Actors might do better by being consistently political, and starting with the politics of their own industries.

Actors are getting into trouble for speaking their mind but the answer isnt shutting up Courtesy: EP Sajeevan/Wikimedia Commons, PTI, Facebook/Prakash Raj
Voices Media Sunday, October 09, 2016 - 18:42

The past few days have been a difficult one for actors. In Bollywood, battle lines have been drawn since India’s surgical strikes across the LoC spilled over into a controversy about Pakistani actors being allowed to work in India.

Caught in the crossfire were actors like Salman Khan and Om Puri, who insisted that the line between politics and art or entertainment be maintained. Om Puri, in particular, has drawn a lot of flak for an ill-received comment that no one forced soldiers to join the army, and is facing possible legal action.

Meanwhile, down south, on the back of earlier protests against actors for not joining the Cauvery cause, actor Prakash Raj walked out of an interview with a Kannada TV channel when what was to be a conversation about his just-released film “Idolle Ramayana” was interrupted with questions about the ongoing Cauvery dispute.

Insisting that the Cauvery issue was a complex and sensitive one, and that an interview about his latest film was not the time and place to bring it up, Prakash left the studio in a fury.

However, when the channel subsequently portrayed Prakash as anti-Karnataka for not taking a stand on the Cauvery issue, the actor was reportedly forced to issue an apology, saying, “If I have hurt Kannadigas in any way, I apologise.”

Amidst these various controversies, some celebrities have raised the possibility that perhaps an actor’s opinion is best kept to himself.

But is the issue so easily resolvable?

With the eruption of social media and with an increase in the number of news outlets looking for the next viral story, the temptation has certainly grown for actors to voice provocative and attention-grabbing viewpoints on the issues of the day.

Then there’s the demand that actors face on issues like the Cauvery dispute, that they put their popularity to good use by publicly representing the woes of their fans and supporters. After all, the reasoning goes, their fame and success comes from the millions of faceless fans, and issues like Cauvery are the chance for them to give back.

The issue with such an understanding, of course, is that the actor’s opinion is automatically understood to be in support of one’s own cause and standpoint. So there’s no room for a Kannada actor to speak in favour of abiding by Supreme Court rulings and giving water to Tamil Nadu, or for a Tamil actor to speak in favour of a political dialogue when Karnataka says there’s not enough water to be released. And god forbid that an Indian actor should ever speak in favour of Pakistanis, because that means it’s time for them to pack up and go to Pakistan.

This puts actors in a double bind, since they are expected to have an opinion, and speak it, but only so long as it’s matches the nationalistic or chauvinistic flavour of the season. Any claim to objectivity or to the validity of multiple perspectives is not allowed.

But it’s not as if film celebrities are entirely blameless in the matter. Particularly in south India, where the line between acting and politics has always been porous, actors have often selectively taken to the streets in support of high political causes. As has been seen in this and other episodes of the Cauvery dispute, the film fraternity is ready to call for strikes and boycotts of films of the other language, even as it insists otherwise on holding off from political questions.

Perhaps the difficulty lies not in the fact that actors are being too political these days, but that they are not being political enough. After all, even as they continue to step into issues and socio-political conversations when it suits them, they continue to be silent about the functioning of their own fraternity and the representations it puts out. From the gendered wage gap in the industry to the representations of women, sexuality minorities, and other minorities in their films, actors often bypass the difficult debates that they could make a direct intervention in.

This would demand a far more consistent political position than the here-today-gone-tomorrow espousal of political stands that we see today in, for instance, Amitabh Bachchan’s sudden interest in issues of gender and women’s empowerment when it came time to promote his film, “Pink”.

It’s only by setting the tone of their politics in relation to their own industry and art that actors can also open up a way to be consistently political about issues outside of their films too. 

(Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.)

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