For many, messages of anti-racism and solidarity rang hollow coming from the mouths of Bollywood’s biggest names

Narendra Modi

Swara Bhasker has been vocal in her criticism of Narendra Modi’s (above) government and its role in the persecution of India’s Muslims. Photograph: Press Information Bureau Government Handout/EPA

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia CorrespondentPublished onTue 9 Jun 2020 05.00 BST

As messages of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement spread across social media last week, Bollywood also began to chime in.

“End this race war here in the US, and around the world,” wrote Priyanka Chopra, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars who currently lives in America. “Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin colour.”

Chopra was echoed by some of Bollywood’s household names, such as Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Deepika Padukone and Disha Patani, who posted messages of support for those protesting against racism in the name of George Floyd, who was killed in the US when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes.Advertisement

Yet for many, these messages of anti-racism and equality rang hollow coming from the mouths of Bollywood’s biggest names, some of whom in the past had made endorsement deals with skin whitening creams, or products that promoted “fairness”, thereby helping to fuel the still-rampant discrimination of darker skinned people in India.

The skin-lightening cream industry in India may be controversial but is still worth billions, and, often with Bollywood endorsement, promotes the idea of beauty being conflated with whiteness, or “fairness” and “lightening”.

“Thanks for speaking out for black lives. But, maybe also stop supporting a skin bleaching cream which promotes anti-blackness,” wrote one Twitter user in response to Chopra’s post.

Chopra had previously promoted skin fairness products, though recently said it was something she regretted. In the 2008 Bollywood film Fashion, she also played a character ashamed of having sex with a black man.

“It’s not that their views can’t change or that they shouldn’t speak up for what they want, it’s about selective and performative activism especially when they have at some point propagated a colourist attitude in their own country,” read another response.

Many of the Bollywood stars were also accused of speaking out against race-driven atrocities in the US while remaining silent about the ongoing persecution of Muslims, migrant workers and lower caste members of society in India.‘Scared for my life’: why more Indians are joining migrants on risky journey to reach the USRead more

Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir who was recently imprisoned for six months after the volatile state was taken under the full control of the Indian government, sarcastically tweeted: “So much respect for all the celebrities tweeting #BLACK_LIVES_MATTER.”

In a BBC interview last week, Kangana Ranaut, a Bollywood star, criticised her fellow actors for “shamelessly” promoting Black Lives Matter while also endorsing skin whitening creams and failing to acknowledge that “racism is deep rooted”. Yet for many, her comments rang equally hollow. In April, Ranaut came out in support of her sister after she wrote a social media post said to have stirred up anti-Muslim hatred by declaring “Mullahs [Muslim religious leaders] + secular media stand them in a line and shoot them dead … they may call us Nazis who cares”.

Ranaut’s sister’s post had repeated rumours, later proved to be false, that members of a Muslim congregation had attacked doctors and officials trying to take them into coronavirus quarantine and led to her account being suspended. Ranaut later clarified she and her sister did not believe all Muslims were terrorists but those who attacked officials should be punished.

Swara Bhasker, an award-winning Bollywood actor in films such as Veere Di Wedding and Nil Battey Sannata who has been vocal in her criticism of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government and their role in the persecution of India’s Muslim and activist community, conceded that there was “a lot in Bollywood which is hypocritical and deeply flawed”.Anti-Muslim violence in Delhi serves Modi wellMukul KesavanRead more

However, she said it was unrealistic for people to expect Bollywood actors to also be activists on domestic issues, particularly in the current political climate of India, where voices of dissent against the ruling BJP government are often crushed online by an ecosystem of WhatsApp groups and professional social media trolls.

“When you create a system where you are going to make creative people so vulnerable and that punishes people for speaking their mind, why do you expect that Bollywood actors will put their livelihoods at stake and ruin their careers and peace of mind and expose themselves to filth and vile harassment?” said Bhasker.

Just two days ago she was subjected to an online hate campaign calling for her arrest in response to her tweet in support of a pregnant Muslim women arrested under spurious terrorism charges.

Bhasker added: “Yes we can argue Bollywood actors are privileged and have this public platform, but really who wants to bring that kind of harassment into their lives. So of course it’s easier to talk about Black Lives matter, because it’s safer. There’s nothing at stake.”

Indeed, in India Bollywood films need certification from a government-controlled body in order to be released, and so films, and therefore actors, are very vulnerable to government intervention.

For Bhasker, she said she had paid a “very, very heavy price” for speaking out against injustices in India. “I’ve lost work, I’ve lost brands, I’ve gained this reputation for being ‘controversial’ which is just bizarre,” she said. “Every single day, my family and friends ask ‘why do you do this to yourself?’”

courtesy The guardian