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CASE STUDY: Bollywood and the Ethics of Celebrity Politics in India
The student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are engaged in ongoing protests in the aftermath of a mob attack on campus. For months, students at JNU have protested “an announced rise in fees as well as a new citizenship law, which critics say discriminates against Muslims and erodes India’s secular constitution” (Reuters, 2020). On Sunday, January 5, 2020 a group of masked men stormed campus with sticks, injuring at least 30 students. Following the attack, students, including those harmed, continued to rally.
And on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, an unexpected supporter joined them: Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone. Padukone did not make any speeches or draw attention to herself, offering quiet solidarity with her presence, leaving and arriving with discretion. This, however, did not prevent a social media firestorm, “a frenzy that only a Bollywood star can whip up in movie-mad India” (Biswas, 2020). Padukone’s presence provoked mixed reactions among Indians and Bollywood fans. The tensions have led to simultaneous hashtags supporting Padukone and calling for a boycott of her latest movie released January 10, 2020.
Student leaders like former JNU Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar thanked her for her “solidarity and support,” telling her “you might be abused or trolled today, but history will remember you for your courage and standing by the idea of India” (Biswas, 2020). Supporters even promised to watch her new film—“Chhapaak”—about acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, which Padukone both acted in and produced. Actor Anurag Kashyap called for “all those who stand against the violence go to @bookmyshow” and purchase tickets (Reuters, 2020).
Yet some of Padukone’s peers dismissed her. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, a filmmaker and supporter of India’s controversial conservative Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, argued “by standing with this small community of anti-India students she has sent a message that she doesn’t support 98% India-loving students” (Biswas, 2020). The Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister, Sachin Pilot, condemned boycott attempts; he argued “it’s a very narrow mindset if any actor or actress is not in your favour, then you talk about boycotting their films” (PTI, 2020). For some, the timing of the controversial move enhances perceptions of how much Padukone risked in acting on her convictions; with the release of “Chhapaak” looming, a lot is on the line. For others, the timing reads as a publicity stunt to promote the film, tweeting “what a brazen [and] cheap tactic to promote a film” (Reuters, 2020).
Stunt or not, Padukone is, on the whole, receiving more support than criticism with her follower counts increasing and critics calling “Chhapaak” an “important film to watch” (Pereira, 2020). The same internet explosion might not happen for another artist, but Padukone has tens of millions of followers on both Instagram and Twitter and in 2016 was ranked by Forbes as the 10th highest paid actress in the world. A big name brings big drama.
The JNU protests were not the first time Padukone faced controversy for her personal or profession life. Before the release of her film “Padmaavat,” members of the fringe group Rajput Karni Sena called for a nationwide ban, vandalized theaters, and threatened the actress physically. Member Mahipal Singh Makrana said in a video statement that “if need be, we will do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Shurpanakha,” meaning cut off her nose (Pereira, 2020). Amidst the same controversy, a mid-level media coordinator of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party reportedly put a bounty on Padukone’s head.
The case of Padukone and the Delhi protests brings up the larger issue: how involved should celebrities be in protests or persuasive campaigns? Celebrities hold much power in the public realm, but it is unclear that they possess any special insight into situations of social injustice. Alternatively, their power comes with a price. Since they depend on publicity to gain followers, fans, and audiences, negative publicity due to issues unrelated to their films might harm their ability to continue making popular or successful media artifacts. Despite the common perception that Bollywood stars often avoid politics, the Padukone case highlights the ways the two are more frequently intersecting. Director Mahesh Bhatt explains the struggle between the Bollywood and political power, arguing a Bollywood filmmaker is “a vulnerable animal, especially when his film inches toward release. You can blackmail and make him kneel down” (Biswas, 2020). But Bollywood celebrities might bring attention and energy to situations and causes that otherwise might go unnoticed. Padukone surely brought more attention to the Delhi protests from the Indian media, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi often uses the power of other Bollywood figures to his advantage, taking selfies and spending time with supportive members of the filmmaking elite. Given the risks and potential uses of Bollywood celebrity status, India is confronting more and more the question of when Bollywood drama and power should yield to the power of ordinary politics.
- Should filmmakers and actors consider economic repercussions before speaking out on political issues or controversies?
- What role should artists have in shaping political discourse? Do artists and celebrities have different responsibilities than ordinary protestors?
- Is it more ethical for celebrities with great influence to avoid or embrace politics?
- What are the ethical issues in boycotting or “cancelling” celebrities for their politics?
Soutik Biswas, “Deepika Padukone: Has Bollywood found a political voice?” BBC News, January 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51030991
Karen Pereira, “‘Padmaavat’ to ‘Chhapaak’: 4 times Deepika Padukone stood her ground in the face of threats, violence and controversy.” Times of India, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/padmaavat-to-chhapaak-4-times-deepika-padukone-stood-her-ground-in-the-face-of-threats-violence-and-controversy/articleshow/73172040.cms
PTI, “Deepika Padukone’s JNU visit: Sachin Pilot condemns ‘Chhapaak’ boycott, says more people will watch the movie new.” The Economic Times, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/deepika-padukones-jnu-visit-sachin-pilot-condemns-chhapaak-boycott-says-more-people-will-watch-the-movie-now/articleshow/73167513.cms
Reuters, “Bollywood actor faces boycott calls after joining student protest.” The Guardian, January 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/08/deepika-padukone-bollywood-actor-faces-boycott-calls-after-joining-student-protest
Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 19, 2020
This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of the Carson King Case
On ESPN’s “College GameDay” program, a 24-year-old’s sign requesting beer money went viral and raised more than a million dollars from amused fans. The football fan and beer-lover, Carson King, purchased just one case of beer with the funds and donated the rest to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Anheuser-Busch and Venmo matched the final sum, tripling the total donation (Ta, 2019). Initially, King was hailed as an “Iowa Legend” for his philanthropy. However, Des Moises Register reporter Aaron Calvin eventually uncovered and published two racist tweets that King wrote as a high school student, quickly sparking controversy. Calvin’s article ultimately led Anheuser-Busch to withdraw their public support for King, and although he retained some of his supporters, his previously glowing reputation was tarnished.
King’s story is an exemplary case of a rising phenomenon of public shaming known as cancel culture. After an accusation of problematic speech or action, an individual is “cancelled” from a social group by being boycotted and ostracized. John Hirschauer argued that Calvin intended to cancel King by publishing his tweets. Hirschauer declared that Calvin’s “decision to highlight two obscure, inflammatory tweets from a man’s adolescence of a sentiment that Calvin admits are ‘not representative artifacts of’ the man being profiled, is the sort of spiteful ‘gotcha’ thinking devoid of proportion that fuels ‘cancel culture’ writ large” (Hirschauer, 2019). In Hirschauer’s opinion, publishing the tweets was a malicious choice that disregarded King’s good deeds and personal growth.
The Des Moines Register’s executive editor, Carol Hunter, disagrees. She believes that Calvin acted ethically by providing comprehensive information about a public figure of interest. She explains that “The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?” (Andrew and Zdanowicz, 2019). Hunter argues that donors have the right to know about the man asking for their money. After all, if donors know that their donations could be associated with racism, they might choose to give their money to other charities that share their values. She maintains that Calvin’s choice informed and empowered donors to make a better moral decision.
Calvin’s decision to publish King’s tweets could also be viewed as an effort to morally educate the public. A virtue of cancel culture is that it effectively signals that speech or behavior like King’s is unacceptable. It draws attention to problematic speech and punishes it, demonstrating to observers that they too should avoid such speech. On the other hand, the immediate “cancellation” of those who have made mistakes may not be the best way to educate them. By being shamed and isolated, they are cut off from informed and moderating influences. As a result, cancel culture may play a role in radicalizing individuals with problematic views and may actually discourage ethical growth.
Former President Barack Obama takes the latter view, explaining that cancel culture isn’t a way to effect change in others’ behavior. Shortly after King’s rise to fame and fall from glory, Obama argued that, “if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). In essence, merely shaming people for their moral errors isn’t enough to get someone to do better or to participate in the community in acceptable ways. According to Obama, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change” (Reub & Taylor, 2019). By this view, Calvin’s publication of King’s tweets was not a noble act. Rather, it distracted attention from meaningful action—the hospital fundraising—to a more petty controversy about past mistakes.
Cancel culture—for better or worse—is changing how people engage with one another. In fact, shortly after Calvin released his profile on King, readers dug up a few of Calvin’s own old, offensive tweets (Shepherd, 2019). The Des Moines Register fired Calvin and he found himself cancelled along with King. This ironic twist of events leaves many to wonder: is this how the story should have played out?
- Is there an ethical problem with cancel culture? What values are in conflict in this case study?
- Is cancel culture socially just? Can an apology or remorse by the wrongdoer suffice to excuse them from being “cancelled”?
- Communicating true information is an important goal of journalism. Even so, would it have been morally permissible for Calvin to leave the racist tweets out of his profile on King if additional donation opportunities for sick children could have followed?
- How is cancel culture and its punishments like or unlike the judgments and punishments prevalent in the court system?
Andrew, Scottie, and Zdanowicz, Christina, “He raised a million dollars for a hospital through beer money. Then his old racist tweets surfaced.” CNN, September 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/26/us/carson-king-busch-cuts-ties-beer-posts-trnd/index.html
Hirschauer, John, “On the Firing of Aaron Calvin.” National Review, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/on-the-firing-of-aaron-calvin/
Reinstein, Julia, “The Reporter Fired In The ‘Busch Light Guy’ Scandal Said He Feels ‘Abandoned’ By The Des Moines Register.” BuzzFeed News, September 2019. Available at: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/juliareinstein/des-moines-register-iowa-reporter-fired-aaron-calvin-carson
Reub, Emily S., and Taylor, Derrick Bryson, “Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism.’” The New York Times, October 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/us/politics/obama-woke-cancel-culture.html
Shepherd, Katie, “Iowa reporter who found a viral star’s racist tweets slammed when critics find his own offensive posts.” Washington Post, September 2019. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/25/carson-king-viral-busch-light-star-old-iowa-reporter-tweets/
Ta, Linh, “Carson King reflects on new fame, the future after fundraiser for Iowa children’s hospital hits nearly $3M.” USA Today, October 2019. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2019/10/02/carson-king-fundraiser-ends-iowa-childrens-hospital/3840146002/
Grace Leake, Alicia Armijo, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 4, 2019
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.