Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 5 May 2018

AMRITA PRASAD speaks to feminist authors, and Bollywood artists to find out why the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns from the West failed to gain momentum in India

MeToo was not just another hashtag on social media but a full-fledged movement that revealed the ugly side of Hollywood, casting couch and sexual abuse being among its dark secrets. The trigger for the movement was a tweet by Alyssa Milano who used #MeToo to speak up against sexual harassment. It instantly encouraged other women to open up about their own horrid experiences. Among them were many A-list Hollywood female stars who accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Soon MeToo took the shape of a mass movement. Hollywood’s big names — Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Anna Paquin, Sheryl Crow, Meryl Streep showed their agitation at the 75th Golden Globe Awards by kickstarting the #TimesUp movement to raise a united voice against sexual harassment and stand in solidarity. But while this became a worldwide phenomenon, giving women the courage to speak up about their suffering, closer home, the scenario wasn’t much positive, especially in Bollywood.

There have been some murmurs about casting couch and how actors are asked to ‘compromise’ for a role or touched ‘inappropriately’, but sadly, the voice hasn’t been strong and loud enough to create ripples. While actors like Richa Chadha, Kalki Koechlin, Sri Reddy, Radhika Apte, Farhan Akhtar, Ranveer Singh, Usha Jadhav, Mahi Gill and a few others have spoken about the dirty secret, the violators have not been named and unmasked like they were in Hollywood. 

The problem is that Bollywood has never really united as an industry to protest against this. From Shah Rukh Khan to Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit to Deepika Padukone and all the powerful names who often express their dismay at other social evils, kept mum on the topic of casting couch. 

“That’s because we are reared on a culture of shameful silence in India and conditioned to never report sexual abuse even to the family,” says author Sreemoyee Piu Kundu. “Rape or any sexual violence is often seen as a woman’s fault. Politicians playing the moral police connect the length of a skirt to inviting lust in men. Our films objectify women all the time and get away, becoming Rs 500 crore blockbusters. There is no criminalisation of marital rape as providing sex to a husband is seen as within a wife’s duty. So our entire cultural fabric is flawed,” she argues.

Recently ace choreographer Saroj Khan made an objectionable statement when she was asked to give her opinion on South Indian actor Sri Reddy’s going topless to protest against sexual abuse. She said, “This has been happening for ages and it happens in all other industries. Even people in the government abuse girls and women, why are you after the film industry? The industry also provides livelihood, it does not discard a woman after that.” 

Actor Rakhi Sawant too defended  the Ek Do Teen choreographer. “Nobody rapes anyone in this film industry. It’s all consensual and voluntary,” she stated.

When we reached out to Anupriya Goenka, the actor who has worked in films like Padmaavat, Tiger Zinda Hai and created quite a stir when she appeared as a lesbian in a brand campaign, she said that it was indeed great to see what the MeToo campaign has achieved in the West. “The outpourings were upsetting in every way,” she says, adding, “In India, I did see a lot of updates on social media along with some men in my circle too realising what women go through but I guess each revolution takes its own course. Right now, Pakistan is on it, you never know, India could be next.” She was referring to Pakistani actor-singer Ali Zafar who has been accused of sexual abuse by singer-actor Meesha Safi.

Sathya Saran, senior journalist, author and columnist, says, “Cases of abuse that I am aware of died down because the women wanted no scandal. When they spoke up, they were penalised or forced to leave their jobs and they had no one to turn to.”

Very often, when Bollywood celebs are questioned about casting couch, they ask, ‘Why only Bollywood? Sexual harassment happens in every industry.’ 

So are we expecting too much from Bollywood and its stars? No! Celebs are turning into activists and coming out on streets protesting against rape cases, unjust demands of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), animal abuse and farmers’ sufferings, then why can’t they decry something that is prevalent in their own industry? 

Says Sreemoyee who wrote Status Single: The Truth About Being A Single Woman in India, “Bollywood is a fake place and this was recently proven by an icon like Amitabh Bachchan who said ‘discussing rape disgusts him’. Heroines who are top stars perform lewd double- meaning item songs. Those touted as feminists, like Kangana Ranaut, gain their five seconds of popularity by mudslinging men they slept with, post a big release. Also, there are no associations that protect women’s rights or fight for gender parity. Women are second fiddle in this misogynistic male-dominated movie industry where sexual exploitation is tacit.”

Goenka feels that there can’t be a comparison between Hollywood and Bollywood. “Maybe we need more time, more unity, the assurance that once a girl speaks up, she won’t be targetted further. Women are shamed and the media has a huge role to play here. The scenario in each country is different and hence such movements are ignited differently. “Right now, we are fighting for change in punishments for rapists in our country. The pressing issue is safely of our girls and punishing the guilty in a manner that deters others,” she points out.

Answering why Bollywood is always mentioned in such issues, Saran says that it’s perhaps because there is still desperation in those seeking to become stars. “I believe that the profiles of both actors and directors are changing. Or I hope so. There have been cry-outs but the resultant notoriety scares many off,” she believes. There are strong women’s organisations which can take up an aggrieved person’s cause, provided they approach them. The media too needs more sensitivity and should shame the offender, she suggests.

Barkha Dutt, senior journalist and media personality, in an extensive analytical article published in Vogue magazine, questioned Bollywood’s silence on casting couch and asked whether India had missed the #MeToo movement. In the West, initially it was just Harvey, but soon other big names like  Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Terry Richradson and so on were named. 

In India, Tehelka editor Tarul Tejpal, Nobel Prize winner RK Pachauri, and historian and impresario Mahmood Farooqui who has been acquitted, were accused of sexual harassment but there are many other names that need to be spelt out. Says Barkha, while talking about an actor who faced sexual harassment, “When she shared her story with me on a public forum, she chose to do so behind the opacity of a screen, from where she could be heard but not seen. She needed the anonymity to stave off social pressure. The fight for justice made her brittle; it was almost more demanding and exhausting than the original experience.” 

The recently aired BBC World News documentary Bollywood’s Dark Secret features actors Usha Jadhav, Radhika Apte, and Kalki Koechlin, and Farhan Akhtar, who speak about the obstacles to Bollywood’s #MeToo moment. It also depicts the harrowing experiences of an anonymous 25-year-old aspiring actor recalling being touched inappropriately by a casting agent at the age of 19. Says Radhika, “I have started talking about it openly… I do understand and empathise with a lot of women who are scared to talk about these things.”

Farhan, who founded MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) said that he would support women in Bollywood speaking out about abuse they say they’ve faced. “I would trust the women when they say it exists, I completely trust them.” He believes Bollywood’s #MeToo moment is on its way. “It’ll only change through women speaking up, some amount of shaming that will put fear into people’s hearts,” he adds.

National Award-winning actor Usha Jadhav feels it’s time we came out and spoke. “I have faced it. I am facing it.” Usha was rejected for a role because she refused to compromise.

Recently, Dev-D actor Mahie Gill too opened up about her unpleasant experiences. “I was so new to Mumbai, I didn’t know whom to trust. And when people know that you are new to the industry and struggling, you are taken for a ride. It’s very difficult to meet the right kind of people,” she was quoted saying.

Richa Chadha, who has always been vocal about issues, had said on a blog, “When Bollywood opens up on sexual harassment, we will lose a lot of heroes.” When we met her recently on the sets of her upcoming film Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai, she said, “I haven’t faced it because nobody dares to speak to me in a disrespectful manner. I strongly believe that no other girl should face it or succumb to it either. I do understand that some of them have certain compulsions but one should make one’s choices very carefully. It all boils down to how strong you are and how you conduct yourself.”

“You can’t ask Bollywood people to speak because when we take a stand, we are trolled, abused, victimised and targeted. There is a targeted campaign: you will be dropped from brands and your films will be boycotted,” she adds. Bollywood is just a microcosm of the country and so she doesn’t see “#Metoo #Timesup happening anytime soon in India.”

Richa says that she was a little hopeful earlier but now with so many rape cases surfacing, she doesn’t see things changing. “In this age, rapists are sitting in the Parliament, temples, mosques. I was positive in the past but now I have no hopes from the government, the judiciary or from the press,” she argues.

The open and fearless discussion against sexual harassment that we await, clearly seems like a far-fetched dream but we on our part will keep writing about it, talking about it, and hoping that #MeToo and #TimesUp come home big and loud.

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