George Floyd’s suffocating death at the end of a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis on May 25 has become an international protest movement. What endures beyond this is still to be written, and, in a more vital sense, acted upon. Black Lives Matter has roared back into public consciousness, finding form in protests in cities across the globe. In societies marked by colour, race and an assortment of complexes, the Floyd protests have also struck a note.
That note, however, can be a problematic one. In the case of India, Bollywood has weighed in with twittering on the subject of Floyd’s cruel end. Social media accounts have heated up with expressions of solidarity and condemnation of US politics. Actress Priyanka Chopra spoke of ending “this race war here in the US, and around the world. Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin colour.” Chopra was all virtuous in offering prayers for “George” (good to be on first name basis with the slain) and “for your family”.
It is hard to imagine not empathising with the death of an innocent, yet another victim of police and institutional brutality and, importantly, another person of colour. But in the colour virtue games, the big names ought to be careful before casting stones, or, in this case, glorifying certain protests without due reflection. In the Indian context, race casts a long, tormenting shadow; white remains glorious, necessary, and beautiful. The Aryan echo prevails over the Dravidian slave. Rage, in other words, remains selective.
The Indian cosmetic industry has thrived on this. Ranjavati Banerji, writing in the New Statesman, recounts an incident in his childhood. “My grandmother must have been 50 when I first watched her carefully extracting the softly-perfumed white cream from the pink tube and gently massaging it into her face.” It was a beauty product called “Fair and Lovely”, one of the first designed, in Banerji’s words, “to enhance fairness of complexion.”
This point was drawn out with some indignation by readers of Chopra’s tribute, as with others. (Chopra, in any case, has form, having cozied up to the Indian government over such policies as the repeal of the autonomous status of Kashmir. Some things are worth celebrating for the Bollywood patriot.) Fellow actress Disha Patani might have crowed on Twitter that all colours are beautiful, yet promote Pond’s skin-whitening “Fairness” BB cream. As Twitter user Anjali Sharma retorted, this was just another case of a privileged Indian reaping rewards from “selling fairness cream on one hand & protesting racism on the other hand. Hypocrisy died a million deaths here.”
For another Twitter user, such celebrities were perfectly entitled to babble and blurt “for what they want”; the problem, more rather, was “about selective and performative activism especially when they have at some point propagated a colorist attitude in their own country.” Such is the way of all celebrity activism on certain causes: pick and choose wisely; detect the acceptable rage and add your voice to it with bells; avoid the damage of controversy.
The line-up of Indian celebrity voices citing Floyd and US police brutality is lengthening. To Chopra can be added Karan Johar and Kareena Kapoor Khan. Such figures are often silent on local, nasty matters. The closer to home, the easier to forget. Assiduously, they stay away from such polarising debates as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the Hindu nationalist agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Little is mentioned of the vicious protests that took place in February during US President Donald Trump’s visit, when Hindu mobs set upon members of the Muslim community in Delhi. The deaths of 40 people and 200 people have been vicious enough to count as a pogrom, though the Bollywood celebrity bubble resists the tag.
The inconsistency, even hypocrisy of the Floyd protest show, did not elude Abhay Deol, who took issue with his fellow thespians and their peculiar bias. “Migrant lives matter, poor lives matter, minority lives matter,” he scrawled on a piece of paper he subsequently posted to his Instagram account. “Maybe it’s time for these now? Now that ‘woke’ Indian celebrities and the middle class stand in solidarity with fighting systemic racism in America, perhaps they’d see how it manifests in their own backyard?”
Nor did such behaviour escape the attention of the prickly Kangana Ranaut, who fumed about inconsistencies in what Indian celebrities call out, and what they choose to remain silent over. In an interview with Pinkvilla, Ranaut positively bristled at various instances of violence that escaped the radar of Bollywood social media. “The Sadhu lynching happened a couple of weeks ago; still no one said a word. It happened in Maharashtra where most of these celebrities reside…Bollywood anyway is a derived name from Hollywood. It is a shame they (Bollywood celebrities) continue to live in a bubble and never fail to jump on the bandwagon, which can give them two minutes of fame, but ‘white people’ must drive the bandwagon.” Scathingly, she speculated that such a symptom might be put down to “pre-independence colonial slavery genes.”
The social cause, if motivated by a white figure, was a legitimate one. Protests from an Indian perspective hardly mattered. In the field of environmental policy, for instance, many a Bollywood star would, charged Ranaut, hold a flame for “a white teenage kid”. Forgotten were those remarkable “elderly women and even children” in India who did not need the tokenistic gesture of thespian promotion.
From the political side of things, National Conference (NC) vice-president Omar Abdullah has also been sharp on the issue. “It takes courage to bring your cowardice to the fore when you tweet for American lives but can’t tweet for Indian lives.”
Race wars, colour wars and cream wars. The tyranny of appearance; the need to be part of an industry. Protest as a matter of surfaces, not substance. For celebrities who appropriate and commodify any cause effortlessly virtue signalling can be hilariously grotesque. To count, you need to have a view, but in Bollywood, to count is to have a view carefully chosen and indulgently promoted.