As recently as few weeks ago, in August, when Kangana Ranaut made a cryptic reference to Deepika Padukone in her tweet ‘Depression Ka Dhandha Chalane Walon’, our team had thought Kangana might be overstretching the Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) case, and unnecessarily dragging one of the most popular actors of the nation. Though we admired Kangana for being the most outspoken actor about the ills of Bollywood, she does wait for an opportune time to strike back. She may be little self-centered but there is nothing unethical about it, especially in the movie industry. Who wouldn’t want to wait for the right time to make a case, and steadfastly pursue the case?
As regards Deepika, we knew all along that her interest in mental health awareness had some pretence to it, however, that may be unrelated to her booming career as an outstanding actor and a model. And she was legally correct in using the mental health career in furthering her career – both domestically and at the international level. After all, who doesn’t do that in showbiz, especially in a liberal economy like India?
In essence, our team didn’t have a strong opinion on Kangana or Deepika – one way or the other. The general thinking (commoners have) is that most showbiz players are opportunists and we had accepted the fantasy world of Indian cinema decades ago for our own relief in the evening or weekends. Our team had also thought the SSR case had taken a political turn (which doesn’t surprise most Indians anyway), and the television channels are expending too much time and energy on it. We have seen this happen before in other cases too whether it be corruption, money laundering, defence deals, Bollywood breakups, etc. Most of us are also aware of the fact that the power struggle between BJP and Shiv Sena in the state of Maharashtra during November 2019 isn’t forgotten yet, and the ripples are still being felt across the state on different issues including the ongoing SSR case, which still shouldn’t surprise the Indian populace given the nature of politics in the nation. We are all aware of the complex situation that Bollywood has landed itself in, especially after the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) started investigating the drugs angle in the SSR case. In fact, the SSR case is no longer the SSR case, and the stakes of Bollywood in the ongoing investigation are much higher than what it may have anticipated just a couple months ago. Yet, Indian citizens may have been thinking all along that Bollywood has neither a good atmosphere for the innocent nor has a fair opportunity for the newcomers. In a way, most Indians got used to the fact ‘Bollywood is what it is’ and aspiring actors will have to take it or leave it. The parents of most aspiring actors are also cognizant of the fact that the movie industry or showbiz has its own pros and cons, and while they may advise their progeny against taking a plunge in acting or modelling they probably wouldn’t be too harsh when a son or daughter makes independent decisions. In a way, the Indian families and parents know what they are into, more or less, when their children take chances in the world of showbiz. Even the presumed use of drugs by some actors (unrelated to the SSR case) may not come as a total shocker to Indians as they are mature enough to understand the showbiz.
Deepika’s Stardom, Depression and International Acclaim
One might recall that Deepika Padukone reached the pinnacle of her success during 2013-15 and continued to hog the limelight in the following years. She seemed to have the personality that attracted both conservative and liberal sections of Indian population. Whether it happened by choice or accident, the characters she essayed in her movies worked in her favour in the real world: commoners admired her regardless of what role she had in a movie or who she hooked up with in the social circles. She received accolades from all across the nation when, in mid-2005, she spoke about her experience of dealing with and overcoming depression. At that time, even the most educated Indians couldn’t quite comprehend how she could be depressed when she was numero uno in her field. As she spoke more on the issue and founded ‘The Live Love Laugh Foundation’, young kids, teenage girls and working professionals have accepted her as a role model. She then undertook some campaigns, such as ‘More Than Just Sad’, to support physicians in treating the depressed. Her foundation even partnered with Facebook to complement the social networking giant’s efforts to come to the aid of people with suicidal thoughts. Indian Psychiatric Society made her a brand ambassador the following year and she did some videos for the campaign (and the hashtag) ‘DobaraPoocho’. All of these non-profit initiatives skyrocketed her popularity and she started receiving wide international acclaim as well from 2015 onward. When she signed up as one of the leading actors in Vin Diesel’s, ‘XXX: Return of Xander Cage’, the media tried to report each and every instance of her role, photo shoots, video clips and promotional events about the movie. By then, she had become the top most paid female actor (or one of the top three) in India, and (probably) continues to be so as of this writing. When ‘Xander Cage’ team was in Mumbai to promote the movie, her excess skin show during the event wasn’t criticized much due to the respect she commanded for her involvement in non-profit activities. In a way, her professional and social activities complemented very well, and had immensely contributed to her ever increasing fan base. While the movie ‘Padmaavat’ was stoked in a controversy, with protests from right wing groups, she became the symbol of both the feminists and liberal-minded youth of India. Expectedly, the controversy worked in her favour and it did seem like she was on a trajectory of continuous growth unmatched by her colleagues of the movie industry with the exception of the actors Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut.
‘Chhapaak’ and the JNU Visit
Of late, Deepika Padukone’s role as an acid attack survivor in the movie ‘Chhapaak’ was very well appreciated even though the movie itself wasn’t a commercial success. She is very well aware of the fact that a movie’s success or failure doesn’t dent her popularity at this stage, and she could continue gaining more fans, followers and commercial deals as long as she makes right choices. At the time of release of ‘Chhapaak’, she visited the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where some students were protesting the attack on them. Since the protestors were deemed to have a leftist ideology, the right-wing groups criticized Deepika’s visit with some ruling party members saying she was in the camp of the opposition party. Even if Deepika made the JNU visit as a means to promote ‘Chhapaak’, the media and other observers were pleasantly surprised by her visit as they knew it isn’t easy to go against the current ruling party. More importantly, Deepika knew in advance the movie wouldn’t be a commercial success anyway (feminist movies do above average business in India but aren’t the blockbusters for the most part), and she probably wanted to increase the buzz surrounding her, which would help her indirectly. By that time, Deepika did develop an international repute and she knew the ruling party members wouldn’t go overboard on this matter even if they made announcements about boycotting the movie. In a way, she was conscious of her visit and any repercussions that it might cause. Furthermore, she was cautious enough and did not make any statement during or after her visit (as any statement made would have pitted one group against the other on social media). In essence, her visit to the JNU didn’t snowball into a major issue regardless of the benefits (if any) she may have had either through a good opening for the movie or by making more money through brand endorsements.
One important point to note in this context is that she did some brand endorsement(s) at the time of the movie release. While we aren’t aware of how many endorsements she may have made at the time of the release, a notable one is for Medlife, which showed a few-second clip of the movie in the ad. It must be noted that Medlife’s CEO is also on the board of the non-profit she had founded to promote mental health awareness: The Live Love Laugh Foundation. Such informal or formal arrangements aren’t uncommon in the business world; most people might opine there is nothing unethical about it. But the point here is that Deepika’s every move was very well calculated in a way any shrewd business person does.
When Indian Parents Felt Betrayed
Fast forward to the current. Before we write further, we have a simple disclaimer: this article isn’t about the SSR case, nepotism in Bollywood, or drugs in showbiz. Enough has already been reported and most readers are aware of the status anyway.
After investigating and arresting more than a dozen drug peddlers and middle-men over the past few weeks, NCB had started questioning some actors toward the end of September. On the 26th, the NCB questioned one of the most admired actors of the nation, Deepika Padukone, among others. News reports as of this writing say all the actors who were questioned tried to be evasive in their answers, and the NCB confiscated the phones of some actors including Deepika’s.
When the WhatsApp chats (that shows Deepika exchanging message with others on drugs) first surfaced earlier in the week, some Indian parents may have sulked. It is the same actor who has been treated as role model by the parents and children alike for her simplicity in talk, versatility in doing different roles, and more importantly speaking openly on depression and other illnesses of the middle and upper classes of India. While most other stars in the movie industry have been criticized by the urbanites as either arrogant, stupid or demanding, Deepika was put on a higher pedestal along with few others. Parents didn’t mind if their teenage girls simply wanted to become someone like Deepika: have a growing career whatever you do; find a good life partner even if you broke up with someone in the past; and do good to the society even if it means you have to speak about your illness.
Parents even didn’t mind if their teenage or adult children did excessive partying, outing or otherwise. All that seemed okay as long as they are on a good career path and in a good network of friends and acquaintances. However, for the most part, parents didn’t expect someone ‘like’ Deepika would ‘exchange’ messages on drugs with others. At this point, the NCB’s investigations are still ongoing, and it might take some time for the authorities to announce who consumed drugs, who didn’t, and who the drug-peddlers are. However, we can’t prevent some people from making their conjectures based on the WhatsApp chats that came to light, and the fact that Deepika and other stars were questioned by the NCB for 4-6 hours based on these chats. The parents’ utmost concern is that if someone ‘like’ Deepika could ‘exchange’ messages with others on drugs, their teenage or adult children might be even more vulnerable. Do the urban parents now want their children to be on the ramp, go for an audition, or be a part of a reality show? The answer might be a NO unless there is a significant turnaround in Bollywood.
Just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Deepika was bestowed with ‘Crystal Award’ by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos for creating awareness on mental health. The award wouldn’t have been possible if the urban middle-class and upper-class hadn’t shown their love and support for the actor. The domestic power she got from the Indians made this international recognition possible.
Despite being in an unpleasant situation over the past few days, Deepika might be feeling a sense of responsibility with her huge fan base. Especially, with the WhatsApp chat messages being shown on at the least half-a-billion screens across the nation.
As in the past, can Deepika set another example this time by being outspoken about the drugs issue in Bollywood? Can she live up to her ‘Crystal’?
-Chandrashekar Katipelli (Author of the Book ‘Gandhi & Lincoln’, Founder & Managing Director of IndianFolk.com, and Co-founder of Metdine)
Picture Credits: AP