In August 2016, Saloni Chopra posted a series of photos on Instagram. They depicted the actor holding cigarettes and placards that read, “I’m a virgin,” “I’m an introvert,” or “I want to explore my sexuality,” with captions that explained why a woman should feel comfortable in her body, and why no one had the right to judge her for it.
In other posts, “I’m a rape victim,” and “I didn’t deserve it,” she recounted the experience of survivors of sexual assault.
Her series went viral. Not only because of her provocative photos but because her campaign came soon after she had declared her support for the global hashtag: #FreeTheNipple. In July, Saloni had posted a picture holding up a bra, criticizing social hypocrisy about exposed bra straps.
“#FreeTheNipple argues that men and women should be granted the same freedoms, and protection, under the law. The campaign is asking for gender equality and opposing sexual objectification,” she explained later in a video and on her website.
Instead, the MTV Girls on Top actor and social-media icon was attacked for being a “pseudo feminist”, “a publicity whore”, and for diverting attention from “real women’s issues”. Her critics used her posts to slut-shame her, ironically proving her point: misogyny is ingrained in social mores, and internalized by women themselves.
But the controversy also earned her an army of new supporters, and the follower count on her Instagram handle @redheadwayfarer swelled. The outspoken Saloni lost no opportunity to trigger discussion on rape and domestic violence; using current events to make statements; releasing videos to inspire discussions on sex and female pleasure; and her own body as a kind of performance art to hold up a mirror to viewers.
Do my exposed breasts or thighs make you uncomfortable? her pictures seem to ask. Does the sight of my menstrual blood leave you disgusted? her eyes question, defiantly.
It’s a huge career risk for an aspiring actor in India’s still-patriarchal entertainment industry to be this blunt, this honest, this woke, this firecracker vocal. But for Saloni, it is who she is. Take it or leave it.
Born in India, Saloni was brought up by her maternal grandparents in Adelaide, Australia, and continues to be very close to them. A quiet child, she preferred writing to speaking as she grew up. “It was a peaceful place but I wanted to get out of there,” she recalls. “The chaos of Mumbai attracted me.”
Though her mother – who was a stylist in Bollywood – had wanted Saloni to take up acting as a child, Saloni signed up to study fashion at NIFT Mumbai. Soon, however, the big screen beckoned, and she ended up as assistant director in films such as Hrithik Roshan-starrer Krrish 3 (2013) and Kick (2014), starring Salman Khan. Around the same time, she got together with a friend to make and produce Maya, a short film about post-rape trauma that won several awards and was even screened at Cannes.
Three years ago, she was offered the role of Isha Jaising in MTV’s Girls on Top, and she identified with it completely. “TV has awful hours,” she recalls jokingly of her year shooting a full season of the show. “It doesn’t matter if you have fever or a broken leg, the show must go on. The experience changed me,” she affirms.
What set Saloni apart in those years was how she refused to conform to social standards when it came to her body and looks. “Women role models are stereotyped into looking ‘pretty and perfect’,” she rues. “I’m an actor; it’s not my job to look pretty. My job is to perform and look the part.”
Her MTV season had another personal significance for Saloni: she had taken on her mother’s last name Chopra in her screen credits in deference to her brave single parent. Her decision to speak up for women’s rights was also born from having been through toxic relationships herself. “I dated some really horrible men who were controlling and sexist,” she recounts.
The experiences had sapped her of her confidence and self-love. “If this could happen to a girl raised in Australia, imagine how girls raised in India must feel, having been brought up with everyday sexism and being told they are to blame whenever anything goes wrong,” she says, adding, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Now I don’t take shit from anyone.”
Her observations about Indian men found their way to her web series Waking Up With Maggie in which she plays a girl who wakes up from one-night stands and confronts a strange new character in her bed each time. Her new web-series Screwed Up by filmmaker Harry Nath will be out this year.
The 27-year-old has taken her turbulent past in her stride and credits her challenges for shaping her personality. Her boyfriend Rahul Bhattacharya, a Melbourne-based lawyer and her childhood friend, travels frequently to spend time with her, and Saloni is unabashed about posting their romantic pictures on social media:
“The more you put yourself with all your truth out there, the more people relate to you.” Looking back at her trajectory, she says, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Cover photo by Amit Agarwal
First published as the cover story of eShe magazine’s May 2018 issue.
It was co-published on CNBC TV18.