George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 sent shock-waves throughout the US and around the world, including our (often hypocritical) Bollywood fraternity. The 46 year old Black man from Minneapolis was charged with spending a fake $20 bill which got him arrested. As Floyd was lowered to the ground and handcuffed, the white officer on duty, Derek Chauvin, put his knee to Floyd’s neck and shifted his entire weight on him. He stayed that way for nearly nine minutes while his coworkers, officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao prevented onlookers from intervening. When emergency health workers arrived after a concerned onlooker had dialed 911, Chauvin stopped them from coming any closer to himself and Floyd. During his last three minutes, Floyd was completely motionless and had no pulse. He died on the spot, his last words being, “I can’t breathe!”.
This incident is the newest addition to the countless instances of institutionalized violence against African-Americans and has fueled protests in nearly 400 cities and towns in all 50 states of the country. Social media is abuzz with people, including celebrities, raising their voice against institutionalized racism with the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. Among them were Bollywood stars like Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, and Disha Patani.
It’s rather ironic that these actresses have taken to Twitter and Instagram to say that “all colors are beautiful” while endorsing skin-lightening products in their home country. The countless Indian women who’ve grown up watching TV commercials of these products were certainly not taught that their skin color was beautiful. Instead, not only were we led to believe that our natural skin tone was unattractive, but that having lighter skin would instantly increase our worth as people. That the gora nikhaar guaranteed by the product would turn us into straight A’s students and dynamic professionals whom employers would want to hire, peers would envy, and men would want to date.
Colorism and racism are deeply rooted in Indian society, with white skin being seen as superior and something worth aspiring to. ‘Dark’ skinned women from a young age are subjected to all kinds of beauty treatments and advice, being constantly reminded that no one will marry them for their looks. By endorsing creams, soaps and face washes that promise a ‘white glow’, our Bollywood stars continue to contribute to this toxic culture while making impassioned pleas on social media to “not judge a person by their skin color”.
Moreover, even as our celebrities put out messages of solidarity to POC in the West and condemn racial discrimination, they remain hypocritically silent on issues closer home. In the past six years under right-wing rule, India has seen a surge in cases of state-sanctioned persecution of Muslims, Bahujans and critics of the government like students, media-persons, activists and academicians. The perpetrators of such violence go scot-free and are felicitated with garlands or elected to the Parliament. Hate speech and misinformation are normalized and spread at an alarming rate even by mainstream news outlets. Influential Bollywood stars have consistently maintained a deafening silence on these issues, while being complicit in spreading government propaganda.
When Delhi Police had dropped tear gas shells in Jamia Millia Islamia and brutally attacked unarmed students to disrupt protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the so-called ‘King of Bollywood’ who happens to be an alumnus of the university hadn’t said a word. When Dr. Payal Tadvi died by suicide due to institutionalized caste discrimination, our silver screen icons who scream ‘girl power’ were nowhere to be seen. None of these champions of ‘humanity’ and ‘love’ open their mouths when Muslims, Bahujans or Adivasis are detained on baseless charges and tortured in custody, yet police brutality in America is what gets their attention.
It is precisely this dis-ingenuity, this hypocrisy, that makes it so hard to take Bollywood stars seriously when they talk about global issues. They can be vocal about social problems in the West, while actively contributing to the ones in their own backyard. They have no qualms about critiquing and questioning the government, as long as it isn’t their own government. When it comes to the leader of their own country, they are at their slavish, supplicant best, inviting him to their weddings and clicking selfies to win him PR points.
It is important to talk about George Floyd’s murder. It is important to fight against racial discrimination and protest against injustice anywhere in the world. But to offer lip service while enabling the same form of discrimination at your own home, is mere posturing. To decry marginalization elsewhere while staying oblivious to the problems in your backyard is pointless. This ‘performative wokeness’ only reveals the utter lack of moral compass in our favorite celebrities and makes one wonder if they’re really worth all the hype at all. This country could surely do with a better class of heroes.
Featured Image Source: WION