The silence of the celebrities

It’s striking then that America has a rich history of protest-happy celebrities
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 23:35 IST

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How do you know if you’re living in the “free world”?

You can often measure how free a country is by whether its celebrities — folks with a lot to lose — are able and willing to speak up for causes that don’t directly impact them.

When celebrities are tight-lipped, it often says more about their lack of faith in the country’s freedoms than about their respect for the government. Celebrities are often silent when they don’t trust State institutions to protect their assets, families and careers. They fear that if they speak out, they could lose it all.

It’s striking then that America has a rich history of protest-happy celebrities. Muhammad Ali’s protests against the Vietnam War were probably the most legendary and well-known. But years before him, Marlon Brando lent his weighty support to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. In 1973, Brando refused to accept an Oscar award for his role in The Godfather — protesting against Hollywood’s depiction of indigenous people. Instead, he sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on his behalf, and Littlefeather gladly tore into American authorities for their mistreatment of Native American activists during an ongoing protest in South Dakota.

During the Trump presidency, singer Alicia Keys spoke at several rallies that targeted the President — his immigration policies, his attitude towards women, police brutality, and more. And then, of course, the protests over the killing of George Floyd — an African-American man who was choked to death by a police officer in Minnesota — engulfed much of Hollywood in 2020.

Indian superstars had enough faith in American democracy to lend their support to that movement. But on issues back home, they have been tentative at best – perhaps understandably.

Through much of the farmers’ protests in 2020 and 2021, Indian cricket icons tweeted – many of them at government prompting -- obtusely irrelevant platitudes about sovereignty and national security, after pop star Rihanna supported the farmers on social media. During the ongoing wrestlers’ protest, the cricketers have largely left athletes from other less popular sports to fend for themselves. In 2019, the then BCCI president, Sourav Ganguly, went so far as to throw his own daughter under the bus after she supported – only tacitly -- the anti-CAA protests.

Over the last several months, films that berate Muslims with a flurry of enticing lies have been breaking box-office records. But even so, in Bollywood, a Brando-esque act of defiance for minority rights is simply impossible to imagine.

To be sure, America’s culture of free speech is still far from perfect, and has long been evolving. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to prison for his anti-war protests. But you might also say that his actions moved the needle in the right direction by sparking wider debate amongst his fans. And each time a powerful voice joined up on the wrong side of power, it forced American democracy to yield them more freedom, because if it did not, politicians lost both support and credibility.

Well-meaning nationalists might still argue that celebrities should not speak out, because their criticism might bring negative attention to the country and “tarnish its image”. But the outside world is not so naive. After India’s Olympic medalists were literally dragged through the mud in Delhi last week, the world’s governing body for wrestling issued a powerful denunciation of Delhi Police. The International Olympic Committee followed that up by calling the police’s treatment of the wrestlers “very disturbing”.

So, when India’s celebrities stay eerily silent in the face of all that global attention, what does it tell the world about their courage and faith in India’s democracy and rule of law?

Published 03 June 2023, 19:19 IST

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