Why Deepika Padukone's JNU visit could have cost Chhapaak at the box office

A reputation for fairness and reliability can come crashing down if one is not judicious in the causes one takes up.

 |  4-minute read |   15-01-2020
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Despite a good opening, Chhapaak isn’t doing that well according to trade sources. What might be the reason? The negative exposure its star producer-actor attracted for her unexpected, some might say rash, dash to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on January 7?

A different actor

Worse, was that visit to a strife-torn campus merely a publicity stunt camouflaged as virtue-signalling Left-appeasement? Or was it a hastily planned and badly executed caper to ensure that the star trended on social media and hogged the limelight a day before her film’s release? Was Deepika Padukone sincerely expressing her concern for the situation in JNU or was she merely exploiting the occasion to promote and publicise her film?

Even if Chhapaak does not become a blockbuster, Deepika is certainly riding on a wave of success. She is not only India’s highest paid actress; she is also a fashion diva, brand endorser, and celebrity. Chhapaak, her latest film, which she has also part-produced, is a brave and necessary docudrama about an acid-attack survivor, played by Deepika herself. Based on real-life events, it is directed by Meghna Gulzar.

deepika-690_011520123626.jpgFilms like Chhapaak sensitise us about social ills in our country. They teach us not only to support the victims of misogynistic, violent crimes, but also take on the responsibility of their recovery and rehabilitation. That an icon of beauty, desirability, grace and allure such as Deepika should play this difficult and unglamorous role shows courage. In fact, some of the reviewers have remarked on the incongruity, bordering on shock, that the viewers are delivered when they hear Deepika’s voice speaking through Malti’s horribly scarred and disfigured face.

Chhapaak may not earn a lot of money, but it will be a film to remember. It will also keep showing in the secondary market, on internet platforms, on international flights and film festivals, and on film studies and activist channels.

Apart from the roles she plays, what distinguishes Deepika from other movie stars is that she comes across as a much more human and believable person, not a synthetic and sanitised unidimensional star, everything about whom is artificial or make believe. She has herself not only grappled with depression, but also made her sufferings and struggles public. All this makes her an unusual celebrity who can actually play a positive role in influencing public opinion. No wonder she has one of the largest fan followings, running into several millions, on Twitter and Instagram.

A misadventure?

Given this background, should Deepika have decided to not fish, but actually plunge, into JNU’s troubled waters? Is it a case, to change the metaphor, of a celebrity venturing foolishly where angels fear to tread? Standing in solidarity with students is one thing, but which students and for what cause is an entirely different thing. Had she asked the protesting students to return to their classes rather than blockading the buildings and preventing others from registering, she would have sent a different message. Or, at the least, she could have exhorted both groups of clashing students not to fight but talk, both with each other, and with the JNU administration.

As it happened, she was identified and photographed with only one group, led by the Left-dominated JNU students’ union. This perceived partisanship on her part cost her a lot in terms of her popularity, respect and credibility. The trolls unleashed their attacks not only on her, but also on her film, Chhapaak. There were stories of advertisers issuing a go-slow on her endorsements for the time-being, till the negative publicity surrounding her subsided.

Choosing sides

Even Baba Ramdev, a hugely successful public figure and marketing genius in his own right, offered her some gratuitous advice. Exhorting Padukone to improve her “political and social understanding,” he added, somewhat jocularly, “She needs an adviser like Baba Ramdev.” Without going so far as the latter recommendation, I tend to agree with Ramdev’s former suggestion. Weighing both sides of a situation rather than hastening to back one faction can save a well-intentioned influencer from being false footed.

A reputation for fairness and reliability built over years of hard work and careful cultivation of the media and public can come crashing down if one is not judicious in the causes one takes up. It is a different matter if one has already taken sides and is identified with a particular political lobby. But Deepika is not politically contaminated or biased. Which is all the more reason to avoid being unnecessarily branded an “anti-national.” Thankfully for her, Padukone did not utter a single word at JNU. Hers was a mute and silent presence, bearing witness rather than overtly taking sides.

The concern on her face was palpable, even if many surrounding her were hardboiled, cynical, politically radicalised cadres. The JNUSU is known not for championing free speech, democracy, or dialogue, but for running aggravating and negative anti-administration and anti-state campaigns. Celebrities like Padukone would do well not to jump on their bandwagon without a careful appraisal of consequences, both intended and unintended.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Chhapaak was the perfect Right Wing wet dream. Then Deepika went to JNU


Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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