In defense of famous Indian women
In an era when “boycott culture” is firmly entrenched in the Hindi film industry – threatening the success of big-budget pictures and smaller films alike if they conflict with populist sentiment – some major celebrities continue to take risks by showing personal support for the main causes.
Many of these celebrities are women, such as A-list Indian actresses Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and Priyanka Chopra, among others. These actors made a determined attempt to break down the image of the “perfect image” that was the norm in India, while at the same time helping to dispel common gender metaphors. Their actions carry an important message to the international audience as well.
These celebrities represent the “new India” where women have a voice. Through their success, they have built trust, credibility, and likeability – and a local professional health that has translated into relative international acceptance and recognition, enabling them to express their opinions on issues of national and international importance.
Padukone, Bhatt and Chopra reflect a modern vanguard of change, a welcome attempt to broaden their support for political causes and show India in a new light.
In contrast to traditional diplomats who often follow the scenario as representatives of respective governments and confine themselves to “high politics” issues, Indian celebrities have used “media”, old and new, constructively to promote their causes. This direct public engagement can be described as a “hearts and minds” campaign – as opposed to that of traditional diplomats who often present a stereotypical image of India to the world that caters to a select audience.
Celebrities have recently made an impact on national and international audiences by speaking out about issues that affect public health and politics globally.
Deepika Padukone, for example, spoke about her personal battle with depression, and Alia Bhatt spoke about her struggle with anxiety — helping to dispel the stigma around pervasive mental health challenges. In fact, both Padukone and Bhatt have raised these issues in global circles, including at the Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere.
Priyanka Chopra has gone a step further, not only speaking in person but also in advocating for the welfare of Ukrainian refugees, among others. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Chopra visited drought-stricken areas of Kenya last month to raise awareness of relief efforts. Chopra has also recently supported Iranian women in their quest for freedom, although she has been criticized for not doing the same to Muslim school girls in India.
The domestic backlash for advocacy can be intense. Padukone appeared at Jawaharlal Nehru University in January 2020, standing silently in solidarity with the university’s students after an attack on the campus. Padukone’s actions endowed her with a rare dignity that few celebrities in India have achieved, but it has also drawn the ire of opponents. Bhatt indirectly responded to her political critics by calling for a boycott of “boycott culture” and a “ban” on films featuring actors who did not adhere to a political line.
The willingness of these active women to speak out on international issues and issues related to the broader society has had a positive effect. In film and the culture surrounding art, this represents a break from the patriarchal past. For years, the quintessential “angry young man” image has dominated Indian screens, while international audiences have been attuned to seeing a “knight” in shining armor protecting the girl(s) in distress. Off screen, the actors felt compelled to stay true to their celebrity personality. But Padukone, Bhatt and Chopra reflect a recent vanguard of change, a welcome attempt to broaden their support for political causes and show India in a new light.
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