A couple weeks ago, Indian actress and sometimes singer Priyanka Chopra created a post on Instagram about the death of George Floyd. “NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color,” she wrote alongside an image with the text “please, i can’t breathe.”
Immediately, angry comments appeared from thousands of fans around the world. The post has over 18,000 comments and counting, mostly critical. People are upset with Chopra — not for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, but for her performative activism.
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There is so much work to be done and it needs to starts at an individual level on a global scale. We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and end this hate. End this race war here in the US, and around the world. Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color. On May 25th, George Floyd was pinned down by the neck by a Minneapolis police officer and died. He laid there, fighting for his life, struggling to breathe, and other officers just stood there and watched. The officer has now been charged with murder. George, I am praying for your family. ❤️ Text “FLOYD” to 55156 and sign the petition. #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd
Some have called Chopra a hypocrite for speaking out against racism in America while supporting the right-wing Narendra Modi BJP government in her native India. She has long appeared to hold questionable ties with the government; she has exchanged amicable tweets with Prime Minister Modi over the years, done photo ops with him and even invited him to her wedding reception. People question the value of her activism when she is openly friendly with a Hindu-nationalist political leader who has implemented racist laws and practices in India.
Chopra has not spoken out against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was implemented late last year and discriminates against Muslims by creating a pathway to citizenship for non-Muslims from neighbouring countries, nor has she supported those who faced police brutality when they protested against the controversial change this year.
Although Chopra portrays herself as an advocate for women’s rights on the global stage, she has stayed mum on the case of Safoora Zargar, a 27-year-old Muslim university student imprisoned with poor health conditions, while pregnant, for merely protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. This case has made headlines throughout the world. Despite being a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Chopra has also never spoken about the lynching of Muslims and Dalits in India, which has sharply surged under Modi’s tenure.
Raised in a military family, Chopra is also a fierce supporter of the Indian army, which regularly engages in practices of brutality. In 2019, Chopra famously tweeted “Jai Hind” (Long live India) with the hashtag #IndianArmedForces to express her support for India’s military strike in Pakistani airspace over the Kashmir conflict, which could have resulted in a war. This is especially troubling given that atrocities committed by the Indian army in their occupation of Kashmir — including the use of sexual violence, mass blinding, and the killing of innocent civilians — are well known. When a Pakistani-American woman named Ayesha Malik attempted to question Chopra about her support for India’s military at a Beautycon event the same year, Chopra famously belittled and silenced her, saying, “Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself.”
Furthermore, Chopra is known to support the Indian police, once using Twitter to praise KPS Gill, a former police chief known as the butcher of Punjab for his alleged involvement in the mass killing of innocent Sikhs.
“Whenever you’re don’t venting”. Sorry, didn’t realize that speaking on a humanitarian crisis was “venting” pic.twitter.com/OqCLgjDNa1— Ayesha Malik (@Spishaa) August 11, 2019
Chopra has engaged in racist practices herself. This includes her endorsement of fairness creams as recently as 2012 in a Garnier ad, after a successful Bollywood career and right before her Hollywood debut. In the past, she has apologized for endorsing lightening creams but also falsely implied in interviews that she only did so when she was a naïve Bollywood newcomer. Her endorsement of skin bleaching creams has enraged social media users, as such creams perpetuate anti-Black racism, as well as harm millions of dark-skinned women in South Asia.
Chopra also objectified racialized minority women in her 2013 single “Exotic,” engaged in cultural appropriation in her 2014 film Mary Kom by playing a woman from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur (even trying out prosthetics to get her eyes “slanted”), and has acted in films with anti-Black content.
Chopra exemplifies the shallow nature of celebrity activism, where stars pursue social causes because it benefits their careers. It appears as though in the United States, she supports the Black Lives Matter movement to boost her career in a left-friendly Hollywood, while in India she is pro-military and pro-police in order to protect her Bollywood interests.
Even UNICEF goodwill ambassador positions, like the one Chopra holds, have come under scrutiny in the past for allowing celebrities to position themselves as humanitarians by doing photo ops with oppressed communities rather than bringing substantial change. Equally troublesome is when stars support social causes without doing the actual work of educating themselves. Patriotism, to which Chopra has publicly stated she adheres, is often a vehicle for racism and makes citizens believe they must be loyal to whatever government is in power even if democracy and human rights are being undermined.
Unfortunately, Chopra is not the only Bollywood celebrity who is friendly with Modi while claiming to be apolitical. The Modi government has created a climate of fear in India, and even Bollywood stars may be afraid to engage in political dissent and speak out. When Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan spoke out against growing intolerance in India in the early years of Modi’s regime, they experienced a severe backlash and have since chosen to be silent. But when Bollywood stars like Chopra invite racist leaders like Modi to their events, make public appearances with him and engage in banter with him on social media, they are legitimizing his leadership and humanizing him, something most Hollywood celebrities have refused to do with U.S. president Donald Trump.
Such social legitimization is problematic, as Modi is one of the most dangerous leaders in the world right now, directly threatening India’s democracy, its constitution, and its many minority groups. Modi recognizes the great influence Bollywood stars hold and has deliberately sought them out to attain cultural power. Unfortunately, rather than question his motives and actions, Bollywood celebrities like Chopra have gone along for the ride. Bollywood has also supported Modi’s racist agenda by producing an abundance of hypernationalist films in recent years, often starring BJP supporter and Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar.
The current backlash directed at Chopra is perhaps reflective of the anger many have towards the Bollywood establishment for their complicity in the reign of terror Modi has unleashed on minorities in India.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the most important racial justice movement in the world right now, deserves better than Priyanka Chopra’s performative activism, especially when people like football player Colin Kaepernick have sacrificed their entire careers to bring an end to the systemic police violence faced by Black communities.
Dr. Baljit Nagra is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.