Urging Celebs To Speak Up: Should Activism Be Forced?

Celebrity Activism
Celebrity activism, farmers protests, and vocal women: The farmers’ agitation around New Delhi has been pursuing the repeal of the controversial farm laws for over two months now. But the farm leaders present on-site aren’t the only loud voices amplifying the cause of the protests. A few tweets from a few vocal international personalities were all it took to make the farmers’ protest noticeable on the world stage. 

As farmers occupy streets around Singhu and Tikri borders, a whole other dialogue championing their cause has surfaced online, boosted most passionately and now regularly by media personality Mia Khalifa, author Meena Harris and vlogging star Amanda Cerny. The woman who set the ball rolling, however, was pop sensation Rihanna, when a single line tweet by her – “why aren’t we talking about this?!” – prompted a national outcry and a statement against alleged “propaganda” from our Ministry of External Affairs. 

As the discourse progresses, with these women now seemingly at the forefront and unrelenting in the face of allegations of “paid” motivations, there is a lot to unpack. Netizens supporting the farmers are actively crusading against Indian celebrities for lacking “spine,” especially since many prominent ones tweeted in supports of the MEA’s statement. Other netizens pro-farm laws are denouncing Khalifa and her ilk for misrepresenting India’s “internal matter.” Noise on the internet is far less peaceful than the actual farmers’ protests right now. 

How must one estimate celebrity activism? 

It’s not easy, however, to take a unidirectional view of celebrity reactions to the protests. What are the implications when a celebrity speaks or doesn’t speak on social issues? Will it at all benefit the cause if actors lend their opinion to the discussion? Did it affect the deadlock between the administration and farmers when a handful of big celebrities did speak up? Must celebrities in support of the farm laws alter their view to appease social media activists? What exactly are we asking from celebrity activism? 

Is Celebrity Activism Equal To Real Action? 

Now, more than ever, Bollywood celebrities are accused of lacking “spine” because of the collective play-it-safe attitudes they seem to display whenever national issues come to the fore. Young favourites like Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Ranbir Kapoor and Bhumi Pednekar were deemed “establishment-friendly” after that infamous selfie with Prime Minister Modi in 2019. Older stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan are simultaneously slammed for their “safe silence.” This hostility has resurged now that social media users have Hollywood stars vocal on the farmers’ protest to compare our Hindi film actors with. 

But is the comparison fair? Can the seeming courage of Oscar winners like Sarandon be likened in measure to someone like Deepika Padukone who has chosen not to speak on the protests? Is it not so that stars like Khalifa and Cerny can afford to exercise their opinion in the matter by virtue of their safe distance from India (save the trolls)? 

One may argue that outspoken women like Swara Bhasker and Richa Chadha are glittering examples of “spiny” actors who believe in speaking on issues that matter to them over fears of jeopardising their careers. As laudable as that is, the unfortunate (and strange) part is that they have been classified as actors who take a stand, and hence the impact of their voices in the larger context is debatable. 

But would it not help if bigger stars commented on the protests? 

We remember how our country reacted when Aamir Khan’s “intolerant” remark went viral in 2015. Or the exact reaction (and threats) issued to Shah Rukh Khan the same year when he made the exact observation as his colleague. One Khan – Salman – however, did grant vague attention to the ongoing protests recently in an interview. Did it bring any value or impact to the conversation around resolving the protest? None.

Is celebrity activism taking an ugly turn? 

Social media finds itself in a confusing position over the issue. On one end, people are anguished over stars like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Saina Nehwal and Sachin Tendulkar’s near-identical tweets echoing support for the administration against international icons speaking on the matter. 

On the other end, a strange occurrence has emerged where those global celebrities speaking and tweeting are themselves calling out Indian stars. Khalifa, being lauded and cheered by social media users hailing her as a celebrity using her platform for the “right seasons,” seems to have assumed the role of a leading internet voice for the farmers.

To that end, she recently took the opportunity to tweet this as a swipe at Priyanka Chopra Jonas:  

Celebrity Activism: How much of it is relevant? 

The seeming moral superiority of those speaking out as against those who aren’t is a little jarring to witness. What’s significant to note is that Chopra was one of the first big Indian celebrities to tweet on the farmers’ protest, as early as December 6. Preity Zinta was another. These women chose to platform the issue to their large followings, which is essentially the aim of urging celebrities to speak up. But did it conclude into fruition?  

Has advocacy for the farmers’ protest online given way to echo chambers for mudslinging? Should we place so much importance, or relevance, to tweets by celebrities (both national and international) if it isn’t adding to melding the rift between farmers and the administration? If celebrities do choose to speak up someday, will the audience be content with mere lip service? Questions abound and answers are blurry. How much of celebrity activism really adds value to the farmers at ground zero in Delhi is uncertain. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.