Late on the night of February 2, there appeared to be a decisive shift in the somewhat stifled course of India’s ongoing farmer protests. It, however, didn’t originate at any of the protest sites set up at Delhi’s borders. It also didn’t happen inside the parliament. It happened on a social platform, where an international popstar dropped a tweet in support of the farmers.
“Why aren’t we talking about this,” Rihanna asked, as she tweeted a CNN story on the farmers’ protest. In 34 characters, the singer accomplished, what two months of agitation, near rioting and deaths haven’t so far – shake India’s local cache of celebrities and influencers into speaking out about the issue. From Karan Johar to Sachin Tendulkar, it suddenly dawned upon our mighty influencers that “farmers are the backbone of India”; they spoke in one voice with one hashtag – #IndiaTogether. This Twitter “awakening” says more about them than it does about the debate itself. This knee-jerk reaction to a harmless tweet offered by a global celebrity, confirms to a significant degree the passivity of people we are quick to regard as demigods and role models and the pointlessness of their “influence”.
On one end of this bombshell in a pit, there is this newfound fragility of a narrow Indian conscience that considers itself attacked by a mere tweet. At the other, it tells us why the cult of celebrity must never be divorced from the scale of social impact. The two in fact feed off of each other. Which makes it all the more beguiling that these celebrities remain supine witnesses to all that chokes and churns before them. For generations now, India’s actors and cricketers have been chosen as faces for social and political appeals. They appear in advertisements, are seen in political and patriotic messaging on the tele and are in some way or the other seen to belong to India, more than India belongs to them. They are, so to speak, as much the country’s as are their victories and losses. It’s a different story if you were to flip this equation. The brigade of celebrities that loves being centre-stage when taking in the adulation of the commoners, do little to engage with their issues, outside the context of a paid or publicised PR stunt.
India’s actors and cricketers are in some way or the other seen to belong to India, more than India belongs to them.
The word “influencer” is a recently coined term, but in many ways it has always been built into the qualification of a popular public figure. You are the focus of the public eye, only as long as you can direct it where you want, mould it to see what you wish for it to see. Of course perceptions have to be managed, images carefully carved, but when it comes to exerting moral influence over people, celebrities perhaps hold more sway than people elected to office. So much so that we distrust the politics of the politician as much as we believe the realism of the actor. To us the banality of political good compares barely to the box-office nature of morality our “heroes” pretend to embody. It explains why we have for years revered cinema that propounds moral fibre, family values and middling upper-caste lives with no scope for dissent or disagreement. Cinema that has made heroes out of not asking questions. Quite naturally, this symptom has seeped into the vein of the faces behind these “heroes” who sit on fences, like mute spectators, trying to tell opportunity from risk.
Hollywood, unlike the film industry back home, is a place where vocalism is admired and rewarded. Be it the #MeToo movement or standing up to erstwhile president Donald Trump, American actors and performers were at the forefront of political discourse, rarely shying away from a question. In India, while the film industry bends over backwards to tell small-town and rural underdog stories, it rarely engages their politics or struggles in real life. A recent farcical PR stunt by Akshay Kumar is evidence of the promiscuous and rather distasteful nature of the industry’s predacious handpicking of narratives. Narratives that contextually suit its one-sided writing. Outside of a publicised and packaged PR event, expected to reap certain rewards, superstars and sportsmen rarely bother addressing problems that a country besotted by inequality has to live with. The same inequality that makes the journey from anonymity to fame, seem more like an escape rather than achievement. Sadly, the relief of being on the other side, rarely turns into concern for those left behind.
We have somehow grown up, expecting too little of the people we look up to, people whose fortunes and lives have been made because we showered them with love and praise.
There is this popular argument that actors, cricketers and other celebrities ought not to participate in politics, perchance they offer the triteness of a rant written inside a public toilet. But guess what, public toilets are as unavoidable as politics in any democratic country is inaccessible. i.e. both are inevitable. We have somehow grown up, expecting too little of the people we look up to, people whose fortunes and lives have been made because we showered them with love and praise. This power, that we allow them must also in return be expected to at least speak at a time of calling. Not in the farcical alarmed manner we have now witnessed, but in a more constructive and premeditated way.
As much as we have indulged the fortitude and genius of people we like to think of as godly, we must also demand their intrigue in regarding us as human, and subsequently worth speaking up for. This one-way street where the light in one house perpetually ignores the darkness in every other’s, needs a makeover. Or we will, like Rihanna’s tweet, continue to be woken up by the hell-raising alarms of a neighbour who is only trying to point us to the fire burning under our own roof.