In an industry where the scales are anyway tilted against them, it is the women of Bollywood who have stood up to be counted.
The pictures of Deepika Padukone at JNU have by now launched more than a thousand tweets, many in support of her, many condemning her for aligning herself with the 'tukde tukde gang', yet others claiming she was only trying to promote her movie while in the same breath adding they will boycott that movie.
Taking an obvious risk days before the release of Chhapaak, which she is also producing, Padukone has made an unmissable statement, and raised yet again a getting-harder-to-ignore question — where are Bollywood's men?
The A-listers who have for decades ruled the roost and millions of hearts, are glaringly conspicuous by their absence. The country, as one, has copied their hairstyles, their dialogues, gestures and clothes. Why do we not know what they think about the issues polarising the country today?
The recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the police crackdown against agitating students have seen unprecedented Bollywood involvement. Actors and directors like Swara Bhasker, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Richa Chadha, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Dia Mirza and many others have not just spoken up on social media, but actively turned up for rallies and protests.
Yet, till very recently, the A-listers were missing. The merchants of fairytales, who have built their careers and their millions on "feel-good" cinema, stayed away from the grimy hurly-burly of politics.
However, in the past few days, actresses, one by one, have broken this unwritten rule. Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt have condemned the recent incidents in no uncertain words. And now, Deepika Padukone has physically turned up at a protest venue.
Padukone wasn't at JNU as a star. She did not take centrestage, she did not make a speech. She was there, as a member of her team said, because she wanted to “express her anguish" at the violence in the campus, just like many other concerned citizens have been doing in city after city, at protest after protest.
Deepika Padukone knows better than most stars what this could unleash — as recently as in 2017, a BJP leader had announced a Rs 10 crore bounty on her head for starring in Padmaavat, while the Karni Sena wanted to chop off her nose.
Even without personal experience, Bollywood heroines know what's at risk in triggering the troll brigade. Just reading Bhasker's timeline for an hour can turn your stomach, make you want to go off social media forever.
Yet, Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone chose to take the risk. What prevents the men? The Kapoors, the Khans, the Bachchans, who wield enormously more power, and run far fewer risks?
It is no one's case that the "heroes" don't stand to lose by taking a political stand. Just a few years ago, both Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan had people — including BJP leaders — sending them to Pakistan when they spoke up about the growing intolerance in the country. Then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had to personally broker a peace deal between Karan Johar and MNS goons during the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
It can also be argued that in a democracy, a public figure does have the right to remain totally apolitical, however questionable that choice.
Yet, in an industry where the scales are anyway tilted against them, it's the women of Bollywood who have stood up to be counted.
Women are paid less, have a shorter shelf life in Bollywood, are more dispensible. As we have heard for ages, few heroines can "carry a movie on their shoulders", which is also because they rarely get parts written for them — a beautiful face and charismatic screen presence are all that is required of the leading lady in most "mainstream" movies.
In a notoriously risk-averse industry dominated by risk-averse men, women can easily be dropped from projects and endorsements for showing "political adventurism". Bhasker, indeed, has spoken about losing work because of her political stands.
For the audience too, a woman with an opinion can be more difficult to stomach than a man. Men can obviously be interested in "serious matters", but how inconvenient to enjoy a beautiful woman dancing to a beautiful song when you know her sympathies lie with the tukde tukde gang!
Also, the attacks against the women are far more vicious, and far crasser, than against men. People see a woman with an opinion as a greater transgression, and the more her mind infuriates them, the more they target her body — sexually explicit threats and "jokes" are generally the weapons of choice against women.
Anurag Kashyap has been faced with relentless trolling for long now, so has Javed Akhtar. But they haven't had people from within their own fraternity calling them "sasti" (cheap), as happened with Bhasker and film-writer Raaj Shaandilyaa recently.
Even during the Padmavat fracas, it was Deepika Padukone's head and nose on the line, not her male co-stars Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh's.
And it is not like the men of Bollywood eschew politics altogether. Akshay Kumar's recent movies have — co-incidentally? — been themed around the projects the government wants to promote: building toilets, vanquishing foreign Muslim invaders. In this Kumar is not alone, though he is the only one to have interviewed the PM about his mango-eating preferences (again, an opportunity given only to a man).
Many A-listers had happily posed for a grinning selfie with the PM at a time when it was impossible to not know its significance.
Amitabh Bachchan, who has had perhaps the longest successful run at Bollywood, stars in the government's advertisements, but is resolutely silent when that government seems to be turning against its own people.
The appeal these stars wield is unparalleled — any cause that Salman Bhai raises his hands for, maybe with that blue bracelet, that Bachchan lends his baritone and gravitas or Shah Rukh his dimples and his charm to, will instantly get the kind of resonance a hundred erudite editorials and speeches by JNU alumni can't garner.
These stars are well-aware of their great power. They choose not to see the great responsibility it comes with.
Even outside Bollywood, the CAA-NRC protests have been dominated by women — the brave ladies of Shaheen Bagh are a shining, heartening example. Perhaps it is time we rewrite our definition of "heroes", change whom we look at for inspiration and solidarity. For now, the women of Bollywood have proven to be far more heroic than the stars who rule it.