As Twitter users boycott Deepika Padukone’s movie, misinformation wins again

Deepika Padukone (R) poses with acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal (L) at the launch of upcoming Hindi film ‘Chhapaak’. (AFP)

Indian Twitter users are engaging in fierce online debates after Deepika Padukone, one of India's most famous actresses, joined students protesting against recent moves by the Modi-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Tuesday.

Multiple reports placed her silently protesting with a group of students who stood against the violence inflicted on pupils of JNU by masked individuals who injured more than 30 in an attack on January 5, 2020.

India has been marred by protests dating back to early December 2019, with four main focus areas: internet shutdown and human rights violations in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and more recently, violence against students, and the excessive use of force by the police.

The 34-year-old actress is one of the first highly influential, A-list actors who has taken a political stance in a religiously divided environment in India. The protests sweeping India in recent weeks have reportedly posed a dilemma for Bollywood, which has some big-name Muslim actors but is sensitive to the sentiments of the country's Hindu majority.

Amid implementation of curfews and restrictions to protest by the Indian government, Padukone’s joined the protesters three days ahead of the release of her latest film, Chhapaak – the story of a 2005 acid attack survivor, Laxmi Agarwal.

Apart from acting in the movie, she is also the movie’s co-producer. Considering the depth of her investment in the movie, many lauded her decision to join the protests amid an expected backlash from movie-goers and fans.

A variety of Twitter users took it upon themselves to #Boycott_Chhapaak within hours of Padukone’s participation surfacing online. At the time of publication, the hashtag was the fifth most trending on Twitter with over 40,000 uses.

Among the various Twitter reactions, users made three main accusations against Padukone:

1. Indians who have voiced support for CAA accused Padukone of being ‘anti-national,’ a term which is commonly used to disregard critics of government initiatives.

2. Other Twitter users criticized Padukone seemingly on the basis of a misunderstanding surrounding an apparent name-change in her movie. The misunderstanding arose when the on-screen perpetrator of the acid attack was rumored to have been renamed from a commonly Muslim name, Nadeem Khan, to a commonly Hindu name, Rajesh. This misinformed accusation spread around Twitter and led to a wider use of #Boycott_Chhapaak.

A fact check by the Press Trust of India reported that names of the characters have been altered. However, the attacker was renamed to Basheer (Bashir) Khan, the survivor Laxmi was changed to Malti, and Rajesh is a separate character in the movie.

After newer reports discredited the name-change, Twitter users said that a voice-over artist changed Rajesh to Basheer Khan owing to the social media uproar. There have been no statements from movie officials to back the speculation.

3. Many on Twitter floated the idea that the actress made an appearance at the protest in New Delhi to spark conversation about her upcoming film - a publicity stunt. Al Arabiya English tried to reach the known PR representative of Deepika Padukone to allow for comment, but did not get a reply before publication of this article.

On top of the online criticism, Laxmi’s lawyer, Aparna Bhat, took legal action against makers of the film alleging that they did not  acknowledge her in the end-credits. “Compelled to take legal action to protect my identity and preserve my integrity,” she wrote in a Facebook post before she opened the case.

In 2017, Padukone attracted a 100 million rupees ($1.5 million) bounty to her head after the release of Hindi movie Padmaavat. The bounty was placed by a senior BJP member who was enraged by her movie, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Despite the outcry surrounding Chhapaak, Padukone's film has received some recognition from Indian government officials. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, two states in India, declared the movie tax-free on account of its positive message.

With inputs from Reuters, AP, PTI

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