking up to the Modi regime for a Rajya Sabha nomination, Joshi, a profound poet and lyricist, confounded me with his cringe-worthy dialogue with Modi. But I dismissed it as an orchestrated PR exercise and never really thought too little of Joshi.

Because, after all, he came from the world of image-building and was not really a journalist, let alone a hard core one - and there were already too many of the latter who had not conducted themselves as blue-blooded journalists while interviewing Modi.

But now I am both horrified and deeply distressed that my favourite celebrities should endorse lynching of minorities and the violence against them by signing a letter opposing other celebrities who have taken a rightful stand against the violence by writing a letter to Modi asking him to stop the violence.

Those other celebrities, among them some of my own favourites like Aparna Sen and Anurag Kashyap, I thought were simply writing to the leader of their nation because who else would have the authority to stop the violence? Why did Man Singh, Joshi and others with them presume that the first set of celebrities were blaming Modi for the violence?

Not only have they fuelled the suspicion that Modi somehow is responsible for the lynchings and violence, in becoming signatories to this orchestrated campaign, I am disappointed that bright minds like Joshi did not even stop to think about the lack of compassion for the unfortunate citizens of this country.

As many have commented before, these second set of celebrities seem to have no problem with mob lynchings, only with those among them who protest against the mob lynchings.

They also fail to recognise the fact that while the first set of celebrities were speaking up for the unfortunate and powerless people of the country, they themselves are not just, by association, supporting those mob lynchings, they are also sucking up to the powers that be.

Again, by association that means – what if a few citizens of this country lose their lives to mob violence, at least we get our medals (or Padma awards) by supporting the all-powerful!

There is so much political chicanery and skullduggery hidden behind that callousness towards their unfortunate fellow citizens that today I regret I ever bought a ticket to a Sonal Mansingh dance show or angled for an invitation to a Prasoon Joshi poetry reading or even watched Anupam Kher’s films so avidly.

We may be critical of Amitabh Bachchan's deliberate neutrality on various issues including crucial ones like the #MeToo campaign where the choice was not a difficult one between right and right or wrong and wrong but a clear cut one between right and wrong. But at least he did not choose to endorse the wrong side.

Violence can never be ignored or forgiven, and by failing to see the difference between the right and clearly the wrong, these celebrities have let down not only their fans but also themselves.

I wonder how well they can sleep at night or look at their faces in the mirror the next morning without spotting the blood on their hands. They cannot be the role models for any right thinking person in the country any longer.

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Published: 28 Jul 2019, 12:29 PM