Swara Bhaskar is intelligent and doesn’t fit the pliant-flexible role that neo-liberalism assigns to women celebrities
There is something freaky about the hysteria surrounding upcoming actress Swara Bhaskar’s utterances. The wrath directed at her is unforgiving, intolerant, and seeks to discipline. A young actress cannot cross lines without her career suffering, and certainly cannot use her celebrity status to say things the nation does not want to confront. And Swara Bhaskar has suffered for her stance—not just media vilification but Bhaskar was allegedly denied the National Jury Award for her anti-government stand on certain issues.
This is not to say other Bollywood actresses do not get sidelined for speaking up, but their battles are within the parameters of industry goings-on. Bhaskar, on the other hand, is often concerned with the health of the nation and that is deemed far beyond her playground.
But maybe it is not fair to put the entire blame on social media buzzards. Bollywood has done much to constrict the space for opinions on this matter. The recent surge of nationalist films such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Chak De India Mary Kom are great morale boosters for the public, but let us look at another crop of quasi-nationalist movies that often escape analysis—the Karan Johar creations that are a great hit with the immigrant Indians across the world. These carry a vibe different than the earlier Mother India type of films, substituting patriotism with a vulgar plea for acceptance and equality while featuring protagonists who are unrelatably rich, sexist, and patriarchal.
It is little wonder that Indians cannot bear the thought of losing to China, nor take lying down a woman, a Bollywood insider no less, puncture holes in the painting. And, with her support for #JusticeforAsifa on Twitter and elsewhere, Swara Bhaskar seems to have crossed a holy line.
Amazon’s vagaries should not come as a surprise either. Is it not a transnational corporate (with plush contracts with the CIA)? And, as Sarah Projanksy in her insightful book on girl celebrity culture points out, is it not true that the neo-liberal script, of which we are all parts and pawns, has a definite task for female celebrities? While it spectacularises girls, Projansky argues, it peddles a certain narrative of what the ideal female celebrity-role model ought to be—the ‘can do’ girl. She is to act as an ideal citizen for the neo-liberal global economy, she is to be a participant of conspicuous consumption, she is to be intelligent yet pliant and flexible. She is to make others follow her—duh! the reason why Amazon approached Bhaskar to sell its brand.
However, the retail giant seems to have miscalculated, for Swara Bhaskar is not a regular ‘Can-Do’ girl. In fact, if her choice in roles is anything to go by, they are pretty unusual: her portfolio includes playing the role of a sister to the industry’s most powerful co-star, the role of a best friend in Tanu Weds Manu, mother to a teenage character in Nil Battey Sannata and the critically acclaimed Anaarkali of Aarah. She has also done some television projects such as Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India, which reflect her interest in history and politics. This is not to say that Bhaskar is not focused on ‘making it’ in Bollywood or is above making confusing choices such as the film Ranjhana, but she does try to make her audience think. However, in contemporary Indian society, the space for such efforts, even when irregular, is fast shrinking.
Besides, companies such as Amazon are all for politically correct issues, provided we do not try to loosen the nuts and bolts of their politics. In other words, we should not be too surprised by Amazon’s actions — it only befits the interests of a transnational giant that has, in the true likeness of a capitalist’s wet dream, consolidated its empire without a dime into the tax pool. Surely, such upstanding global corporations can overlook questions of gender justice and other iniquities at will?
Further, by silently dissociating itself from the actor, Amazon has not only contradicted itself on gender justice and sexual violence, but also turned Bhaskar into the ‘at-risk’ celebrity Projansky talks about in relation to the American mediascape and its discomfort with the morally-dubitable young girls. Only in India, it is political, not moral, panic.
Such pandering signals new concerns of polity, citizenship, and action, because let us be clear that #boycottAmazon was not a petition or an open letter (those are fast becoming a thing of the past). Arm-twisting companies into taking causes and movements forward through calls of boycott is the new favoured mode of action. Of course, such calls all but chime well with our current encampment within, deep or not, an increasingly private state that has almost consolidated the citizen-consumer. And, insofar as it is our only weapon for the moment, it would be wrong to condone one boycott over another.
Instead, we must remind ourselves that corporate entities do not have moral investments to make in our cause, even when some adopt mottos supporting clean, green energy, gay marriage, and so on. Most of the time, companies are fickle, using causes to target segments. And even if they were to gear up to run consumer republics, what would such a system of governance look like? How many groups of isolated communities would they be pandering to? Is social media activism of the Tahrir Square variety, the turf of the left and liberal? As #boycottAmazon case reminds us, it is not. And be it left or right, NRA or Amazon, does one honestly believe such stances, once the welfare state is minified, would be to the benefit of our little-tribalised interest-groups? No, it will achieve nothing more than fragmented and undemocratic chaos in the future.
In an ideal world, Amazon would acknowledge that setting such a precedent of putting large-group narcissism and irredentism of the BJP variety in charge, amounts to not only legitimising the illusion of specialness of a majority group, but also fomenting violence and egging on a thirst for ‘ethnic cleansing.’ But that is wishful thinking.
Therefore, if we are to prevent uncritical swallowing of political propaganda that has resulted in a Modi and Trump in the world’s largest democracies, we should perhaps try one last time to mobilise offline too because “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Here, one tends to agree with Malcolm Gladwell that social media is good for physical mobilisation but because they inherently cultivate a culture of facile engagement, we cannot depend on social media alone for committed on-ground activism. Significantly, the right in India has managed quite well to organise offline while its IT cell fogs out WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter with misogyny and xenophobia every day.
Not too long ago, our parents were newspaper readers—a form of communication that did not give you the option to choose what you wanted to see or read; it forced a wider perspective on its readers, whether they liked it or not, through its melange of editorials, local and international news, and even short stories. There is no question that they offered a more soothing as well as empathetic experience of news-gathering and processing. But now we no longer have anything resembling a genuine public sphere, which is why most in India will now accept, without pausing to think, the second phase of the hate campaign against Bhaskar, which is a call to boycott her upcoming movie.
Whether paid or not, intelligent or not, there is a certain sadness about this avatar of nationalism across the globe, where the public seems to genuinely believe that there is a brighter future on the horizon sans immigrants, foreigners, naysayers. However, the fact remains that there is no real economic growth in sight for some very simple reasons—ecology and natural resource scarcity being the two most indisputable ones. And this holds true for every country in the world. It is time we start taking apart this election promise too. We have missed the boat—and until we face this fact, we cannot start thinking about alternatives.
What we are dealing with right now is but textbook neo-liberalism, where to keep its profit-margins going even on the brink of a collapse, the ruling class needs national territories and a nation-loving public. Who else but the nation-state would bail it out when the losses come home?
One of the commonest fallacies we have is that capital is impersonal and out of anybody’s control; it is not. Governments and their officials choose to sell you out. We see it every day but we are too busy prepping for genocides in the name of national honour – these days words such as ‘Hindustan’ are oddly more offensive than lynchings and tax evasion. The system won’t last, but its managers might at this rate. Neo-liberalism is sadly one of the cruellest forms of corruption. Therefore, it will take a lot more than social media activism and corporate boycotts on our part to escape its consequences.
This article was originally published in Newslaundry