#MeToo: Cinema

The Female Lead

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A new awakening in Hindi cinema

IT’S A REGULAR AFTERNOON ON A FILM LOCATION IN MUMBAI. A MASSIVE SET HAS BEEN erected, over 50 actors are ready in their positions, and everyone is looking up to one man, the director. Except, the director in question is Anurag Kashyap. Just recently, he announced that his company Phantom Films (which he owned with Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl) has been dissolved—the outcome of a sexual-assault allegation against his business partner Bahl. Kashyap is visibly distracted this afternoon, his attention flitting between his incessantly ringing phone and the monitor that shows the scene he’s supposed to shoot. “I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out for the next few days, but I’m ready to take anything that comes my way. I’m going to stand up for what’s right, and I am not backing off,” Kashyap is overheard saying.

It’s been a testing week, to say the least. The last few days have seen a tide turn in the Indian film industry, with women stepping out to name and shame alleged sexual offenders within it. For the first time in its history, women have chosen to acknowledge and speak out against sexual exploitation in numbers large—and voices loud—enough to make a power shift in this male-dominated business seem well within the realm of possibility if not exactly inevitable.

“It’s been very tough, but I’m holding on not for my sake any more, but for the millions who have been and are suffering in silence” - Tanushree Dutta

The MeToo-TimesUp movement in India that gained momentum with actress Tanushree Dutta accusing actor Nana Patekar of sexual harassment, and filing an FIR against him, is now unfolding on social media. These are stories of harassment, abuse, intimidation and even rape, revealed by women actors and other professionals of Hindi and South Indian cinema. Women have reported bad, brutal and harrowing instances on Facebook and Twitter, exposing misogyny levels that have shocked people. While the accused grapple with shame, for the women it has been cathartic, challenging and empowering in more ways than one.

From Tanushree Dutta, who has provided video evidence of assault on the sets of her film Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss (2009), to a female ex-employee of Phantom Films who has accused director-producer Vikas Bahl of sexual abuse after a film party, women are calling out their assailants. Then there is Vinta Nanda, who wrote a detailed 1,000-word account on how she was forcibly intoxicated and raped by popular veteran actor Alok Nath in 1999. Sandhya Mridul has also accused Alok Nath of sexual harassment in a detailed account. Another allegation comes from Flora Saini, an actor who has shared pictures depicting physical abuse by producer and ex-boyfriend Gaurang Doshi. Filmmaker Rajat Kapoor and writer Chetan Bhagat have both been accused of indecent behaviour by journalists. Another young actor who says she’d looked up to Rajat Kapoor as her idol has anonymously shared an account of how he flirted with her during a meeting and kept trying to kiss her during a car journey.

“What happened to Phantom Films was three years ago. Vikas Bahl still went ahead and did a multi-crore film with an A-list actor. What changed then? Nothing” - Aahana Kumra

The list doesn’t end there. Gursimran Khamba and Utsav Chakraborty of the popular comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) have both been accused of inappropriate behaviour by women who have known them personally. So has comedian Kanan Gill and Varun Grover. Singer Kailash Kher has been accused of misbehaviour by fellow musician Sona Mohapatra and other women singers who say he touched them inappropriately during recordings or meetings. Singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya joins him as another accused. Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu, Malayalam actor Mukesh and composer Gopi Sundar, too, have been accused of sexual harassment. It’s obvious that a long-held silence is being broken on various forms of sexual misbehaviour that appear to have been the norm in the film industry.

For Tanushree Dutta, who has become the face of the movement in Mumbai, its impact has been larger than she expected. She was trolled and threatened repeatedly for sharing her story, but now feels she’s responsible for many voices other than her own. “It’s been very tough, but I’m holding on not for my sake any more, but for the sake of millions who have been and are suffering in silence. The support is overwhelming and coming from all over the place. I came here to fight for my story, but I have been made part of so many stories that resemble mine. If this is what it takes to bring about change, I will be with it till the very end,” she says.

Journalist Janice Sequeira, who has reported on films for over a decade, was the first to corroborate Dutta’s story, even when many accused her of fabricating it or coming out with it too late. “She spoke about it in 2008 and she spoke about it now. Her story hasn’t changed for 10 years. So how can she be lying? I know so many actresses, so many technicians, costume stylists who have gone through this, but they don’t come out and speak because there is too much backlash. Be it pay parity or roles in films or the hierarchy in production houses, our industry is built to subjugate women. Women are confused if they should come out. They [worry] if it will be the end of their career, which really could be the case. But the film industry is also at a very interesting point today,” says Sequeira. “The narrative is such, you cannot be on the wrong side of this conversation.”

Others are adding force to the movement, from Sonam Kapoor Ahuja to Swara Bhasker to Richa Chadha. Many women have found their voice after reading stories by their colleagues or counterparts. Many, who may not have spoken out even when they were harassed, now feel people are finally ready to listen. Vinta Nanda, who came out with her story after two decades, says, “I have carried this trauma with me forever now. I couldn’t sit within 15 feet of a man; I had internalised it to that level. Earlier I wrote a column about how Alok Nath destroyed my personal and professional life, but no one paid heed. Everyone knew what had happened, but no one wanted to talk about it. They asked me to put it behind me. The fact that I spoke about it made me a villain. Today’s environment is such that I was motivated to speak. Silence has severe consequences, but the movement that I see now makes me feel liberated. I feel like I can finally live my life.”

“Silence has severe consequences, but the movement that I see now makes me feel liberated . I feel like I can finally live my life” - Vinta Nanda

Flora Saini adds that she was threatened in 2007 that she’d never be cast in a film and would be ostracised from the industry if she named her abuser. “It’s taken 11 years, but finally the time has come. I knew that speaking up today will not just help me heal, but I will be heard—by not just family or friends, but by people who work in this industry every single day. Which is all someone like me wanted at that time. To be heard,” she says.

“The fact that many of us are standing together in itself is a win,” says Richa Chadha, “There is a lot of power in numbers, but we need to exercise it well.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT WOMEN in the Indian film industry have spoken out against violence or exploitation within the work space. Recently, Malayalam actor Dileep was arrested for orchestrating an attack on a female actor in a moving car. The woman mustered the courage to file a police complaint against him and his accomplices. Her story pushed many working women within Malayalam cinema to form a collective in her support and against the constant misogyny they have to put up with. “What we did was a beginning. We need to protect ourselves and no one else will look out for us if we as women don’t support each other. I am reading so many stories now, and this won’t stop. Unless things change and women feel safer, this won’t stop,” says actor Parvathy who has been at the forefront of the Women in Cinema Collective. “On the sets of a film I was shooting in Kerala, a production controller came up to me and said if I was looking for good roles, I needed to ‘compromise’. Only after I told him to go and say this on news channels did he leave me alone,” says another Malayalam woman actor who doesn’t wish to be named.

“The change in power structure will take time. Even today, women constitute only 20-25 per cent of most film sets” - Nandita Das

For those working in the Hindi film industry for decades, this is a defining shift. Nandita Das, an outspoken filmmaker and feminist, says, “Over the last 22 years, I have heard many stories of misconduct. The change in power structure will take time. Even today, women constitute only 20-25 per cent of most film sets. But in Bollywood and Hollywood, women are slowly increasing their presence and roles. Things will change, but we cannot wait for that long to address this urgent issue. Even in the past, there have been instances of threats, defamation suits, and even FIRs against victims with no real consequences for the alleged accused. This time is different; for instance, unlike in the past when such discussions disappeared all too quickly from the media, this time it appears that more people are listening.”

“The fact that many of us are standing together in this itself is a win. There is a lot of power in numbers, but we need to exercise it well” - Richa Chadha

Veteran film journalist Indu Mirani, who has observed Hindi cinema culture up close for decades, believes that patriarchy is entrenched in the industry. Film sets would be intimidating, and female actors labelled ‘outdoor artists’ were passed along from man to man in the course of a shoot, she says. “Neither female actors nor women journalists were safe around a film set. There would always be suggestions, innuendos, and if you saw an actress’ mother accompanying her on set, it was pretty much because she wanted to avoid unwarranted attention from her director or the actor she’s cast opposite. The industry functioned like an old boys’ club in those days, where women who would not comply would simply not be given work. I remember Poonam Dhillon telling me how she’d always carry a book on set and sit in a corner during shoots just so nobody would approach her. Actors now are more educated, empowered, the narrative of the film industry is slowly changing with women taking on substantial roles both on and off screen, and one only hopes this changes their lives for the better,” says Mirani. “Sexual harassment in films comes from a stereotypical perception that women in these professions are ‘available’. It’s rooted in patriarchy and power, and needs to be broken bit by bit. Women are not ashamed anymore because they are aware it isn’t their fault,” says Anna Chandy, who has been a counsellor for many film stars in India.

“We need thorough, investigative journalism that questions alleged perpetrators as well as victims, and corroborates stories” - Swara Bhasker

The past 10 years have seen a significant shift in attitudes of both genders within the industry. Women are not just speaking up for themselves, but telling their stories their own way, both on and off screen. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt recounts how his daughter Pooja went up on stage earlier this year during an India Today Conclave in Kolkata and shared her story of abuse. “She went up there and spoke the truth. When individuals come out with the truth and speak of their experiences, it has the power to change the course of history,” says Mahesh Bhatt. “I’ve been a part of this industry for 50 years and since then women have come a long way. Now, the men need to support the women when they are shedding their political silence. There are innumerable friends of ours who have been accused of insulting the dignity of women. I don’t think we have the equipment to arrive at absolute truth or what really happened. That doesn’t mean you must hide behind the status quo and leave things as they are. If the court of public opinion is stronger than the court of law, then so be it.”

“We need to protect ourselves and no one else will look out for us if we as women don’t support each other. I am reading so many stories now, and this won’t stop” - Parvathy

Neeraj Ghaywan and Hansal Mehta are among the few male filmmakers who have condemned colleagues like Bahl in clear terms so far. Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane—who have been accused of being silent spectators to the doings within their company—have apologised for how long it’s taken them to talk about this and promised to set things right. Ghaywan said in a Facebook post after the story broke: ‘I allowed myself to work where such toxic male behaviour and a perverse patriarchal mindset fostered. I am extremely sorry I didn’t push hard enough. I can only promise, which may sound meaningless at this point, that I will do whatever it takes to break this culture of enabling the predatory behaviour. I will make sure that at least 30% of the entire crew and half of the HODs of any project I work on are women because women in power positions will ensure that such incidents are not overlooked by men in the hierarchy.’

Slowly but surely, producers and film associations are looking to include clauses that protect members of the cast and crew from sexual abuse on sets or within production houses. Recently, producer Ronnie Screwvala sent an email to all the directors within RSVP, his production house, that there will be a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment on any film set under that banner. Hansal Mehta, who is a part of RSVP, says, “When clear policies like these are set on paper, you feel like justice will be done, even if a problem arises on set. Also harassment is gender-neutral, and though women in our industry deserve all the support they need, I believe any kind of harassment should be put under scrutiny irrespective of gender.”

“We have to be responsible about naming people. Media trials have also ruined reputations and families. We have to be very balanced about this” - Pooja Bhatt

In the wake of numerous allegations the Cine and TV Artists Association (CINTAA) is also looking at more stringent guidelines to punish those proven guilty of assault. “We are also actively looking to make the working environment healthy and safe for our members, but we are not sure if notices can be issued only on the basis of social media posts. My personal stand remains that I will not work with the likes of Alok Nath ever in future, but we have to be careful to not set any precedent which might be misused to victimise innocent members,” says actor Sushant Singh, general secretary, CINTAA.

The movement is not without its flaws. Though it seems to have empowered women to share their stories, it also has made many men who may be innocent susceptible to blame. Social media doesn’t screen statements and that has proven to be dangerous. Women from the industry themselves have been requesting their friends and colleagues to tweet responsibly so that reputations are not ruined for no valid reason. “Our stories need to move beyond hashtags,” says actor Swara Bhasker, “I do think until there is more responsible writing, fact-checking and research, we won’t reach where we want to. It is imperative that anonymous accounts be discouraged. Brave women are sharing their names and stories, enabling other women to speak up. We need thorough, investigative journalism that questions both alleged perpetrators and victims, and corroborates stories.”

Casual name-calling, many believe, is trivialising MeToo. “We have to be responsible about naming people. Media trials have also ruined reputations and families. We have to be very balanced about this,” says Pooja Bhatt.

In May this year, 82 female stars joined hands in a red-carpet protest at the Cannes Film Festival to demand equal pay and an end to sexual harassment. Rasika Dugal, who was part of thatmovement, along with Nandita Das, says, “It was a very powerful moment. As if there was an unspoken understanding of the battles that we have had to fight to be here and will have to continue to in the future. It was a very emotional moment to know that you are not alone.”

HE CANNES MARCH WAS LED BY THE LIKES of Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek, following the downfall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Unfortunately, apart from Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, A-listers of the Indian film industry have been rather silent. Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao issued a statement, committing to ‘doing any and every thing to make our film industry a safe one to work in’. Amitabh Bachchan said at a press conference that he didn’t have an opinion on the issue since he was neither an accused nor a victim. “Nobody takes names in India,” says actor Aahana Kumra of Lipstick under My Burkha (2016) who has been very vocal about women’s empowerment in cinema. “We are outsiders. We have to struggle to get jobs and we are easy targets. But I’m pretty sure none of the bigwigs will support it. They are all one big happy family. What happened to Phantom Films was three years ago. Vikas Bahl still went ahead and did a multi-crore film with an A-list actor. What changed then? Nothing.”

Change takes time, and one day at a time seems to be the motto of India’s MeToo movement in this industry. Vikas Bahl has been ousted from a web series with Amazon and a feature film called 83 starring Ranveer Singh. The Mumbai film festival (MAMI) has refused to screen films of Rajat Kapoor and AIB in support of the movement. Anurag Kashyap has announced that he is stepping back from his duties as a board member of MAMI. Alok Nath has been sent a show-cause notice by CINTAA. Rajat Kapoor has issued a public apology for his behaviour.

How much of this will bring about true equality within the industry remains unclear. But something surely has to change. It has to. As Nandita Das says, “In India, there has been a deafening silence thus far because women feel more vulnerable in a patriarchal society and a male-dominated industry, and fear being ostracised and further attacked. In that context, what is happening is a real breakthrough. Continuous momentum in the right direction will definitely make a difference.”

Legal convictions are yet to happen, but thanks to these women, we can hope that men in in the industry will act with care and caution. Now a casting director will think twice before asking an upcoming actor out for a drink. Or a director will never enter the vanity van of a woman actor without knocking first. Or a superstar will keep his hands off when a fresher learns dance moves with him.

Boundaries are being defined. No one should cross them.

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