The good, the bad, and the ugly a year after the public airing of deeply personal pain in India’s film industry.
People who were called out are back at work; they have neither been proven guilty nor acquitted. On the other hand, women who came out have had to face a pushback from the industry.
NEW DELHI : A fortnight ago, a bevy of Bollywood stars made a beeline for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official residence in Delhi. The occasion was solemn: the Hindi film industry was celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. The theme was #ChangeWithin. And the central cultural act for the evening was a two-minute-long video directed by filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, featuring a slew of Bollywood A-listers.
Much like the suggested theme for that evening, Bollywood itself has been struggling with the question of “change within” ever since some women came forward with allegations of an entrenched culture of sexual harassment at the heart of the Hindi film industry, exactly a year ago. Hirani is possibly one of the most high-profile of those who were accused of sexual harassment at the height of the #MeToo movement.
Since January, when the allegations of sexual assault surfaced against the director who is known for heart-warming films like PK, 3 Idiots, and the Munnabhai series, Hirani has kept a low profile. But Hirani’s exile seems to be all but over. Days before the airing of his film at the Prime Minister’s residence late last month, Hirani was awarded the ‘Best Director in the last 20 years’ at the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards.
Bollywood’s moment of #MeToo reckoning covered a whole gamut: instances like Hirani’s, which hang in limbo, offering closure to neither the accused nor the accuser. Then, there are cases which wound through quasi-legal complaints committees, which left behind its own set of unhappy, unsatisfied participants. And a final set of allegations remain stuck in the country’s court system.
In the messy aftermath of the #MeToo movement, what did come out of the public airing of deeply personal pain? Did anything change as a result of the stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault that flooded the media this time last year? “Bombay’s film industry is a coterie. There is no denying that people here are now scared because of the impact of #MeToo. They are more aware, and more mindful,” said one film industry insider, who spoke to Mint on condition of anonymity. But having said that, everyone continues to talk about how “many big guns of Bollywood have almost miraculously not been named (yet),” the person added.
The main impact
A year down the line, even those who term what happened last October as a revolutionary movement claim to have mixed feelings now.
“The whole of last year has been very eventful,” said Tanushree Dutta, one of the first actors to stir up the conversation with her accusation against co-star Nana Patekar dating back to the sets of a 2008 film Horn ‘Ok’ Pleassss. “Basically, there is a dialogue that was started and it is upon us to take it forward,” she added.
The single biggest and most visible impact, said filmmaker Reema Kagti, was in terms of awareness—women now know their rights; they know what to put up with and what not. Kagti was one of 11 women filmmakers, including Alankrita Shrivastava, Kiran Rao, Konkona Sen Sharma, Meghna Gulzar and Nandita Das, who had come together last year and pledged to “not work with proven offenders”.
The other big consequence was that a lot of film and television production houses—at least those in the Mumbai industry—woke up to the conversation around them and started setting up sexual harassment cells, even though the law had mandated their presence for several years. In the Telugu film industry, the Telangana government itself took the lead to set up a 25-member committee to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.
“Within the movie industry, the most important realization has been that sexual harassment is linked to power dynamics,” explained Asiya Shervani, advisor and independent consultant working on issues relating to organizational effectiveness, ethics, and change management with several movie production houses and film festivals.
The idea that a male actor who speaks inappropriately or forcibly touches a junior make-up or costume assistant on a film set is indulging in sexual harassment is something Bollywood is finally beginning to wake up to. Some preventive work has started—the crew of a movie is now required to attend awareness workshops before the shoot begins, as long as the producers in question decide to take the initiative. However, the cast needs to be part of these workshops too, Shervani said.
“These are very early days and the only complaints coming to us right now are informal. If enablers and bystanders start speaking up, positive change will surely happen. It’s not fair to place the entire burden on victims,” Shervani said, adding that things that are currently becoming common are conversations along the lines of “I can tell you as a friend that he is a creep”.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, covers under its ambit even women employed on a contractual basis on a filmset—be it actors, assistants, or technicians. Each film company, like any other company in India, is required to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in place.
While the ICC’s are now slowly being put in place, it’s still a job done only on paper, people from the industry said.
Legal experts are quick to point out the many challenges that are beginning to surface. The options for a woman who has faced harassment on a filmset can be quite vague. For one, it is the responsibility of the employer, in this case the film producer, to protect the rights of women working on the set, and it can be tricky to ascertain who the employer is in some cases, since a lot of people come together to produce a film. What makes it tougher for the victim is the fact that even if there are functional ICCs, the person may possibly have to go to the committees of all the companies co-producing a film. Ideally, all the producers should come together and form a new overall ICC.
Secondly, in the absence of an ICC, the alternative for a victim is to go to a local complaints committee. That, again, is problematic because several shoots are held at outdoor locations or in foreign countries where the Indian law doesn’t necessarily apply. Further, one cannot complain about an incident that’s older than three months under the Act. But, often, shoots go on for several months and people may either have work-related constraints or the victim may not be ready to talk immediately.
Moreover, Chinmayi Sripada, one of the many women who had named Tamil lyricist Varaimuthu as a sexual offender, said even the rudimentary structure of the ICC is still missing outside Mumbai, like, for example, the Tamil film industry. These existing constraints will ensure that the #MeToo movement in India will largely remain a social media-driven phenomenon.
In the meantime, as Bollywood awaits those ideal circumstances, the repercussions for those who were “outed” last year have been minimal, said Kagti. “When we say there were no real repercussions, it’s because no cases were filed. People came out on social media, but you have to take the next step. And (given the social and legal constraints) I can see why they didn’t do it,” Kagti said.
Meenakshi Shedde, India and South Asia delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival and an independent curator, is quick to point out that the scene in Hollywood is radically different. Comic Bill Cosby and director-producer Sterling Van Wagenen have been sentenced to imprisonment, Harvey Weinstein is awaiting trial, and actor Kevin Spacey was dropped from House of Cards. Time’s Up, a movement initiated by Hollywood celebrities against sexual harassment, has raised more than $22 million for a legal defence fund and has assembled nearly 800 volunteer lawyers.
“Only the law can resolve the issue. The courts legitimately ask for evidence, but it is also important to acknowledge that evidence in certain kinds of cases is challenging,” Shedde said. “If it is not readily available, it does not mean that the accused is innocent either. Unfortunately, most MeToo accused people live in a grey limbo, neither proved guilty nor acquitted,” she added.
The stoic silence
The practical challenges for women working in India’s entertainment industry are only exacerbated by the fraternity’s tone-deaf comments and tacit support for some of the accused.
To be sure, some of the #MeToo accused did lose out on work—Sajid Khan was removed as director of ensemble comedy Housefull 4. Hotstar too cancelled the production of the third season of On Air With AIB in light of allegations against the members of the comedy collective. Alok Nath has been missing from social gatherings like the 25th anniversary celebrations of Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, while his new film titled Main Bhi is reportedly struggling to find distributor.
However, there are many allegations that Bollywood has largely been indifferent to. Last month, actor Aamir Khan announced his decision to return to the Gulshan Kumar biopic, Mogul, to be directed by Subhash Kapoor. Khan had quit the project last October because Kapoor was accused of molestation by actor Geetika Tyagi in a case that dated back to 2012.
A year after music composer Anu Malik was removed as a judge from singing reality show Indian Idol after singers Sona Mohapatra and Shweta Pandit accused him of predatory behaviour, he is back for the latest season of the same show. Tamil lyricist Varaimuthu who was accused of sexual misconduct by eight women has since been roped in by director Mani Ratnam and composer A.R. Rahman for their upcoming project Ponniyin Selvan.
Aamir Khan’s team did not respond to Mint’s queries for a comment. However, in an interview, Khan had said he “feels differently about things right now” and that’s why he decided to return to the project. This is based on conversations he had with women who had worked with Kapoor and who spoke highly of him, he claimed. Khan was troubled that his action may have hurt the director’s right to work, about whose guilt he has no idea.
The women, on the other hand, haven’t had it easy when it came to their right to work. Sripada, who had also spoken up against harassment by Radha Ravi, president of South Indian Cine Television Artist Dubbing Union, was ousted from the organization citing non-payment of subscription fees. She said work has now begun to trickle in slowly. Writer-producer Vinta Nanda has spoken in an interview about how some web show makers ousted her after she spoke up against Alok Nath last year.
Kannada actor Sruthi Hariharan who had accused co-star Arjun Sarja of sexually harassing her on the sets of Tamil film Nibunan has admitted that offers dried up drastically after her allegations.
Director Nitya Mehra, one of the 11 filmmakers who refused to work with proven offenders, calls the sympathy towards the accused a reflection of how deeply steeped Indian society is in patriarchy. “It is not going to change overnight,” she said.
“While some of us may come from relatively privileged and progressive backgrounds, the truth is women in the workforce is a new phenomenon and it is going to take time at least for some men to understand that the woman at the next desk is equal to them,” Mehra said.
To be sure, the biggest need of the hour is for the #MeToo movement to not lose its momentum in India, even as legal routes remain tough and ambiguous. Some see a broad umbrella organization for women survivors and other oppressed voices as an option. The Kerala women’s collective, for example, had raised its voice against sexual misconduct within the Malayalam film fraternity months before #MeToo even broke out, and a lot of women see it as an example to follow.
“The women’s collective started in March or April of 2018, but the #MeToo movement revalidated our focus and was a significant illustration of the change we were seeking in the work culture that exists in our country,” said filmmaker Anjali Menon, member of the Women in Cinema Collective. “People from other industries have reached out to us to look at cross-contribution and putting resources together. The need of the hour is for people to create this space to speak,” Menon added.
As Sripada said, “One year into #MeToo, a lot of work needs to be done. But I know that this will always remain a part of my life and I will continue to talk about it.”