Acts of activism

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Acts of activism

Sunday, 12 March 2017 | Garima Dutt

Acts of activism

The Oscars have always been a politically charged platform. last year was all about #OscarsSoWhite, a charge the Academy has put to rest for now, with the Blacks receiving most of the top honours. This year too, the ceremony was filled with jibes on Donald Trump’s administration and policies. Here’s a look at celebrity activism beyond the screen

It is said that the opening and closing notes of an event are best remembered by all. No surprises then that the inadvertent blunder towards the end of the Oscars this year, while announcing the best picture award, is talk of the proverbial town.

What unfolded before the world on live television is now considered one of the worst Oscar mix-ups as presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the name of la la land, the presumed favourite this time for the best film. They had been given the wrong envelope; the error was later corrected and the award was presented to Moonlight (the first lGBTQ film to win one) but not before la la land producers were almost over with their speech.

Everyone was and is talking about it. Yes, even now it is featuring in teatime conversations and post-work gossip around the world. However, something far more significant that began before the run-up to the Oscars and stayed right till the end is the real takeaway from this high-profile, much awaited event — something political.

Apart from making the usual style statements in their designer wear, actors like Ruth Negga, Busy Phillips, Karlie Kloss, luz Towns-Miranda, and lin-Manuel Miranda silently chose to make a strong political statement by wearing the blue ribbon of American Civil liberties Union (AClU), a non-profit organisation that is fighting against President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban refugees and citizens from seven Muslim nations.

The tone for Hollywood’s anti-Trump stand had been set from the Women’s March earlier, with noted actors like Ashley Judd, Scarlett Johansson, Katy Perry, and Amy Schumer lending it celebrity power.

The world, by now, knows about Meryl Streep’s fiery speech at the Golden Globes and Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel’s ironic reference to Trump’s response while introducing her on stage. It has also not gone unnoticed that every actor had something political to say at the Screen Actors Guild Awards held on the same weekend when Trump signed the orders for a sweeping ban on immigrants and civilians even if they had the required documents. 

Breaking away from tradition, the United Talent Agency (UTA) — Hollywood’s top agency — cancelled its Oscars party and traded it in favour of a rally for refugees “donating $25,000 to the AClU, International Rescue Committee, besides setting up a fundraiser for anyone else who wants to contribute”. Announcing the decision to hold the rally, in the letter informing his employees that can be read on his linkedIn account, UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer said it was meant to “express their concern with growing anti-immigrant sentiment in our country and its potential chilling effect on artistic freedom around the world”.

Actress Jodie Foster led the way at the rally, held two days before the Oscars on February 24, in a display of solidarity, asserting that it was “time to resist and demand answers, to tell our elected officials to do their job”.

The UTA represents Angelina Jolie, James Franco, Al Pacino and several other top stars. Notably, it also counts among its clients Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award this year for his film, The Salesman, nominated in Best Foreign language category. Farhadi had confirmed in January that he would not be able to attend the Oscars under Trump’s immigration ban and went on to add that even if he could, he would not as it comes in the wake of “unjust conditions” laid out in the orders.

The Oscars have always been a politically charged platform. last year, it was all about #OscarsSoWhite, a charge the Academy has put to rest (for now) with the Blacks receiving most of the top honours. 

This year too, in general, the ceremony was filled with jibes and jokes specifically referring to Trump’s administration and policies. “I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racistIJ That’s gone, thanks to him,” said Kimmel, constantly mocking Trump, with other actors following suit.

Activism at the Oscars is not new. Filmmaker Michael Moore explicitly criticised the Iraq War and the then President George Bush’s administration at the 2003 Oscars. In 2016, leonardo DiCaprio made a case for climate change in his moving speech while accepting his award. The same year, lady Gaga dedicated her Oscar performance, ‘Till It Happens to You’, to sexual assault survivors. Issues pertaining to mental health found voice through best actress of the year, Julianne Moore, in 2015. The same year, Patricia Arquette condemned the wage gap while accepting her award for best supporting actress. These are but a few recent examples.

While the Academy per se may not have encouraged activism at any point, artistes in their individual capacities have frequently used the ceremony as a platform to spread awareness about important issues and speak up against laws that undermine human rights and universal values.


Hollywood has a long history of activism — specifically political activism. In his 2011 book, Hollywood left and Right, Steven J Ross traced the beginning of the film industry’s long-standing tryst with political activism and how artistes and film stars have helped shape the course of American political discourse. Ross gave us a peep into this “very political” side of Hollywood, from the beginning of the 20th century, through the lives of icons like Charlie Chaplin, Warren Beatty, louis Mayer, Edward G Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, right up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 21st century.

Chaplin, as Ross pointed out, was the first political movie star “whose movies always displayed his socialist leanings”. Chaplin’s works are unequivocally critical of Capitalism, underlined with an apparent sensitivity towards the underdogs, a result perhaps of his own poverty-ridden background. He always remained a suspect owing to his strong leftist convictions and numerous sex scandals; he ultimately died away from Hollywood in exile. like Chaplin, Edward Robinson was also a liberal with an unambiguous anti-fascist stand.

On the other end of the spectrum are stars like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George Murphy, who with their conservative political ideologies always chose to make the ‘right’ noises. Ask anyone who follows Hollywood closely and what is fresh in their memory are the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War — two spaces where Hollywood has actively and visibly grappled with politics.

A book released in 2015, Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement, by Emilie Raymond, a history professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University, gives us a fascinating but little known account of how Black actors like Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr (whom the author calls “the leading six”) influenced the Civil Rights Movement by lending it consistent support. She also recounts the ways in which their fight was strengthened with “financial, strategic and emotional support from inter-racial actors” such as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt lancaster, and Charlton Heston to name a few.


As we gushed about the wins of Mahershala Ali (the first Muslim — a Black Muslim at that — actor to win an Academy Award) and Viola Davis (the first Black woman to win an Oscar, Tony, and an Emmy award — known as ‘the triple crown of acting’), my friend and I got talking as to why we do not have many artistes from Bollywood speaking up against populist sentiments or visible state excessesIJ

The Hindi film industry or Bollywood, as it is named after its Western counterpart, holds sway on the masses unparalleled by any other medium. It is the most sought-after and perhaps the only entertainment that interests the nation and also binds it to an extent. It is but natural for actors and artistes to get involved in issues that require attention and greater awareness.

Celebrity interventions in causes pertaining to children, women empowerment, environment, health etc undoubtedly get wider access and usher in attitude changes swiftly. Needless to say, we have many of our favourite stars speaking up on these issues and doing praiseworthy work.

But what happens when it comes to challenging the political status quo or dominant ideologyIJ Time and again, Bollywood gets pulled into controversies that involve going against a populist political stand, either by speaking up (which is rare especially in case of big movie stars) or by choosing to keep silent. Evidently, this ability to take a firm political stand comes from some inherent problems that currently plague the Hindi film industry and the nature of cinema it creates, barring a few exceptions. Rhetorically speaking, how many narratives do we see on-screen that go against  the populist sentimentIJ

Mainstream theatre, for instance, has always been a vehicle that gives voice to or articulates the unexpressed social, political, aesthetic voices of the minorities as well as the majority. It brings into popular discourse things which are unsaid and by extension one would expect so would movies. But Indian mainstream cinema, despite being such a powerful medium, is failing to become a medium of dissent, debate, and discourse.

Sporadically, we see a few highbrow films that win awards abroad in films festivals etc, but they don’t make a dent on the mainstream discourse simply because they don’t get consumed by the mainstream.

But this was not the case till the late 1980s. Earlier, directors, writers, actors, producers — the entire artistic and cinema fraternity — had the will and the ability to create cinema which at least had a healthy mix of thought and social change. Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi, Raj Kapoor are but a few names whose cinema depicted stories that created ripples in the socio-political discourse of their times.

Probably, one of last persons who tried to tell tales that underlined social and political significance right till the early 1990s is Shyam Benegal. With films like Ankur, Mandi, Nishant, Mirch Masala, Sardari Begum, Mammo, The Making of the Mahatma, Zubeidaa and many more, Benegal heroically chased themes of state oppression, women empowerment, casteism etc. The influence of the Nehruvian world of the 60s is clearly visible in this cinema.

From the 1970s, who can forget the iconic anti-establishment ‘angry young man’ immortalised by Amitabh Bachchan, a hero deftly crafted within the mould of a typical Hindi masala movie genreIJ

Post-liberalisation, it’s almost as if the cinema fraternity lost its conscience and its role as the member of the social stream ceased to be vital for it. It purely became a medium of thrills, something which is reflected in the reviews and discussions of new releases today. Most of them obsessively focus on box office results rather than theme or impact or concerns of the arts.

It is only in the last 10 years that filmmakers have again begun to experiment with bolder themes, but such a cinema mainly finds takers in multiplex audiences. Even among those, one still cannot count many movies that take a stand against something that may be of popular political persuasion. What is this a reflection ofIJ Probably the cinema fraternity is completely focussed on the process of making moneyIJ Money is not a by-product but the literal purpose of any artistic or cinematic endeavour and the same is reflected on screen.

When we saw activism onscreen, that was exactly the time when we also witnessed it off it. There is a definite relationship between onscreen and off-screen activism and an abject lack of it onscreen is perhaps the reason why there is so little of it outside. There could also be several complex socio-economic reasons for this.

Talking about the 90s, it was for the first time the country was open to the temptations of a relatively free market. Thus, mainstream cinema, which began to rely more on marketing and less on storytelling, chose to depict a world fuelled with similar cravings and aspirations — the usual candy-floss romances, foreign locales, glamorous women, high-end costumes with little or no story. Today, there are, well, practical reasons.

In Hollywood, the nexus between politicians and artistes has always been strong but they are not dependent on politicians to fund their films. In India, more often than not, the same financiers who are funding political parties are also pumping money into movies, businesses et al. The source of money has converged. And when huge moneys are at stake, no one wants to ruffle any community or establishment.

But again, perhaps a comparison between Bollywood and Hollywood on this front is incorrect. Our context and realities are different and far more complex than theirs. Bollywood has also learnt the hard way that dissent isn’t easy, and you have to pay a price for defiance. Aamir Khan, Javed Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar, Naseeruddin Shah, Saif Ali Khan, Anurag Kashyap have all faced the heat in recent times for speaking up and also for making certain personal choices.

The National Awards are our equivalent to the Oscars — while the former is conferred by the state, the latter is an autonomous entity. Imagine Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone or Hrithik Roshan taking an award from the President and making overt references to issues like intolerance, nationalism, the recent Ramjas row, and advocating free speech and discussion in universities!

Sounds odd. Because the biggest fear today is that even the smallest flutter might be objectionable to some community somewhere in a country of a billion people. To make matters worse, it is not so much the tyranny of the state but the tyranny of people (read trolls with political clout) that one has to deal with. Silence then is the best policy as exemplified by the majority of film stars.

In Hollywood left and Right, Ross eventually points out that even though the Hollywood left was more visible and vocal, it is actually the Hollywood Right that has eventually fared better when it came to capturing power, what with Murphy getting a Senate seat, Schwarzenegger becoming a Governor, and before him, Reagan achieving the ultimate with the Presidency.


At home, with persons from Bollywood Right acquiring positions of authority in various cultural and political spheres like never before, the contexts have converged for now and the story here is no different.

The writer works as a new media professional, digital media teacher, and freelance  journalist with various media outlets

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