There are many examples of celebrities in India getting into trouble for speaking up – yes, they could be considered soft targets. When the Uri attacks that left 19 soldiers dead happened in September 2016, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association passed a resolution to ban Pakistani actors from the film industry. Salman Khan opposed this and said that artistes from Pakistan should not be treated like terrorists and that art and terrorism should not be mixed up. In response, Maharashtra Navanirman Sena or MNS chief Raj Thackeray slammed Khan and said he should go and work in Pakistan. In a country where their opinion is not tolerated and any dissent is instantly greeted with the ‘Go to Pakistan’ reaction, it’s hardly surprising that many actors don’t think it worth commenting. Better to continue with your daily work and avoid trouble, they feel. Another counterpoint would be why stay silent and let someone controversial like Raj Thackeray have the last word?
During the promotions of Secret Superstar, Aamir Khan confessed that he doesn’t speak up openly about anything because if he does, then there is a possibility that the release of his film might get stalled. Aamir should know because when he last said something controversial – about ‘intolerant’ India – the backlash was prompt and severe.
When celebrities do use their influential voices, it is resounding. At the song launch of film Raazi, actor Alia Bhatt was asked to comment on the Kathua rape. She spoke her heart out and said, “Hope justice is done.” The media and the people wanted to hear just that, slamming the bad and expecting more from your country and the courts. In contrast, when Amitabh Bachchan was asked to comment on the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, he said he feels too ‘disgusted’ to even talk about it. It’s not wrong for the media to expect an actor who is the face of the government’s ‘Beti Bachao – Beti Padhao‘ campaign to condemn something as ghastly as this. Bachchan is within his rights to not comment on it – but then, as India’s uber-celeb, should he exercise that right or opt to use the considerable weight his voice carries?A lot of times, the media asks something newsy and expects celebrities to respond and then they are often told, ‘This is not the right platform.’ As a reporter, I would like to say that yes, this surely isn’t the right platform, but I don’t know what is. Is there a place where celebrities will gather on a particular day, and we will be allowed to ask something that needs an opinion from the opinion makers? When a celebrity condemns something bad that has happened in the society, their huge fan base hears them out and makes a note of it. Their opinion stays with their fans, and that’s very important.
On Tuesday, at the trailer launch of Race 3, a journalist asked Salman Khan a straightforward question: if he was under pressure while filming Race 3 as the verdict in the blackbuck poaching case was announced. The emcee immediately asked the journalist to return the microphone and said he is paid to stop the media from asking such questions. The best part is that Salman did actually answer the question. A few minutes later, at the same press conference, a reporter from the Marathi daily Saamna took the mic and asked Salman since he is so popular among kids what he has to say about child abuse in India. Once again the emcee said, “You started the question by praising Salman and where did you go with it?” Salman immediately told the emcee that the question is right. He condemned child abuse and said such things should not happen. Wonder what the emcee meant when he said, “Now we open the floor for questions from the media.” So it’s clear that a lot of times it’s not even the celebrity but the people around them who will not let you do your job.
Also, as a journalist, I have to admit that a news-related question to a celebrity at media conference should be asked properly. Just saying one line followed by “Aap kya kehna chahenge?” or “Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?” is not the correct way to ask important questions. The approach can make a big difference.There are times when the celebrity would like to be just nice and positive and pass on the uncomfortable job to their publicist of telling the media what not to ask. This is the only part which reflects badly on the celebrity. Why take away my right of asking a question when I am not taking away your right to say ‘no comments’?
The media expects you to say something only because your opinion matters and can make a difference to young minds and that’s a very powerful position to be in. You can decide for yourself if your words should do the talking or your silence.
(Rohit Khilnani is a senior entertainment journalist based in Mumbai, he is also the author of the book I Hate Bollywood. Information about box-office collections and whereabouts of films stars is at the back of his hand. He starts and ends his day by taking his dog, for walks)
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