India's citizenship law: Young Bollywood speaks up

While young stars join call against India's religion-based law, the A-listers keep mum

Demonstrators at a protest last Thursday in Mumbai against India's newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. Several personalities, including Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhasker, Alankrita Shrivastava and Huma S. Qureshi, showed u
Demonstrators at a protest last Thursday in Mumbai against India's newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. Several personalities, including Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhasker, Alankrita Shrivastava and Huma S. Qureshi, showed up at a key protest in the city that day. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Popular actor Ali Fazal at a protest on Friday outside the Indian consulate in Toronto, Canada.
Popular actor Ali Fazal at a protest on Friday outside the Indian consulate in Toronto, Canada. PHOTO: @ICHIRPYHEAD/ SAHBA NASAR/ TWITTER

Bollywood heroes are adored for their tenacity on screen to outwit their opponents with quick retorts and beat their enemies into a pulp; what they are not known for is speaking up publicly against the authorities in real life.

But ongoing spirited demonstrations against a controversial citizenship law, led largely by students and other young people across India, have inspired many young Bollywood personalities to stand up against the government - and with the protesters.

This is a rare, widespread outburst from an industry that enjoys a cosy relationship with the political system in India and often churns out films that fit snugly with narratives the government espouses.

But their anger has been stoked by violent police excesses against student protesters as well as the introduction of religion as a factor in the offer of citizenship in India, a secular country.

Earlier this month, the government legislated the Citizenship Amendment Act that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, prompting citizen protests across the country.

"BARBARIC! UNDEMOCRATIC! UNSECULAR! That's what we are turning into! Not the India I was born in!" tweeted actor Pulkit Samrat on Dec 17, adding the hashtags "#UnityIsOurReligion" and "#IStandWithJamiaMilliaStudents".

The latter is a reference to Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi that was the site of a large student mobilisation on Dec 15 against the Act.

Widely circulated videos of the protests showed students in a library seeking cover from tear gas fired by the police. At least one student is seen bloodied and another appears to have passed out.

Following a separate crackdown at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, the protesting students and their cause won support from many in Bollywood.

  • STAR SUPPORT ON TWITTER

  • Sidharth Malhotra.

    "My heart goes out to all the students back home in Delhi. In a democracy like ours, it's sad to see violence against citizens for voicing their opinion through peaceful protests. There should be no place for violence of any form and intent in our country. I strongly condemn this act."

    ACTOR SIDHARTH MALHOTRA

    "If this is what's gonna happen every time a citizen expresses their view... we should pass a Bill and not call our country a democracy any more! Beating up innocent human beings for speaking their mind? BARBARIC."

    ACTRESS PARINEETI CHOPRASayani Gupta.

    "Everyone who is Silent Now, remember to tell your children You were cowards and will always be on the Wrong side of History.

    "All of u who have gone into your privileged holes, remember, the day u crawl out of those dark corners of convenience, u will have to face people with ur mask down."

    ACTRESS SAYANI GUPTA

    "You can't claim to care about refugees from other countries, when our own citizens are being murdered. Care about these people who lost their lives in this hubris, they're not statistics."

    ACTRESS RICHA CHADHA

"My mother is a Hindu, my biological father was a Christian, my adoptive father a Muslim. In all official documents, my religion status stays blank. Does religion determine I am an Indian? It never did and I hope it never does," actress Dia Mirza tweeted last Wednesday.

Many others chimed in with their emphatic support for the students. They include actresses Taapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Sonakshi Sinha and cousins Parineeti and Priyanka Chopra.

Their strong remarks were in stark contrast to those from some male actors, who gave cautious responses, possibly crafted by their publicity advisers, to avoid being seen as endorsing violence by some protesters and upsetting the government.

WOMEN MORE OUTSPOKEN

"What has been most interesting is to see how clearly the women (from the industry) have spoken up without caveat," said Ms Sohini Chattopadhyay, a Kolkata-based independent journalist who writes on Hindi films.

"Bollywood, in general, has spoken much more than corporate India. Kudos to them for that."

Several personalities, including Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhasker, Alankrita Shrivastava and Huma S. Qureshi, also showed up at a key protest attended by several thousand in Mumbai last Thursday.

Ali Fazal, another popular actor, was present at a protest in Toronto, Canada, on Friday.

"This is your chance to be on the right side of history," he told a large group of protesters, who cheered him on outside the Indian consulate there. "We are gonna make history - the youth of India, the women of India."

Ms Namrata Joshi, a Mumbai-based film journalist, said young film personalities have been spurred on by the same emotions that have rallied the students.

"There is a certain enough-is-enough feeling," she told The Sunday Times.

Ms Chattopadhyay added: "What we are going through is quite a defining moment in this country's history. People sense the enormity of what's under way."

Even those who have spoken in favour of the government in the past have switched sides on this controversial issue. They include writer and producer Chetan Bhagat, whose books are especially popular among young readers who have been drawn into the vortex of these protests.

"Looks like Revolution 2020 is coming after all," he tweeted last Thursday.

These new voices are an addition to those who have always been politically engaged in Bollywood, such as Anurag Kashyap and Anubhav Sinha, as well as those who have been on the side of the current government, like Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri.

Personalities from film industries elsewhere in India, including Tamil Nadu and Kerala, have also lent their support to the protesters.

In Assam, a north-eastern Indian state that has witnessed a longstanding campaign against the influx of migrants from Bangladesh, film personalities have in fact led the protests.

The top Bollywood actors, meanwhile, remain conspicuous because of their silence. These include Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. This has drawn criticism, especially directed at Shah Rukh, who is an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia.

"The Bollywood royalty has been quiet as they are the ones that have most at stake," Ms Joshi said. "I do not expect them to come up with anything of great consequence."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 22, 2019, with the headline India's citizenship law: Young Bollywood speaks up. Subscribe