Pali Kaur: Et tu, Neeru?

These celebrities have two choices right now - integrity or money.

Pali Kaur
April 22, 2021 | 4.5 min. read

The Punjabi entertainment industry has been forced to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic. Movie and album releases are delayed while entertainers suffer the brunt of the economic devastation COVID-19 left in its wake.  Acknowledging this, I have been very forgiving of artists who chose to associate with the anti-farmer and anti-Sikh Zee Entertainment company

When Sonam Bajwa started her talk show, Dil Diyan Gallan, on Zee Punjabi, I understood.  Here was an artist, possibly not getting the same caliber movie roles as before, looking for a guaranteed income. She has never been political before and quite frankly, I never expected her to “stand up” for the Farmers’ Protest.  

Upon further reflection though, I think I was wrong to forgive and forget Sonam’s choice.  I was mistaken about letting myself accept her decision to do a talk show on a Zee Entertainment network.  

The truth is without the farmers and laborers protesting outside Delhi and throughout Punjab, Sonam Bajwa would be no one. These demonstrators are braving an increasingly worsening pandemic as well as state violence. Her fans and movie audiences are the protestors.  Sonam and others like her have a duty to stand up for their audience.  If not for moral reasons, it seems self-preservation should be motive enough.  

Economists and laypeople alike argue that the implementation of India’s new farm laws would most likely decimate Punjab and Haryana’s economies. Crushed economies ultimately lead to declining ticket sales directly hitting Pollywood where it hurts.  A thriving Punjab is a thriving Punjabi entertainment industry. Sadly,  many stars chose to put their paychecks ahead of the economic well-being of their audience.

The Punjabi entertainment industry is chock full of men and women just like Sonam Bajwa,  people who barter in fake positivity and shallowness.  They do not touch on serious topics for fear of alienating certain groups or, my favorite, hurting sentiments. It is obvious from watching her talk show that Zee deliberately censors hosts to maintain a facade of happiness. 

It is especially jarring now because right outside its studio doors, the subcontinent is ablaze in righteous fury at the economic and health catastrophe Modi has created in India. 

The dissociation between what the media conglomerates are promoting versus the reality at the ground level has never been more vast.  Instead of accepting Sonam Bajwa’s whitewashing of reality, it is time we force these celebrities to get out of their gilded mansions and remember what it feels like to be a normal person.

Lest we focus solely on Sonam, what about Ammy Virk?  

He came out strong in support of the kisaan majdoor struggle.  His early endorsement of the farmers was key in mobilizing Punjab’s youth during those first few months.  But as the release of his new movie Puaada approached, he all but disappeared from the protest sites.  

Puaada stars the usual slew of actors- such as Seema Kaushal and Anita Devgan - both of whom have openly supported the protests. Just like for Ammy, it is difficult to parse out what position these actors should stake out now that they are publicly being associated with Zee Entertainment after the protests started.  Should they boycott their own films?  Did their contractual obligations begin before the protests?  

For Ammy, I must admit I  have a high bar.  After all, he openly stated that if it was not for things like the Minimum Support Price - a government subsidy at the core of the farmer protests- he could never have made his first album.  The only way for Ammy to justify his appearance in Puaada is that he is being forced to promote it through contractual obligations that started before the protests.  This is a question we should pose to Ammy and other stars of Puaada.  He and other stars need to be held accountable for their decisions.   

And then there is Neeru Bajwa, that ever-present member of Punjabi cinema.  

If the Punjabi audience was Caesar, Neeru would be its Brutus; its constant companion and loyal star.  But just like Brutus, she decided at the last minute to stab us where it hurts.  

Neeru is also now promoting her new show, Jazba, with Zee entertainment.  Even I did not see that one coming - although, in 20/20 hindsight, I guess I should have.  

Wow, Neeru, et tu?  A person would be nothing without the Punjabi audience?  You do not even live in India.  Modi cannot hurt you in Canada, tell us, why did you decide to sell out?  

These celebrities have two choices right now - integrity or money.  

Choosing money is a gamble though because there is no telling what the wrath of the Punjabi Sikh diaspora will look like as it becomes clearer and clearer who is on Punjab’s side.  What they should do is tell us why in the world they are working with Zee Entertainment. As fans and paying customers of their songs and films, we demand nothing less than full transparency.  

If it turns out that these celebrities deliberately and knowingly signed contracts with Zee Entertainment even after the company's anti-Sikh rhetoric and ties to Modi became common knowledge, then it is up to us to hold them accountable.  It is up to us to refuse to buy tickets or give them Youtube views.  The first test is now.  People like Neeru, Ammy, and Sonam must explain their actions.  

There are times when being apolitical, neutral, or silent are acceptable stances to take.  Sometimes it could even be a smart and wise move to make. But if your wealth and fame are built upon the backs of a community protesting the Indian government’s continued assaults against its livelihood, how can you remain silent?  

Let’s not support Neeru Bajwa’s endeavors or Ammy Virk’s movies until they come out with strong statements saying it is wrong for Zee Entertainment to malign farmers and Sikhs. It is wrong to blindly take a paycheck from a company that promotes harmful stereotypes about Punjabis. 

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Pali Kaur is a writer and educator based out of California. She works with immigrant communities, focusing on Spanish and Punjabi speakers. You can find her on Twitter at @wittypunjaban


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