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As Minority Persecution Soars, Hollywood Celebrities are Helping India With Image Correction

As Minority Persecution Soars, Hollywood Celebrities are Helping India With Image Correction

  • Zendaya, Penelope Cruz, Tom Holland, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and others were in Mumbai recently as guests of a media house that is abetting a regime that is orchestrating the persecution of minorities.

The grand opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in Mumbai recently was exactly what one would expect from a gala hosted by the family of Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in Asia. From the Met Gala-level opulence to the star-studded guest list, the NMACC event had a clear purpose: to draw the world’s attention to India’s soft power. And draw, it did.

International celebrities like Penelope Cruz, Tom Holland, Nick Jonas, and Poorna Jagannathan, along with models and artists like Neelam Gill and Jasmine Wahi, all strutted in Indian designer pieces on the red carpet. Photos of Zendaya gliding in a sparkling violet sari all but broke the internet, as did clips of Priyanka Chopra Jonas rushing onstage to the beat of “Galla Goodiyan” and the swirl of Gigi Hadid’s hand-embellished sari as Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan swept her right off her feet. Several of these stars posted messages thanking the Ambanis for a dazzling event, gushing praises about India. 

All in all, the NMACC gala fulfilled its purpose. But its beauty runs skin-deep only. 

Take a step back from the glitter and the gold, and Mukesh Ambani’s political ties become uncomfortably prominent. A close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ambani has used his wealth as a Fortune 500 company chairman to further the Hindu far-right movement in India. And by thanking him, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the celebrity guests of the NMACC gala were helping blind the world to India’s much more frightening reality. 

Ambani is the rich friend of a politician accused of facilitating mass violence against Muslims. At worst, he can be described as an enabler. He has seized control of a sweeping portion of India’s mainstream media outlets, reducing them to propaganda mouthpieces for the Modi regime and crushing a vital pillar of democracy. One of the major channels he owns, News18, was fined by a news regulatory body for spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and celebrating the persecution of Muslims during prime-time shows. One of his media subsidiaries pumps millions into helping Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sweep elections across India by spreading pro-BJP and anti-Muslim misinformation via Facebook advertisements — including in defense of a BJP politician who stands accused of terrorism.

The NMACC isn’t just another inconsequential party for the rich and famous. These celebrities are directly helping Ambani — and by extension, Modi — with India’s image correction, especially as mob lynchings, anti-minority violence, and hero worship of Modi becomes the new normal. 

More can and should be expected from these stars. Especially since they’re not strangers to criticizing fascism and hatred. 

It’s troubling, then, that Gigi thanked the Ambanis for hosting her in Mumbai — a city where, just a week before the NMACC Gala, the government deployed a bulldozer to demolish the home of an elderly Muslim man, while a Hindu militant group demanded the razing of a Muslim shrine.

Gigi Hadid has made headlines repeatedly for her open support of Palestine, and no amount of lambasting from Israeli lobby groups has stopped her. Yet India’s Hindu supremacist government has a bulldozer fetish copied straight from Israel. The heavy machinery is used to flatten hundreds of Muslim-owned homes, businesses, and places of worship across the nation. The bulldozer has become a way, as Indian activist Afreen Fatima puts it, to “collectively punish” Muslims for dissent or fighting back against Hindu extremist mobs, and even simply for existing. 

Media companies under Ambani’s control call this “law and order.” Amnesty International calls it a violation of international human rights law. 

It’s troubling, then, that Gigi thanked the Ambanis for hosting her in Mumbai — a city where, just a week before the NMACC Gala, the government deployed a bulldozer to demolish the home of an elderly Muslim man, while a Hindu militant group demanded the razing of a Muslim shrine.

Similarly, Penelope Cruz was one of the dozens of Spanish celebrities who signed a letter urging the European Union to denounce Israel’s “genocide” against Palestinians in 2014. India, too, is witnessing a push for a Muslim genocide — one that is also driven by the media that Ambani so heavily controls. The anti-Muslim messaging has become so rampant last year, the Editors’ Guild of India compared the mainstream media to Radio Rwanda.

Poorna Jagannathan, who played the mother of Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s character in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” was also a producer for playwright Yael Farber’s “Nirbhaya.” The play tells the story of one of India’s most brutal gang rape cases and opens up a broader conversation about sexual violence in India. In Modi and Ambani’s India, men who gang-rape Muslim women are released from prison and garlanded as heroes, while Hindu women have their relationships with Muslim men policed by pro-Modi militant groups.

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Curator Jasmine Wahi has declared in an interview that she “speak[s] out against what [is] inherently wrong or oppressive,” either to herself or to others. She’s also a vocal critic of Donald Trump for his blatant racism and sexism. Trump and Modi have gushed each other’s praises and share similar goals: removing Muslims from their countries, belittling women, and raising fascist fanbases.

Priyanka Chopra especially can do better. The double standard in her values is glaringly obvious. Last year, she lauded Iranian women for protesting the regime’s attempt to police their clothing — but was noticeably silent after young Muslim women were forced out of school in India’s Karnataka state for choosing to wear the hijab, all while being threatened and doxxed by Hindu militant groups, politicians, and Ambani-owned news channels.    

Some might say that every nation has its problems. Should we then demand celebrities do better after every appearance in every inevitably flawed nation? No one went up in arms against Gigi and Zendaya for attending the Met Gala while Trump was president, just as no one lambasts the celebrities at Paris Fashion Week simply for being in a country ridden with anti-blackness and Islamophobia.   

The difference here is that the NMACC’s stars were guests of the Ambani family, while Mukesh Ambani’s agenda is on display for all to see. No one should be helping him sanitize India’s image. Especially not at a time when the Genocide Watch has put India on the eighth stage of genocide out of ten. 

“It was an honor to be there to witness your family’s vision come to life,” Gigi Hadid told the Ambanis in a tagged Instagram post. But the Ambanis’ full vision of India is nothing to be celebrated. 

Safa Ahmed is an Independent Indian-American journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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  • Completely biased. Having a perspective and then applying it to all that comes out of India without checking facts and declaring it as the new normal is absurd. Progress / development / giving a platform to arts is what is important here.

  • Did she conveniently forget the current administrations gift to muslim women and kids by making *unlawful* the cruel and retrograde practise of triple talaq or gift to spiritual muslims by negotiating an increased quota with Saudi Arabia for haj pilgrimage or funding to madrassas for laptops and technical education. These paid pipers of left liberals should not be given a voice on American Kahani.

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