Bollywood A-lister Deepika Padukone backs protesting students, faces boycott calls

MUMBAI - A top Indian actress who joined students protesting against the government drew calls on social media on Wednesday (Jan 8) for a boycott of her upcoming film, as well as praise for being a rare Bollywood A-lister to stand up against a crackdown on dissent.

Deepika Padukone stood silently behind students chanting anti-government slogans at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University on Tuesday evening, surprising many in a country where top film stars typically avoid politics.

Her act of solidarity came after masked men wielding sticks and rods stormed the JNU campus on Sunday, injuring some 30 people.

Students at JNU, regarded as a left-wing bastion, have protested for months against an announced fee hike as well as a new citizenship law, which critics say discriminates against Muslims and erodes India's secular constitution.

Students and some faculty blamed Sunday's assault on a student union with ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The student union has denied these allegations, blaming left-wing groups for the violence.

Pictures circulating online showing a solemn-faced Padukone standing behind an injured student leader, whose head was covered in a bandage, set off social media storm, raising calls for a boycott of her film Chhapaak (Splash), which is set to be released on Friday.

"#BoycottChhapaak" was Twitter's top trending topic in India on Wednesday, with more than 350,000 tweets on the subject. The film is based on the true story of a woman who survived an acid attack and re-built her life.

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"What a brazen & cheap tactic to promote a film!" wrote one Twitter user about Padukone.

"She chooses JNU where leftists who want to break India dominate!" tweeted another.

Some outspoken Bollywood figures lauded Padukone though, and vowed to support Chhapaak.

"Let's all those who stand against the violence go to #bookmyshow and show them," tweeted director Anurag Kashyap.

Padukone, who starred in the 2017 action film xXx: Return of Xander Cage with Vin Diesel, does not appear to have made any statement on Tuesday. She was not available for comment on Wednesday, her spokeswoman said.

The protests sweeping India in the last few weeks have posed a dilemma for Bollywood, which has some big-name Muslim actors but is sensitive to the sentiments of the country's Hindu majority.

"The reason why a whole lot of stars back away from making statements is because they are afraid of the consequences it will have on their films," said brand consultant and columnist Santosh Desai.

"To do this so close to a film is certainly risky."