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Chetan: Charges against me unfounded

The actor tells Vijeth Balila why he prioritises activism over cinema
Last Updated : 21 April 2023, 20:14 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2023, 20:14 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2023, 20:14 IST
Last Updated : 21 April 2023, 20:14 IST

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The Union government on April 14 cancelled the overseas citizenship of US-born Kannada actor-activist Chetan Kumar, popularly known as Chetan Ahimsa, for his alleged “anti-India” activities. The government’s action comes a month after his arrest over a tweet flaying Hindutva. Last year too, Chetan was arrested for his critical remarks against a Karnataka High Court judge hearing the hijab case.

In an extensive interview with Showtime, the 40-year-old, who is a vocal critic of Hindutva as well as status quo politics, says, “OCI card cancellation is based on malafide, premeditated, and fabricated charges, done by the Union government, potentially with the backing of the state, to curb our strong equalitarian movement that is spreading across Karnataka.”

Chetan is currently in the process of filing an appeal against the cancellation in the Karnataka High Court and he expresses full confidence in the judiciary. “I have American citizenship because I was born there. I have not violated any protocols of OCI citizenship - neither contested elections nor taken up any government jobs,” clarifies Chetan, who came to Karnataka as a Fullbright scholar in 2005.

“One reason to keep the US citizenship is because my parents still live there and, in the case of any emergency, I will have to rush there immediately,” says Chetan, who plans to cut all ties with the US once his parents permanently shift to India.

Case study

Chetan notes that the legal cases against him started to pile up only after the BJP government came to power in Karnataka in 2019. He points out that even though he was equally critical of previous Congress and JDS governments, he faced incarceration only under the saffron party’s rule.

Talking about his jail experience, he highlights the fact that the people from the oppressed communities are overrepresented in the jails. He says that he faced risks in the jail as he was a known face to all the inmates in his cell.

When asked to elaborate on his ideology of ‘equalitarianism’, he explains that it is something beyond the western classification of right, centre and left politics. “We have our own ideological paradigm based on justice and rationality which can be called a ‘truth paradigm’ that will resist any attempt to portray one human being as superior to another.”

Some of Chetan’s remarks, tarring the whole political spectrum in the same brush, often fetch him criticism from progressive circles as well. A researcher, who has been following the actor for years, says, “Chetan used to have clarity on socio-political issues but nowadays his views have become so confusing, you can’t help but question whether they are made in good faith.”

Religion and politics

Recently, he was in the news for his criticism of the Kannada film ‘Kantara’. Chetan had argued that the ritual of daivaradhane, the main subject of the film, is not part of ‘Brahminical Hinduism’. The comments resulted in an FIR being registered by Bajrang Dal. However the actor got a clean chit in the case recently.

Chetan made his cinema debut in 2007 with ‘Aa Dinagalu’ which was both a commercial and critical success. His 2013 flick’, ‘Myna’, also found reasonable success, whereas his other films didn’t work. Chetan agrees that his socio-political stand jeopardises his career as film industry is reliant on box office numbers, which is centred around the lead actor. His 2017 film, ‘Athiratha’, was attacked by pro-Hindu organisations in Chamarajanagar and Bengaluru.

A year before the #MeToo movement broke out, Chetan founded a legally registered body - FIRE (Film Industry for Rights and Equality) - for the benefit of women, writers, and workers, and to address gender issues. “As a result of our efforts, I am seeing a lot of young women, who know their rights and see the patriarchal system for what it is, coming to the industry,” notes Chetan.

Making an impact

Chetan believes that commercial cinema cannot bring structural changes in society, hence he prioritises activism. “Even if the content of the film is great, it is still prone to box office failure. That’s not the same with activism. If you have the right values, intent, and follow the right process, you can influence a lot of people, often beyond what a film does,” opines Chetan.

There was complete silence from the top rung stars of the Kannada film industry during Chetan’s brush with the law. A very few recognised names, such as Swara Bhasker, Kishore and Kiran Srinivas, expressed solidarity. “The industry is not built on an ideological premise, it’s only a money-making business,” decries Chetan, highlighting how renowned composer Hamsalekha, although a stalwart in the industry, did not get significant support when he criticised a Hindu seer.

Talking about his choice of roles, Chetan explains, “I don’t expect the filmmakers who approach me to share my ideology. I have no issue with the script as long as it is not unjustified or discriminatory. I have rejected many films that are anti-women or anti-Muslim.”

Two of Chetan’s upcoming films (‘100 crores’ and another untitled project) are ready for release in Kannada and Telugu, and he is currently gearing up for the shooting of a bilingual film. He was previously seen in the Kannada movie ‘Ranam’, which was incidentally the last film of late actor Chiranjeevi Sarja.

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Published 21 April 2023, 19:27 IST

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