2018 truly felt like a year made up entirely of MadLibs headlines — just random names and situations drawn from a hat and sold as facts. The most confusing one, for me at least, was Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ spring announcement that they were dating. By November 2018, the former Camp Rock superstar and Lal Dhupatta lead were married in Mumbai. As if that wasn’t jarring enough for me, who grew up with both icons representing very different facets of my identity, the following picture then appeared after one of the many Chopra-Jonas receptions.
Priyanka Chopra not only invited Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to her wedding, but he attended! Happily! In his signature Modi jacket! With no qualms about the absurdity of this whole thing! If you aren’t well versed in Indian politics, or the shadiness of the Bollywood industry, let’s break down the horrifying optics of this image, the people involved, and what kind of message Priyanka Chopra is sending to her millions of fans, both in India and internationally.
For starters, let’s chat about India’s beloved PM and two major groups at play here. Narendra Modi is India’s current Prime Minister and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, colloquially known as the BJP. The BJP are India’s biggest right wing group, and Modi leading them to power in 2014 was the first time that a party had achieved an outright majority in India’s parliament since 1984.
Aside from being part of the BJP, Modi is also heavily involved in the workings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an “Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization that is widely regarded as the parent organization of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party.” The RSS is the insidious underbelly of the BJP, and claims the work they do is part of their supposed selfless service for India, with many of their ideals and beliefs are rooted in the ideology of Hindutva, a term popularized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, which essentially just means extreme Hindu nationalism. Founded in 1925, the RSS was initially created as a response to British colonization and Muslim separatists in India, and when British authorities banned the RSS because of their violent militant activities, they went underground. Another fun thing that was happening in the late 1920–1930’s was — that’s right — Hitler’s rise to power. During World War II, members of the RSS were open admirers of Adolf Hitler and really modelled much of their propaganda, organizing, and world view around that of the Nazi regime. By the 1990’s, there were over 6,000 RSS funded schools and 26,000 RSS clubs all over India, opened and funded with the express goal of pushing pro-Hindu ideology.
The BJP and RSS really became outwardly intertwined in 1998, when both India’s Prime Minister at the time, Bihari Vajpayee, and Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, rose from the ranks of the RSS into parliamentary power. We see much of that mirrored into today’s political spectrum with current Prime Minister, Modi, also being a follower of the RSS. The major thing to understand here is that the RSS is a group that holds outdated, harmful, antiquated views surrounding the caste system, Hindus in India, and what is best for a nation that is filled with migrants from various neighbouring countries. AlJazeera’s Uday Chandra says it best — “Modi’s win made it seem that the era of caste and region-based coalitions had ended, and a new era of religious nationalism had begun.”
Modi’s campaign listed a 50-point plan, detailing more than 600 sub-promises to the voters. Some of the major political promises include: the delivering of essential services to poor and marginalized groups, ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits to Jammu and Kashmir, giving women the role of “Nation Builders” by committing to a 33% increase in female involvement in parliamentary and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment, and more. Instead, in the past four years, India has seen none of the aforementioned promises be fulfilled, supplemented by a rise in hate crimes , specifically against Muslims and other marginalized populations. A report by Minority Rights Group International said that “since the 2014 election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of Narendra Modi, there has been a climate of rising Hindu nationalism. This has in turn seen the promotion of an increasingly exclusionary environment, reflected in the advancement of policies and legislation . . . that discriminate against religious minorities.”
Knowing who Modi is, these statistics are not surprising. Knowing the Bollywood industry, and seeing who the wealthy lightskin elites that run the industry are, Priyanka Chopra’s proximity to Modi is not surprising. What is rather unfortunate is the newfangled reach that Priyanka Chopra now has since she’s made her debut into the world of Hollywood. Chopra landed the starring role on ABC’s Quantico in 2013, and as the first South Asian female to lead a network drama series, the pressure was on for the actress to deliver a stellar performance and, suddenly, speak on behalf of every brown person in North America that had never seen themselves adequately represented alongside white people since Bend it Like Beckham. Chopra has a huge reach now, being covered by notable media outlets like Vogue, Refinery29, and more, and for her to not only be photographed with Modi, but be outwardly excited about it, is quite disheartening. Her break into the Hollywood A-listers mainstream was exciting for many, but to be so brazenly unapologetic about her association with Modi — a prime minister known first and foremost for his extreme Hindu nationalist views is something that is disheartening for many.
The reality is that Bollywood has always been spectacular at creating the Muslim “other”, be it through the people that it allows to catapult to success or through the films that are pushed to be blockbuster hits, year after year. A study, conducted by Sanjeev Kumar, situates cinema as “a crucial distribution source of popular culture…contend[ing] that Bollywood cinema has exhibited an overt bias towards producing films that capitulate to this radical nationalist discourse professed by the Hindutva ideologues”. Time after time, we see Bollywood films like My Name is Khan and Fanaa create caricatures of Muslim people, ones that are based entirely on outdated Hindutva ideals and made in the name of cinepatriotism. Faiza Hirji says it best in her piece in the Journal of South Asian Popular Culture: “given India’s complicated political, cultural, and religious history and the more global concern with Islam’s meaning and significance, Islam inevitably plays a significant — and somewhat transformed — role in popular Indian cinema. However,…it also carries familiar associations with terrorism, violence, and intercultural misunderstanding.”
Another researcher, Shakuntala Rao, makes an important point about the growing Western interest in Bollywood films, and how what we’re saying about Muslims seeps into Western rhetoric. She explains, “Indian identity is being shaped by the new globalizing Bollywood and how non-elite audiences from lower middle class and rural India are understanding these images. This ethnography reveal that the non-elite audiences find themselves increasingly distanced from the images that Indian cinema is constructing. The films are creating an elitism constituted by the brand logic of transnational capital which is redefining the meaning of the masses.” When Trump rose to power a few years ago, many of his callous anti-Muslim sentiments were backed up by American-Indians, pleased that this poorly toupeed moron was mirroring their harmful sentiments, with the Republican Hindu Coalition even vowing to raise $25B for Trump’s border wall. The best part? While some Hindus in India and the US have eagerly endorsed Trump for his anti-Muslim stance, Trump has continued to singled out Indians (including Hindus) as a group whose immigration to the US needs to be curtailed. Associate Professor Rohit Chopra explains how Modi and Trump are “reliant on propaganda, thanks to a pliant Indian media in Modi’s case and outright falsehoods in Trump’s. Both leaders claim with straight faces that they are the victims of fake news. Supporters of both regimes have engaged in dog-whistling against dissenters, putting the latter in physical danger. In both contexts, informed commentators have warned of the very real signs of fascism displayed by the Modi and Trump governments.”
In a perfect world, celebrities and multimillion cinema world wouldn’t have as much public influence as they do. But with Hindu nationalist sentiment seeping into the lives of Muslims, violently and tangibly in India and here, in the West, it seems remiss of Priyanka Chopra, to say nothing — especially when it comes at the hands of people like PM Narendra Modi. Is it her responsibility to fix the divide between Hindus and Muslims in India? Absolutely not — and that’s not the implication here. But as an actress with colossal outreach, it seems like rubbing shoulders with a man who is part of a nationalist organization that was created out of admiration for Adolf Hitler doesn’t seem like the ideal way to go. Not very PC of PeeCee.
All of this, I think, goes back to a very simple question: “Do I have the ability to help people in need?” The answer is usually yes, for everyone, but should especially be acted upon by those with the blessings of extraordinary wealth and influence. Priyanka Chopra Jonas, it’s time to tap into that joint savings account of combined Disney Channel-Dostana wealth and do better.