No, this is not a “paid” article or PR for Deepika Padukone. Neither Deepika nor anyone associated with her has been contacted for this story either. This is an opinion piece/open letter to a woman, who has been daring in more ways than one and has been targeted for that by vicious parties.
Deepika is the latest victim of the trial by media, which has apparently become a norm in India. Since her name was mentioned in an ongoing investigation into drug use in Bollywood a few days ago, both national media and social media has been celebrating the news. Deepika has so far made no comments, and is meeting the Narcotics Control Bureau today for an official interrogation.
The noise around her is growing, with media having found a successor to Rhea Chakraborty in her in terms of higher TRPs. Social media trolls are having a heyday, posting malicious content against the 34-year-old, who is the highest paid actress in the country.
Of course, women who have ventured into unconventional paths have always been targeted in regressive societies. With India witnessing an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and the portrayal of anti-government as anti-national becoming a routine, very few female celebrities care to be candid.
It’s not every day that you see a Bollywood celebrity open up about her personal life to the media. Even more rarely do you see one take a stand on political issues, especially when she/he has no connections to any political party (or has been paid to do so). And in a world where we are too fast to judge each other, forget a celebrity, not even a commoner would dare to talk openly about their personal struggles with mental health.
But Deepika has done all this, and more - especially at the peak of her career. And every time, she was targeted by social media trolls and national media alike.
It is hard to imagine that if it was a male celebrity in her shoes, he would have got the same response. After all, it was Deepika who was hounded by the media after her breakup with former boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor, whereas the latter was rarely subjected to such harassment. Even today, the social media trolls who portray her as a druggie finds reasons to hate her for her past relationships, overlooking the fact that this is exactly why female stars rarely reveal their personal lives in media interviews.
The CAA Phase
Till before the Coronavirus pandemic pushed India into a nation-wide lockdown, anti-CAA protests had taken over the country. When India was burning with protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) for months, few celebrities spoke about it publicly. (The Act, which provides citizenship to individuals from neighbouring countries from communities except Islam, was the first time in which religion became the criterion to get citizenship under Indian law.)
Veteran actors Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, filmmakers Zoya Akhtar and Alankrita Srivastava, actor-activists Swara Bhasker and Dia Mirza, and youngsters like Parineeti Chopra and Bhumi Pednekar, were among the prominent female voices to take a stance against the CAA publicly. But Deepika surely took the biggest risk when, in a cold evening in early January- just a few days before the release of the film Chhapaak which she had produced and starred in- she walked into the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi, the site of most prominent student protests against the CAA. She did not speak to the media or give a speech to the students assembled there; but she clearly expressed solidarity with the youngsters who were fighting for the protection of Indian constitutional values.
Following her JNU visit, social media exploded with right-wing warriors/CAA supporters calling Deepika “anti-national” and many other slurs, and #BoycottChhapaak was trending on Twitter for days.
The Padmaavat Controversy
If the JNU episode was one of her personal stance, Deepika’s work has also made her a target of vicious trolls earlier. Rewind to 2017-18, you may remember the controversy around Padmaavat – a period drama by Sanjay Leela Bansali, in which Deepika played the role of a 13th century Rajput princess Padmavati.
Several caste-based organisations and political parties had protested against the movie even before its release, claiming that it portrays the Rajput princess wrongly. There were attacks on the film set, and riots happened in several parts of India, followed by Shri Rajput Karni Sena’s leader openly threatening to chop off Deepika’s nose, and another Thakur community leader offering Rs.5 crore each for her head and Bansali’s.
Notably, neither Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor (the male leads of Padmaavat) were at the receiving end of death threats. Although she was given protection by Mumbai police following the threats, there was no support for the actress from the Central government – which has provided Y Plus security to actress Kangana Ranaut overnight, after the latter’s comments on Mumbai provoked the wrath of Shiv Sena.
Stand out with courage
Deepika’s most courageous act, however, was speaking openly about her struggles with mental health, in 2015. She had just given four back-to-back box office hits and was at the peak of her career. It was a move that could have killed her stardom; but seeing a cause that is larger than herself made the Piku star take a decision to bring about a change. She may not be the first celebrity to speak about mental health; but she was definitely the first to take an active role in promoting awareness on the topic in India, and destigmatising seeking professional help for mental health. She co-founded The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF) in 2015 in an effort to remove the taboo around mental health and encourage open conversations on the topic.
Considering how, in India, mental health was a rarely discussed topic till a few years ago, Deepika has played a major role in encouraging the discourse. Yet, recently she was targeted by online trolls led by actress Kangana Ranaut, who questioned the authenticity of Deepika’s claims about depression while making a leap of logic and basing opinions on the unverified claim that the Padmaavat actress suffered Depression due a break-up that happened 10 years ago.
While Deepika chose not to respond to this jibe, a few days ago, Kangana attacked her again with a tweet saying that Depression is a consequence of drug abuse. “So called high society rich star children who claim to be classy and have a good upbringing ask their manager ,” MAAL HAI KYA?” she had added, tagging Deepika. Not only is Kangana’s statement factually wrong but it also encourages the stigma around mental illnesses – something which many, including Deepika, has been fighting against.
Whether Deepika has consumed drugs or not is yet to be proven; but at a time when women empowerment and mental health conversations are finally taking off in the country, it is deplorable to see one top actress pulling down another. Of course, a woman accused of consuming drugs – even though harmless to anybody else – is targeted more than men who may be accused of the same; because – well, patriarchy.
To her credit, Deepika has stayed away from the mud-slinging and is reportedly cooperating with the authorities for the investigation. But as a star who is much more than a brilliant actress, as a promoter of mental health and equal rights, and most importantly, for the courage she has shown in the face of hostility, Deepika deserves better from India.
(Edited by Varnika Gupta)