True Fiction: Leonardo DiCaprio Wades Into War Over Water In India

Leo about to drop
Leo about to drop
Sophie Collender and Sruthi Gottipati

Around the world, local water shortages are a very real sign of the effects of climate change. Drought conditions in certain areas of India have recently left some cities reeling, leading to new political tensions. Meanwhile, last weekend, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Washington, D.C. and around the United States to demand more environmental protection. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose foundation has long fought against global warming, was front and center.

For our latest installment of True Fiction, we imagined a visit by DiCaprio to a small, drought-afflicted village in India.

May 28, 2018*

Leo wipes a drop of sweat descending from his hairline to his brow. The blistering heat drowns out his thoughts as he leans on a makeshift podium. He gazes across the crowded hall in the Indian village, taking in the thousands of faces watching expectantly, waiting for him to speak.

Another drop of sweat slides down his spine. He gazes at his water bottle and is overcome by disappointment, realizing he drank the last splash minutes before. The temperature is 45 °C and the sun is unforgiving. His lips are dry as he takes a deep breath.

"Good afternoon, everyone," he croaks. "My name is Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm here to present the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and tell you how we hope to help you overcome this terrible water crisis that is the fault of no one in this room."

He pauses, licks his lips. Just focus. He feels a tremor in his knee. Dark spots flood his vision.

Leo's mouth creeps open as he tries to formulate words, but no sound emerges. The sea of people suddenly disappears as his eyelids droop, pulled shut by the palpable weight of the air. As if his leg muscles have suddenly snapped, he tumbles to the ground.

The hard cement floor is cool against his sweat-soaked polo shirt, as he feels a hand on his shoulder. An Indian medic has rushed over to take his pulse.

"Mr. DiCaprio! Mr. DiCaprio, can you hear me?" Muffled desperate tones, weaving in and out of consciousness. Then, the whirring of a helicopter. Then nothing.

An offer he refused

Like many successful Hollywood actors, Leonardo DiCaprio dabbles in philanthropy between film projects. In 1998 he created his foundation, dedicated to the promotion of environmental awareness. When he is not smiling on the red carpet, he works to protect wild tigers in Nepal and prevent oil drilling in the Arctic. His assistants spend countless hours researching causes in need of attention.

Winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 2015 film The Revenant gave DiCaprio's cause a big boost, so when an assistant sent him an article about an obscure water dispute between two states in southern India, Leo decided the cause sounded just perfect.

In his eco-chic Battery Park City condo that pumps out twice-filtered air and filtered water to residents, DiCaprio grabbed his phone and called his secretary. Within minutes, he was put in touch with a small NGO that helps rural Indians in drought-afflicted states. The group would facilitate his visit to the village near the western border of the Telengana state.

Within days, the trip to India is organized. Leo would fly into the bustling high-tech city of Hyderabad and a car would take him 90 miles south to the village where just weeks earlier there were riots over an inter-state water dispute. Telengana had been ordered by a national court in New Delhi to release river water to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The next day, a farmer committed suicide. Agitators said it was because of the ruling and riots broke out, claiming about 140 lives.

Leo was rehearsing for a new role — a Martin Scorsese film — when his assistant came to him with a strange message: The Indian prime minister was on the line.

"Leo speaking," he purrs into his cellphone. "Oh Prime Minister Modi! Yes, hello."

The increasingly imperious Narendra Modi, obsessed with his reelection bid less than a year away, was not pleased with the star's antics. The drought, and the ensuing riots, had gone little noticed around the world. No newspapers outside the country had picked up the story. Even inside India the situation had been dismissed as a local problem. But Leo's appearance threatened to change all that.

Modi tried to talk DiCaprio out of the appearance, inviting him instead to visit the western state of Gujarat where he had been chief minister for many years before being elected Indian prime minister. Wouldn't Leo like to see Gujarat's remarkable development? Its new, state-of-the-art factories? Maybe even explore investing there?

Leo laughed uneasily. "No thank you." He would be taking a tour of the drought-afflicted countryside and would speak at the village gathering. And yes, the media would be invited. Like a character in one of his movies, Leo would stand up for the rights of voiceless villagers against the powers-that-be. He hung up and continued to rehearse his script.

Twitter catches fire

The unexpected turn of events creates an instant frenzy among the New Delhi-based national media that had descended upon the small Indian village to cover DiCaprio's speech. It is all being broadcast live on Facebook. Social media platforms are on fire. Twitter is clogged with panicked rumors. Leo was shot. Leo is dead. Leo's been kidnapped. Leo was trampled in a riot.

Anderson Cooper, who'd been working on a CNN report on terrorism in Islamabad, is quickly dispatched. The newly named U.S. ambassador to India, Peter Thiel, charters a plane down to Hyderabad. Telengana state's chief minister is already on his way to the village. A response is being coordinated. News websites around the world flash breaking news about DiCaprio, even though no verified update or government statement has arrived for more than hours.

Leo flutters his eyelids, blinded by flashes of bright fluorescent light. He's on a bed. He rolls over to his side and feels a tug in his left arm. Squinting through one open eye he spots the thin transparent IV tube.

"Hello?" he mumbles.

A door swings open and a man in a perfectly trimmed beard and immaculate Nehru jacket strides up to his bedside.

"Mr. DiCaprio. How are you feeling?"

Leo lets out a dry cough: "Fine, thanks."

"You are severely dehydrated, Mr. DiCaprio," the man says, a quarter-smile forming on his lips.

It's Narendra Modi.

A translator explains to DiCaprio that he had been whisked away by an elite Indian army unit and treated by a doctor on the flight.

Modi moves to a window and peers outside.

Leo peers around; nothing beside the IV indicates that he's in a hospital. "Where am I now?," he asks.

Modi turns to him. "In Gujarat of course."

The Oscar winner pales.

"Tomorrow, when you feel better," the prime minister says, "we'll organize a visit for you around the state. We hope you won't mind the cameras."

*True Fiction: A narrative experiment for an era of fake news and hard-to-believe reality. (This piece was published on May 4, 2017)

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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