In India, the more powerful and well known a person, the more likely he or she will go out of their way to make pro-establishment comments.
On the Twitter timeline of actor Kajol, a tweet reads: “There’s beautiful and there’s…(speechless)! Genes come like that 😉 miss you.” An accompanying photograph shows Tanuja and Shobhana Samarth. For the Twitter generation, they are Kajol’s mother and grandmother respectively. Both were well known actors in their time – Samarth began her career in the 1930s and came to be known as the quintessential on-screen Sita. Tanuja was a popular star in the 1960s and ‘70s, playing mainly, but not only, light hearted roles with tons of glamour and oomph.
Both Samarth and Tanuja were also known for their somewhat unconventional lifestyles and this is a compliment. This is not the place to discuss their private lives or their personal choices but suffice it to say that they were bold, bohemian and one of a kind, the kind that are difficult to find even in today’s Bollywood. They bravely lived their lives the way they wanted to.
Kajol too is a bit of an outlier. She is said to be a voracious reader of books and in an ocean of carefully packaged, synthetic star personas, she stands out as being an original. She is her own person.
Which makes it even more disappointing that she has had to issue a statement clarifying that a dish shown in a video she was in was buffalo meat and not beef. The video has her talking to the camera asking her friend Ryan – the chef – to explain what the dish is and he says, “beef pepper water-dry lentils and dry beef.” “Ok, we’re going to cut his hands off after this,” she says, a dark stab at humour given what some people have suffered for the mere suspicion of consuming or storing beef. But soon after the video appeared on her timeline she took it down, uploading the statement instead.
Intriguingly, Kajol was spared the usual trolling that anyone, especially a celebrity, faces when they step out of the conformist line that has been drawn by self-appointed upholders of righteousness. For these moral crusaders, the party, the nation, the army, among other things, are inviolable-a hint of a dissenting view and their wrath comes crashing down. It is possible that they would have seen her video as a contravention of the party line on beef–but they didn’t.
Her film industry colleagues – Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and her one time best friend Karan Johar did not have it so lucky – they have been pilloried and attacked in the most brutal ways for speaking their mind on a variety of issues. Aamir, who suggested he was alarmed by rising intolerance in the country was not merely trolled but also discovered that a long-standing endorsement contract with Snapdeal was not going to be renewed. Then defence minister Manohar Parrikar let it be known that this was the consequence of speaking his mind. All these Bollywood denizens have since gone completely quiet.
Of course, non-celebrities who were suspected to have violated the injunction against beef have paid an even heavier price. The chances of anyone lynching Kajol are minuscule and given that she and her husband are somewhat close to the current establishment, it is also possible that she would have escaped a heavy troll attack even if she did not clarify that it was buffalo meat, which, as she points out, “is legally available meat.” So what prompted her, on her own steam, to issue this statement?
The obvious reason could be that those close to her advised her not to wade into anything sensitive and shut it down before it became a needless, unmanageable controversy. “I am issuing this clarification because this is a sensitive matter which may hurt religious sentiments” is a clue that it has been brought to her attention that she needs to be careful what she says. Both Kajol and her husband Ajay Devgn are in the film industry and the consequences of a blowback can be severe – what if their films are stopped from release in Uttar Pradesh or Haryana or even Maharashtra where beef has been made into a major emotive issue by the government? Exhibitors in Gujarat had declared in 2006 that they would not allow Aamir-starrer Fanaa (where his co-star was Kajol) to be shown because he had made some statements against the Narmada dam project. The BJP was in power in the state-now it is in the centre and in many other states where ‘beef’ is a trigger word for them. Kajol also happens to be a member of the Prasar Bharati board and while she may not care too much about it, if indeed she is axed, it could be humiliating. The irony is that in January last year, she had said that people had become “oversensitive” in recent times, but she was the kind to speak her mind. As she has found out, this oversensitivity has come to bite her.
But more than humiliation, there could be genuine fear. In normal circumstances, celebrities ought to be insulated from the risks faced by ordinary citizens; their fame and reputation guards them from being bothered beyond a point. This freedom should allow them to take a stand on public issues or at the very least not succumb to pressure, from the public or the authorities, the way any other person would. Hollywood stars have taken on Donald Trump on all sorts of public platforms, calling him out on all kinds of issues-they leverage their fame to take a position.
In India, on the other hand, the more powerful and well known a person, the more likely he or she will go out of their way to make pro-establishment comments. Cricketers, businessmen, film stars, all have discovered new virtues in the ruling party and everything it stands for. Their statements and actions are in perfect consonance with those of the ruling leaders, especially of the prime minister. They defend every policy decision of the government – often, when silence is a better option, they are prompt to stand up and declare their fealty.
In this particular case, there was no urgency for Kajol to announce that the food on the table was not beef. The police was not making any enquiries and nor has she said that her clarification is to avoid any legal hassles. Then why pre-empt the ‘hurting of sentiments’, a slippery concept at the best of times? (And while this let’s off Kajol, can we be absolutely sure that the poor chef, who so proudly spoke about his dish, will escape the wrath of the trolls or indeed the law?) If she felt nervous about the consequences, she could have just taken down the video discreetly. But it is a reflection of our insane and paranoiac times that an actor with the genes that she is justly proud of had to buy this kind of insurance.