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Opinion

The immense integrity and bravery of Deepika Padukone – analysis

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No matter what side of the debate you’re on when it comes to student protests across India and the turmoil we’re seeing on some of our best campuses, there’s no denying the extraordinary courage Deepika Padukone showed in making a appearance at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Choosing to greet Aishe Ghosh, the young president of the JNU Student Union, whose skull was almost broken with an iron rod, with his hands bent in a respectful internode, Padukone marked a major break from the past apathy of his industry.

She, however, was not the first to speak. Other notables are Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Taapsee Pannu, Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadda, Farhan Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Ahavnub Sinha and Zeeshan Ayyub, marking an obvious generational change. But it certainly made the gesture more dramatic and risk-laden.

If the worst thing can be said about his fiercely individual claim to be at JNU is that it was a promotional trick for his new film Chhapaak, you have no idea how pubic relationship masters and brand managers in the film industry think.

In fact, a few days ago, but before the violent assault on the JNU, I met Padukone and the director of the film Meghna Gulzar at an event in Jaipur. They were surrounded by half a dozen advisers and advertising directors. As we sat down and talked behind the scenes, both Gulzar and Padukone asked me thoughtful and thoughtful questions about the controversy surrounding the proposed new citizenship legislation and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Their minds were worried that this would come to history in our formal conversation. In fact, while Padukone, who is also the film’s producer, and Gulzar seemed comfortable taking these questions from an essentially young audience, everyone around him was positively paranoid. The only comment Padukone made to me was about the actors being a soft target. Why don’t we demand the same responsibility from our industry leaders or our sports stars or other celebrities, he wondered. Everything that has happened since then vindicates Padukone’s point and reinforces the fact that it would have struggled to convince the many stakeholders around him about the need to go to JNU. They are more at risk and status-quoist than you can even begin to imagine.

In part, credit for triggering this change should go to students across India who have created first-class moral pressure on people, regardless of their political affiliations. His optimism, his idealism in going into battle for constitutional values, the proud embrace of symbols of nationalism and the haunting videographed images of Jamia Millia Islamia to JNU of the violence they have suffered, all this makes neutrality impossibility, even for those who regard themselves as apolitical. But if students have made the protests almost great, Padukone’s presence has allowed many others to avoid silence. Since his visit, others such as Sunil Shetty, Varun Dhawan and Sunny Leone have jumped into the conversation.

Already, for the election Padukone has made, there have been calls to boycott his new release. Some government ministers have attacked it in the thickest language. Padukone could well be removed from other government-linked promotional campaigns. And the horrible, sexist online trolling is relentless. If, for some reason, your film doesn’t work well, you can’t even start counting the number of well-desired assumptions that will argue it was linked to its presence at JNU.

Then they will advise you to close forever.

But Padukone has reflected a quiet but fierce force even before this. The decision to transform into an acid attack survivor, in an industry where women actors are often forcibly withdrawn in their thirties, reflects that stubborn force. She told me that a senior male director had advised her not to do Chhapaak precisely because it “wouldn’t look good,” in the way the industry defines it.

A few years ago, Padukone came to me in an interview about an intensely private and distressed battle against mental depression. So, too, I asked him if he wasn’t afraid of possible repercussions. But she had made up her mind. And there was no turning back. Its fickleness is in an inescapable contrast with most of the main male actors of its fraternity. In particular, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan seem to have quietly dried up since their direct shootings on issues such as the mob lynching of Muslims a few years ago caused them a terrible online reaction. I did an interview of this guy with Shah Rukh where he spoke bluntly about Dadri’s lynchings. Of course it was viciously trolled. A new release of him a couple of months later failed the box office test. I later discovered that his managers believed the interview was one of the reasons for the failure. This is how minds, opinions and thoughts are controlled and reduced in Bollywood.

And this is why Padukone has shown such remarkable integrity.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning writer and journalist

The opinions expressed are personal

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