(Tw: homophobic speech)
For years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of activism we’ve come to expect from celebrities has been dwindling. Should celebrities be activists? Should celebrities be held accountable if they aren’t active participants of social change? These are questions that have been up for debate for a while now, and are outside the scope of this article. I would rather focus on accountability, a consequence of actions.
It's undebatable that a celebrity is influential. Being in the public eye comes with the inescapable consequence of influencing people with what to say. More often than not, having a large audience who, the celebrity might believe, won’t call them out for bigotry gives them a certain sense of impunity.
What is This About?
Performing at the Rolling Loud festival over the weekend, rapper Da Baby said on stage: "If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually-transmitted diseases, that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cell phone lighter up…Fellas, if you ain’t sucking d*** in the parking lot, put your cell phone lighter up.”
(Note: HIV and AIDS are both medical conditions that aren’t interchangeable. Also, the statement “die in two to three weeks” is medically inaccurate when it comes to patients suffering from HIV.)
Dua Lipa and Lil Nas X, both artistes in the same industry as Da Baby, condemned his statements on social media. He was also dropped from the Lollapalooza, Governors Ball and other music festivals. Linking these diseases to LGBTQIA+ people alone has been a reason for increasing violence against the community.
Closer home, several celebrities were recently called out for casteist remarks. Actors Munmun Dutta and Yuvika Chaudhary were recently called out for using a casteist slur in their vlogs to mean that they didn’t look their best. In 2017, FIRs were also lodged against Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty for using casteist slurs on the Bigg Boss stage.
Actor Randeep Hooda was criticised for his casteist and sexist comments about Bahujan Samaj Party Chief Mayawati, in a clip that surfaced on Twitter this year.
Commenting on Hooda’s video, activist Kavita Krishnan tweeted, “Caste radicalisation makes Hooda see a Dalit woman as unattractive, not just to him, but to all. His ‘joke’ appeals to other caste radicalised people, whose claps imply that a dark Dalit woman’s ‘ugliness’ is ‘universally’ accepted.”
Apologies: ‘Wasn’t Aware’, ‘Wasn’t my Intention’
It isn’t just about the celebrities, it is about each person on Earth, all 7 billion. When it comes to apologies about racist, misogynistic, casteist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic (the list goes on) comments, the apology holds immense weight. But it’s not nearly enough.
Statements like ‘It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone’ or ‘I wasn’t aware of the problematic nature’ of my views not only seem like a cop out (its 2021!) but they often shift onus to the oppressed. It is not that tough to be aware of the consequences of public speech, especially in 2021.
It’s naïve to expect every person who has a mic to have read and understood theories and research papers, but for a basic understanding of wrong and right, there are stellar examples IN the public space:
From 1985 to 2021, and Counting
An Early Frost (1985) was the first major release to deal with the issue of AIDS. It was watched by over 30 million people and won 3 Emmys (It was nominated for 14). Less than a decade later, a film touching upon issues of HIV/AIDS and the attached homophobia made it to the Academy Awards.
Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay, and won Hanks the award for ‘Best Actor’ at the 66th Academy Awards.
2005 saw Rent, one of the most standout musicals ever, which dealt with the theme of HIV/AIDS with queer actors and people of colour as leads. Does it hold a torch to the magnificent productions like Hamilton? Maybe not, but it is still culturally significant. Rent boasts of a Tony AND a Pulitzer. The Hours, Dallas Buyers Club, How to Survive a Plague, are just a few examples.
Then came Pose, which released in 2019, and landed on Netflix the next year. The show featured a cast of LGBTIQ+ people which turned its unflinching gaze upon the HIV/AIDS issue in the late 1980s. With the ballroom culture in the background, it deals with all the stereotypes surrounding AIDS and the queer community with an artistic brilliance. While it won multiple awards, it was also nominated at the Emmy Awards 2021 under nine categories.
A Long Way to Go
Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, which released in 1974, was set with the backdrop of the feudal system but it also explored the power structure between the Savarna landlord (Anant Nag as Surya) and the Dalit couple (Shabana Azmi and Sadhu Meher as Laxmi and Kishtaya) he exploits. In Surya’s abandonment of Laxmi, the film also explores the agency of women within these power structures.
Back in 1981, legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray made the film Sadgati, for Doordarshan, based on a story written by Premchand. While Premchand dealt with the horrors of the caste system, Ray takes it a step further by transferring a sense of anger and helplessness to the audience. Om Puri and Smita Patil play Dukhi and Jhuria in this scathing indictment of the caste system which (directly) drives Dukhi to his death. The later treatment of his corpse is gut wrenching, especially since it is not an exaggeration.
In 1982, Sadgati won the National Film Award under ‘Special Mention’. That was 1981. Since then, there have been multiple films in the public sphere about caste hierarchy and its consequences. Arguably, Bollywood has cast Savarna actors in the lead roles for those films as well, and even films made by Savarna filmmakers were made vicariously.
In 2011, Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan tackled the much-debated topic of caste-based reservation in India. The film stars Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone in the leads and touched upon the issue of employment for oppressed classes.
Filmmakers like Pa Ranjith portray Dalit characters on the big screen without showing them as passive victims. The gaze shifts to the Dalit experience rather than the Brahminical ‘saviour’.
Pa Ranjith’s Kaala was one of the first major films to flip the saviour narrative in cinema when it came to stories about the minority caste experience. The plot has been seen before—a community unites against a bad rich man to save their land. However, with Kaala, starring Rajinikanth and Nana Patekar, Pa Ranjith brought in the intricacies of the caste system and power structures.
Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry in 2013, Sairat in 2016, and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal in 2018 all paved the way for representation of minority castes on the big screen.
Fandry has a list of accolades to its name. It was honoured as the Best Film of the Year (2013) by the International Federation of Film Critics. It also won the Indira Gandhi Award for Best Debut Film in 2014. It explores the contrast between a young boy trying to get an education and an upper caste girl’s privilege.
Sairat received 11 awards at the 2017 Filmfare Marathi Awards, and actor Rinku Rajguru won the Special Jury Award at the 63rd National Film Awards. Nagraj’s second film was more mainstream than Fandry, and obviously made it to a larger audience owing to the fact that it is, in essence, a formula film.
It isn’t just a matter of 2021 - since the 1980s by winning accolades at a national level, these conversations have been in the public eye for decades. We expect accountability from celebrities because they influence the most people, but we also learn accountability from them because every individual influences someone.
Unlearning stereotypes and bigoted views is a personal debt we owe to every person we share this planet with. Because as the personal debt grows, armed with half-hearted apologies and no action, the number of people on the sidelines continues to grow. For years, cinema itself has tried to create awareness by taking the onus away from books and research papers and placing it on every person’s screen, and consequently, their lives.
Then, it becomes a matter of who is willing to listen and who is willing to learn, and not being aware rarely holds its merit as a valid reason for any bigotry including casteist and homophobic speech on a stage with hundreds watching.
Also Read: How To Get Away With Casteism In India
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