It seems as though some Bollywood celebrities have left the chat on advocating for COVID-19 awareness.
This isn’t the first time they have shown their true colours, or lack of ability to show up when they are needed most.
While India hits record-high COVID numbers, and its healthcare system is pushed to a breaking point, many of the nations’ most prominent stars have been less than active on their social media platforms, marking a stark difference from their response to the first wave.
Some of the biggest names in Bollywood, like Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Shahid Kapoor, and Kajol have remained largely silent on their Instagrams, with very little to no references to the ongoing crisis.
But not all stars are staying completely silent. A few have used their platforms to amplify COVID-19 resources and battle misinformation around the virus. Alia Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Varun Dhawan have all used their Instagram accounts to highlight places to donate, or showcase other resources related to vaccines and hospital beds.
And then, there’s a chunk of Bollywood stars who sit somewhere in the middle.
Abhishek Bachchan, whose family including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan, caught COVID-19 previously, used his Instagram to advocate for proper mask-usage and donating to nonprofits that are aimed at getting COVID resources out.
Preity Zinta and Akshay Kumar have also cautioned their following to abide by the COVID-19 restrictions, with Kumar disclosing his own positive COVID-19 test and hospitalization just last month. Deepika Padukone, though not as active on Instagram, has used her previous philanthropic work on mental health to further promote mental health resources--a crucially downplayed byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.
Probably the most bizarre form of “advocacy” comes from none other than Salman Khan, who regularly promotes a germ spray he appears to have a financial partnership with--arguably profiting off of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With such varied approaches to responding to the pandemic, the actions, and inaction, of Bollywood stars begs the question of what role do celebrities play during crises like these?
The answer is more complex than we think.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic kill our interest in celebrities?
Most of us remember the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic similarly. A flurry of emotions, mostly fear and anxiety, compounded by feelings of loss and grief engulfed many of us around the world as we watched our lives turn upside down and the cracks of inequality in our systems completely fracture and deepen for decades to come.
Some suggested COVID-19 would be an equalizer, where at least every individual in every industry faced the same restrictions and losses.
Yet, it was quickly revealed that was far from the truth. The racial, gender and class impacts of COVID-19 have been documented at length, but probably the most stark reality of privilege came from none other than celebrities.
From Kim Kardashian’s infamous private island getaway with her entire family, to the countless trips to Tulum influencers took at the height of the second wave, as the pandemic raged on, celebrities became less relatable, and more irrelevant.
No one wanted to hear about how quarantine felt like jail from wealthy people who had the luxury to socially distance in the safety of their million-dollar homes in Calabasas.
Possibly the pinnacle of insensitivity was Gal Gadot and a plethora of other mega-rich celebrities recording themselves singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” one week into the pandemic. The overwhelming response to the cringeworthy video felt it was notoriously tone-deaf to the vast majority of people who weren’t offered paid-time off, nor who had the capacity to sit around being bored like these celebrities did.
At one point it felt as though we were living in two separate worlds: one for celebrities who flouted the restrictions and adapted their luxurious lives quickly and seamlessly, and one for the average person who struggled to maintain any semblance of normalcy as access to healthcare, schooling, mental health services, and other coping mechanisms took a hit with each wave of the virus.
The urge to wish celebrities would just stop talking, stop posting and stop existing with such wealth, is strong.
What do we want from Bollywood celebrities?
While the pandemic exposed just how out-of-touch celebrities could be, it didn’t stop people from recognizing that when celebrities speak out on social issues they hold an immense amount of power.
It may be tempting to suggest celebrities have no business engaging with politics, especially around humanitarian crises like COVID-19, where they risk spreading misinformation or profiting off of the pandemic. With the focus turned to doctors, epidemiologists and immunologists, celebrities feel like the last people we want to hear from.
And it is worth noting Bollywood celebrities have had no issue engaging with controversial politics in the past.
At its core, I think Bollywood celebrities recognize they will never experience the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter how bad it gets for the vast majority of Indians.
Many of these actors and actresses live in fortress sized homes, equipped for months of isolation, alongside connections to medical doctors and supplies through their financial privilege and name recognition.
Like so many celebrities, it serves many of these actors well to lay low until the storm passes so as not to draw attention to the fact the hoards of wealth accumulated over the years could be better put towards bolstering the Indian healthcare system, rather than lining the pockets of stars like Salman Khan.
Today’s crisis in India begs the question, is silence really what we want?
Or is it simply easier to ask celebrities to shut up, than it is to expect them to own up to the platforms they are given, and more importantly, put their money where their mouth is?
Anusha Kav (she/her) is a writer and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta, currently completing a Master of Journalism at UBC. She holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science from the University of Alberta. She loves writing about the politics of popular culture, particularly on issues of identity, gender and representation. Follow her on Twitter @perhapsanusha