Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Actor to activist?

Do movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan need celebrities to make their case? Evidently they do, because a day after Aamir Khan spoke out the issue has moved centrestage.

Narmada, SC verdict, Medha's fast, Modi's fast - suddenly yesterday's 'who wants to hear gaon waalon ka dukhda' story becomes a cool news opera with characters, drama, action.

Now of course it would not have been the same had someone like say, Akshay Kumar come out and said "I support Narmada". You could easily dismiss him as "Chha - publicity seeker."

It's the perfect fit of Aamir - the guy who generally cultivates a private persona - coming out and making a strong statement for a cause, in a reasonably well informed manner that has caught attention. Rang de Basanti effect? Well, he says, maybe. But it's not that simple.

Yes celebrities are human beings and may feel strongly about any issue. But most would prefer to air their views privately, or keep quiet.

Actors rarely get involved in causes that involve any kind of lafda. It's one thing to exhort parents to ask their kids to take polio drops or 'donate eyes after death'. Quite another to take up for something which will ruffle feathers in the government and political circles.

So Aamir Khan is either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid. This action cements his "I'm different from the rest of Bollywood" persona. And what's the worst that can happen - people threaten to boycott his films?

The next one - Fanaa - was destined to be a hit from the day it went on the floor. Who wouldn't want to see Kajol making her comeback - and the first time on-screen with Aamir. In a Yashraj production.

Considering the care that Aamir takes to pick and choose his film roles, I'm pretty sure the same applies to anything else he chooses to do. Including supporting the NBA cause.

Why Aamir makes sense
The reason Aamir's line will find support is that he isn't opposing the dam per se. He admits, Kutch has a water problem (that's where he spent 6 months shooting Lagaan). So a dam is required. And it will displace some villages and families.

Aamir's appeal is "rehabilitate them properly". Which is what the Supreme Court has decreed. It is what the NBA of 2006 is also asking for, although in the past it opposed big dams on principle. Now perhaps this opposition was based on sound reasons but as far as the thirsty people of 4 Gujarat and city dwellers like me were concerned, NBA appeared to be 'anti progress'.

And therefore, as time went by, Medha Patkar got embedded into our consciousness as a 'troublemaker'. What she was making trouble about - exactly - was never completely clear. Again it could be the complexity of the issue or my lack of receptiveness or the inability of NBA to communicate it effectively.

Then, Arundhati Roy came on the scene and although she did raise the profile of the cause significantly, she was again a 'leftist' type as far as I was concerned. By leftist type I mean people who raise question marks but do not provide alternative solutions. People who seem to be principally against change and 'progress' of any sort.

So Aamir Khan may be less committed and less well informed than Roy but his words echo a stand that any citizen of this country would agree with. Resettle the affected families. Not just with cash but by giving them 'land for land'.

If there is not enough land, I say we should look for out-of-the-box solutions. Retrain and reskill the oustees to set up cottage industries. Or team up with industrial houses to set up new townships. Yes, some may lose their traditional way of life but this could be a new way of life. Not necessarily worse than the old one.

Ground realities
That's the 'let's be positive about this' side of the story. But it doesn't really work given that the government's intentions appear far from honourable. All available reports so far suggest it's an utter and complete mess out there.

Due to this hue and cry, a lone TV camera finally made its way to a 'rehabilitated village' in Madhya Pradesh. There, NDTV found 62 plots of land carved out for a proposed resettlement of 800 families.

The Supreme Court has asked all 4 governments to submit a report on the rehabilitation status within a week. But who knows if anyone will care about this issue in a week's time? Last week this time it was 'reservation', now it's rehabilitation. By next week, there will be something new.

So it looks like Aamir can't just 'voice his opinion' and step back. He will have to keep the issue alive.

Now that a large enough number of people have accepted Aamir speaking out as 'sincere' they're going to expect him to carry on the fight. Maybe this is unfair. After all, so many of us sent an sms to 'fight for Jessica' or simply signed an online petition against reservation and felt we had 'done our bit'.

In that sense Aamir has done enough. It's unfair to expect him to be like Bono. The rocker who "charmed and bullied and morally blackmailed the leaders of the world’s richest countries into forgiving $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest".

But as they keep on saying - "Rang de Basanti effect". Once the characters made certain choices the film had to lead to a certain logical end. Although it kept emphasising that violence is not the answer. "We all must do something to make this country a better place."

Is 'doing' restricted to voicing our opinions? Or is there some more concrete way for those who "feel" to participate? Whether celebrity or ordinary citizen - that is the question.


  1. Dear Rashmi,

    Well written post. With change comes pain as can be seen with Narmada Dam. People will get displaced and all constituents cannot be made happy all the time. Does Narmada Dam bring economic & social benefits in sum to india ? Yes it does. So, lets move on. Medha and her gang has stygmied this project for several years. Yes, villagers need to be protected and they should not get a raw deal but in the end, economic progress is paramount. I guess this is the price India pays for being a democrary - slow to no growth on such major projects. Look at China and Three Gorges Dam example and there are so many similar parallels.


  2. Voices need to be raised for rehabilitation and not for stopping the dam construction.

    As I had said in one of my post, dam constructions should include re-habilitation as one of the major expenditure. They must be surely taking this cost into consideration but not to the extent where they intend to give something better than what they have taken from the people. People will be far more supportive of a project in their area if they know its benefits for themselves. People in Gujarat get better irrigation and electricity, what do the people in Madhya Pradesh get? Displacement to inferior land?

    I think it would not have been such a big surprise if some organization had come up with a modern township along the reservoir with avenues being made in industries/tourism and of course people getting land to continue farming.

    Regarding Aamir, he has done his bit by jumping in with his opinions and now it is for others to keep the momentum going. People should not fear speaking for the cause of re-habilitation fearing they would be roped in for ever.

  3. Now not many of you will agree with me on this, but here is my take, and from a first person perspective.

    To my post on this

  4. First off, good post. I hope you keep writing along these topics. They are of great interest, at least to me.

    Someone said "need to be protected and they should not get a raw deal but in the end, economic progress is paramount"

    Citizens who want progress at the expense of other citizens deserve none at all. The misery and poverty of others should not be exploited to get at that "paramount economic progress". I don't think you are saying "abuse the poor if their land is in the way of 'progress'" but I just want to make sure that you're not implying that either.

    What's important is that we make sure the affected people are getting a fair deal. If they had 10 hectares of good land, they ought to get 10 hectares of good land somewhere else or some equivalent compensation so that they can maintain their existing lifestyle. Imagine if you were in their place. Would you yourself expect any less?

  5. I don't know whether Aamir Khan's intentions are completely selfless or if he's simply trying to cash in on an image he has found himself with. But the fact is, without this form of 'celebrity endorsement, the media would not have bothered to give the Narmada issue its deserved coverage.
    Aamir Khan's outspoken participation has all the news channels covering the matter throughout the day. It also happens to have you blogging on the matter, which otherwise has not much to do with Indian Youth.
    Without Aamir Khan, this would have been a much smaller news item, without the mass appeal it is likely to generate now. In our country, Aamir Khan's voice commands far more clout than a starving Medha Patkar.

  6. Hey Rashmi - nice post and I agree with your take. Indeed "Actors rarely get involved in causes that involve any kind of lafda."

    Views and counter-views apart, the fact that Aamir is doing this is in itself a commendable thing. No one can deny the mass appeal that actors have and hence them lending their voice to a cause celebre is definitely something we need. Touche again on the polio/eye donation thing.

    For the love of God, I cannot imagine Amitabh, Shahrukh, or for that matter even Sachin T (if we're talking icons) going impromptu to, say, a protest over Jessica Lall, or Priyadarshini Mattoo, or for that matter, the comparable thing for reservations.

  7. Right as a private citizen to voice opinion - and using celebrity status for doing so - is alright. While this seems to be publicity for dunno what movie, there is surely a dash of sincerity in it. Agree with you for most of the post except the part where you say that it could be unfair to expect him to carry on. When a celebrity takes up a cause, expectations rise automatically - a reel life hero turning into a real life hero is something we all want to see.

    In the end, a publicity-seeking Aamir (who will forget about the cause after his movie releases) will do less damage than the Arundhati Roys of the world who protest for the sake of protesting.

    But Medha Patkar seems to be destined to carry on.

  8. On ponytail speaking on Narmada

    On Aamir opening his trap

    I added one more post on this, commenting on Arindams article on Narmada. I cannot post them as comments as they are too long and they make separate posts on their own.

    Not many will agree on what I say, but I am trying to present the other side of the story, the side which I myself faced. Narmada issue might not concern someone in Chennai, but to me it does, so these are my takes on it.

  9. I really admire your take on the day to day happenings, i feel the aamir khan thing was a sad thing, instead of garnering support for the NBA, his move was perceived by many as a publicity stunt, so did it serve the purpose , i think not.

    Your blog is listed here on Indianblogs.tk

  10. Your post is driven by education from television! It is as bad as my blog, which too is based on education from television. Our blogs are about a guy who took up a cause while window-shopping for activism also based on education through media. NBA does not need Amir. Please visit Gujarat and talk to anyone who is not connected with any Political party.

    NBA has one point agenda. Stop the Narmada project. It is not the dam, they want the entire project scrapped.

    You have a good blog. I have not read JAM but I am sure it must be good.


    You can find me on- The 100% unofficial blog of the Indian Prime Minister | Satire | Funny | Smart | Indian

  11. Are there any concrete steps that the citizen of India can take to support such causes other than signing online petitions and staging a 'dharna' in front of the political masters of this country? I bet, and am hopeful, that given an opportunity, there should be quite a few people who would come forward to do something worthwhile.

    As for Amir, who cares if he did it out of smartness or stupidity? As long as he brought the right kind of news to the headlines..I'm thankful to him.

  12. The irony of Indian mentality is that if a celeb does something wrong.. ala Salman ...fingers are pointed tht they are a disgrace and unworthy ..and if they are doing something right..they are publicity hounds..
    If Aamir is using his celebrity status to highlight a cause..we should be appreciating it..Atleast hez not charging tax payers for shaking his booty for 3minz in the name of 'patriotic duty'..

  13. Kudos to Aamir Khan. He has shown real pluck by taking a public stand on a very public issue. Tell me how many would stake their reputation on an issue such as this. Who else has in this case? He has. And he handled it with great elan. He didnt decry the efforts of the government to provide relief to the thirsty millions of the region, by building the dam. On the contrary, he demanded that the needs of the displaced be taken care of before the dam work can go forward. Logical and reasonable, I'd say. Why didnt the apex court also say the same?

    And I for one dont want to be in China with all its economic might. Give me India anyday. This is the beauty of democracy. We have to take everyone along. Instead deriding it, we have to celebrate it.

  14. Roy's dissent is 'leftist' now is it? The fingers should all be pointed at the government where the bureaucracy can't seem find the answers to simple enough calls, like those that Pathkar, Roy, and only now Amir Khan is making.

    The government set achievable goals, like land irrigation after the dam was built, and if it can't reach even 10% of desired land to be irrigated, why shouldn't there be dissent? It's the lack of government accountability and responsibility which the supreme court has had to correct... who brought the suit against the government? Exactly the dissenters. Incompetence truly does know no bounds (I mean the government).

    There are plenty of statistics on how much tax-money goes into the bureaucracy alone, 90% is a valid number, Instead, read some Roy speeches, and Amartya Sen.

  15. Great post, well thought-out, well-argued. No logical fallacies whatsoever. Thanks!

  16. Yes, the issue is rehabilitation and not the dam construction. Even NBA wants, even Mr. Khan wants that, even Ms. Roy wants that. But the politicians have been quick to brand them anti-development. Interestingly, even the ill informed people of Gujarat hate NBA for being against the dam. I think in that sense, NBA is yet to make its mark. It really needs to get the message straight, "It's about rehabilitation". Once people are aware, probably the government's resolve could weaken.

    From a political angle, Congress and BJP both are on the same side for once. Congress is missing a trick here. It could have seized the opportunity to win over the masses by taking the onus on itself. It can point out the government's inadequacies and claim that rehabilitation and dam construction can go hand in hand. They couldn't capitalise on the riots, this could be their opportunity. Moreover, they have nothing to lose. They are a no-show in Guj so whatever gains they have would just be a bonus.

    The silver lining though is the celebrity involvement. Now, hopefully the momentum will not dip. Let's hope that the displaced villagers don't end up like the victims of the Pokhran nuclear tests.

  17. I have heard some voices about how the protests are slowing down the construction. I differ. The slowdown is coz of the government's lethargy in rehabilitating villagers. If it's as serious about resettling the victims, why not do it now? The faster you do it, the faster construction can happen.

  18. Hi rashmi, Wanted to bring THIS to your notice - blatant plagiarism in the blogosphere. Please lend us your support.

  19. With all said and done, I'd like to correct one harmless fact, Kajol has worked with amir in ISHQ as a co-star

  20. @DHAIVATENDEAVOR - But in ISHQ she wasnt paired 'romantically' with Aamir (he had Juhi , while Kajol's love interest was Ajay Devgan). In fact, towards the end of the film, they develop a more 'brother-sister' kind of relationship, even said so in as many words by one side artiste in the climax (I think Johney Lever).

    So that way, Aamir-Kajol pair in Fanaa is unique.

    BTW, i always thought the word is Fanaah! Are the makers right or hv they dropped the 'h' for numerological reasons !

  21. Mr. Modi is certainly not going to listen to Aamir. He would go along with the project with the support of other parties and Police. So what would Aamir do? Would he kill Mr. Modi. Certainly not. Aamir would just go back with his Fanaa.
    And that preciely is the problem with Rang De Basanti.
    More about it on my blog here.

  22. i totaly agree Ms bansal tht this roy medha gang are jst too sick ar ur rite in calling them "leftist" maybe if they where in china then god knows what would have happened and wat abt tht guy rahul bose we need to give him honarary degree in civil engineering and he needs to come and put forward his thesis finally abt mair khan he is my favorite actor my jst one question for him "what abt poor farmers in kerala where coca cola has polluted farmers land" and near here on the way to mysore in industrial township called bidadi toyota workers had called for strike" poor workers " they are later they withdrew some demands some agreed in give and take policy maybe amir khan being brand ambassdor sgould ask toyota to give "poor workers fair deal" is it toomuch to ask ?? now tht amir is activist

  23. People who look out for 0.1% of the population at the expense of 99.9% of the population will ruin India.

    The cost of labor is cheaper in India than in China. But, due to power shortages, and lack of infrastructure, India can't compete with China in manufacturing. 100s of millions of Indians are mired in poverty every day because of this. Who will speak for them?

    Not Medha and Ms. Roy. They want the vilagers to remain poor. Read their writings on the internet. They view poverty, and subsistence farming as noble. Don't listen to these leftist crackpots that want to turn the entire country into economic backwaters like W. Bengal, and Kerala.

  24. Arguments that we hear...
    1)why is amir khan talking now, hasn't this happened before?
    - SO WHAT? u r never too late for doing something gud

    2)Why is amir khan not saying anything about the kashmiri pandits?
    - Well i remember sarfarosh as an amir khan movie showing openly the very spread of terrorism in india's innermost areas. How conveniently it is forgotten!! I guess presenting pak terror help just before kargil war is not gud enough but u care not ask the protestors in the state what they did for the pundits?? apart from inciting hatred in other parts of the country??
    3)What about reservation, why is amir khan not saying anything about it?
    - Not everybody feels strongly about everything. Infact it is a great asset to the country that we have one 'non-political' celebrity come out and speak about something..as if political parties are doing a great job of raising the correct issues.

    4)i read somewhere here that references the loss everyyear some company/state is burdening...now the question that begs to be asked is why is the state(s) ready to burden this but not settle the issue in such a way that they can stand tall and say what they did with proof?? i know its not simple but still needs to be pondered upon

    Infact the moral of the story is the parties (all politics) try to move the attention from the real issue. wat perfect example than this where u and i are discussing amir's intention while we ought to concentrate more on the issue itself.


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