Last week, when a trailer of the American reality show The Activist hit social media, it also hit a collective raw nerve in India.
And Ayesha Malik found herself tagged on “hundreds” of tweets. Critics fear that the six “activists” on the CBS show will lock horns not really to create real impact, but to earn woke points on social media.
One of the judges in the show is Indian actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas, known for her role in the ABC series Quantico and the upcoming The Matrix sequel. Forbes listed her as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in 2018, while TIME counted her as among the 100 most influential people in the world. She’s married to American musician Nick Jonas.
“I’ve not commented on this show anywhere,” Malik, a human rights advocate who lives in Alaska, told VICE World News. “All I can say is, this is just so ironic.”
Malik’s stand-off with Chopra in 2019 is etched in the memory of most South Asians. The 30-year-old, who hails from Pakistan, had confronted Chopra at a public event in Los Angeles six months after India conducted airstrikes in Pakistani territory—the first since a war between the two countries in 1971. India and Pakistan have historically not gotten along, and their borders often see military aggression.
Malik said her family in Pakistan lived in abject fear as tensions escalated between the two countries. Chopra, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, was among the prominent Indians who supported the airstrikes back then. So when Malik took the mic and called her a “hypocrite” for calling herself a humanitarian and yet supporting military aggression against their neighbour, the mic was taken away from her hands.
Chopra infamously responded, “Whenever you’re done venting… got it, done? Okay, cool,” followed by “Girl, don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself,” when Malik tried to speak. The exchange went viral.
Two years on, Malik can’t help but call Chopra’s participation in The Activist ironic. “When there was a real activist speaking to her, she shut her down. She took the mic from her,” said Malik. “And the way I continue to get tagged on the show shows that I’m not the only one who thinks that.”
For most South Asians, 39-year-old Chopra is more than just an actor from India who made it big in Hollywood. In 2015, she became the first Indian-born woman to lead a primetime network show in the U.S, with Quantico. In 2016, she was the first South Asian to win the People’s Choice Award. She’s a musician, a film producer, philanthropist and author. She released her autobiography earlier this year.
Chopra has also spoken up about facing racism in the U.S. when she lived there as a teen, and misogyny in the Indian film industry.
When The Activist promo hit, many South Asians responded with memes and critiques.
But this is not the first time. Chopra has been criticised for Quantico’s plotline showing terrorism by Indian Hindu nationalists—and criticised again for apologising for it. Her first-ever music video Exotic was called out for pandering to the white gaze pushing stereotypes of South Asian bodies. She also promoted skin-whitening beauty products, which she admittedly regrets now. In 2016, she faced heat for wearing a tone-deaf printed tank top on a magazine cover.
“She’s like any other prominent person of colour where she’s forced into a situation of ‘Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,’” Professor Mythili Rajiva, who researches the South Asian diaspora in American popular culture with the University of Ottawa, told VICE World News.
Rajiva said Chopra’s presence in the largely “hegemonic” American popular culture is a feat. “What she’s achieved so far is itself very political,” she said. “South Asian people are relatively invisible in the cultural landscape of North America.”
In 2018, an article published by Cut, a part of New York magazine, was promptly pulled down for calling Chopra a “global scam artist” because of her accomplishments.
Rajiva said it is the structural failure of American popular culture, rather than Chopra’s, that had led to such criticism. “She’s not allowed to be an individual. Instead, she is one of the rare South Asians representing her community,” she said. “Until there are enough South Asians in Hollywood, this will continue to happen.”
Chopra rarely addressed the controversies she roused. During a The Guardian interview early this year, her staff prevented a journalist from asking about the 2019 debacle, saying it would risk “jeopardising” her relationship with her philanthropic partners. “I look at Chopra Jonas. Is that right, Priyanka – you don’t want to answer? Silence,” wrote journalist Simon Hattenstone.
In a cover story for Vogue India, Chopra said, “I don’t have everything figured out. I take risks and I enjoy them.”
Malik said even though Chopra meant a lot for South Asian diaspora communities such as hers, she had messed up “too many times.” “That day in 2019 when she tried to shut me up, I saw the curtains being pushed back. For many South Asians, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Malik. “I don’t think we’re harsh on her. If somebody from our community messes up and apologises, we’re cool with it. We’re all humans, after all. But Priyanka never did that.”
In the meantime, apart from Chopra, another The Activist judge, American musician Usher, has a problematic history, having been accused of sexual battery and fraud. American actor Julianne Hough, the third judge in the show, was criticised for using blackface in 2013. She apologised for it yesterday on her Instagram.
The show is produced by a company called Global Citizen, which was previously called out for “deflecting and crowding out real activism and replacing it with feel-good rhetoric, PR stunts, and reputation-laundering for some of the most anti-poor forces on Earth.”
Some on social media are calling to cancel the show.
Kim Saira, a Filipino-Chinese activist who was approached by the show creators but declined their offer, said that the show, which uses social media for the participants to milk their missions, ignores the fact that people of colour are often censored or shadowbanned for their activism. In the face of all this heat, Global Citizen told Deadline, “This is not a reality show to trivialize activism.”
Rajiva said celebrities are ultimately human beings, with their own feelings, biases and bad days. “It’s not just celebrities such as Priyanka who have to walk the fine line on public platforms. It’s all of us.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.