Almost a year after the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal rocked the foundations of Hollywood, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have come knocking at Bollywood's door.
On September 25, in an interview that went viral, 34-year-old actress Tanushree Dutta, of Aashiq Banaya Aapne fame, recounted the story of her harassment by veteran actor Nana Patekar on the set of the 2008 film Horn 'Ok' Pleassss. Dutta says that while shooting the song, she had been contracted for, Patekar insisted intimate dance steps be added to the routine, allowing him to touch the actress. She also called out the film's director, Rakesh Sarang, producer, Samee Siddiqui, and choreographer Ganesh Acharya, for being complicit in the abuse and shielding Patekar. In subsequent interviews, the actress also accused director Vivek Agnihotri of harassment, for asking her to dance naked on the set of his 2005 film Chocolate. Both Patekar and Agnihotri sent legal notices to Dutta, while she filed a complaint against the former.
But none of this is news.
Dutta's accusations have been a matter of public record for the past 10 years. In the immediate aftermath of Dutta speaking out about her harassment, there were a few news reports about the incident, but most of them either ridiculed Dutta as a starlet looking for publicity, were belligerent in their characterisation of her, or outright supportive of Patekar. No one took Dutta seriously and, disheartened by the lack of support for victims while abusers continued to thrive, the actress distanced herself from Bollywood and moved to the United States in 2016.
Acknowledging a sexual harassment problem
Speaking to The National, Dutta said: "I believe that the injustices we, as a generation, have endured, must not be passed on. That can only happen when we take the onus for change on ourselves. I hope that 10 years from now, there will be no concept of workplace harassment. I'm glad for this ripple effect currently in action."
"Ripple effect" it clearly is, because 10 years after the event transpired, the retelling of an old story has sent shock waves across Bollywood. Part of the reason is that India is finally waking up to its sexual harassment problem. The other is that two women – journalist Janice Sequeira who was also on set when the incident occurred, and Shiny Shetty, an assistant director on the film – have come forward to corroborate Dutta's story. While speaking to The National, Sequeira said: "The only way to have kept this story alive was if the national, mainstream media paid attention. If it had stayed limited to gossip portals, it would have become just another Bollywood story. This is bigger than just that. This is a nationwide, all-industry, workplace harassment issue. I had to come forward, knowing what I did."
In addition to witness testimony, CCTV footage from the set also shows Dutta's car being attacked as she tries to leave. The "proof", as it were, sparked outrage towards Bollywood for shielding serial abusers, kick-starting an avalanche of accusations, press conferences and a few public statements in support. However, most of the industry's old-timers desperately tried to sidestep any questions about the culture of abuse and silent submission in the industry.
Opening the floodgates for women to come forward
In the fortnight since the accusations against Patekar resurfaced, Bollywood has been in the throes of what can only be called an identity crisis. Several entertainment journalists told The National that even as publicists approached them for interviews, they were strictly told not to ask questions about sexual harassment or the #MeToo movement. Even so, support, though hesitantly extended, trickled in. Celebrities including Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, Swara Bhaskar, Twinkle Khanna, Soha Ali Khan, Neha Dhupia, Raveena Tandon, Malaika Arora and several others have either given statements, or tweeted in support of Dutta. None, however, censured Patekar.
But, most importantly, it opened the floodgates for more women to come forward with their accounts, and for some old stories to find their way back into the limelight.
On Saturday, director Vikas Bahl, of Queen fame, found himself in the eye of the storm, as HuffPost India posted a first-person account by a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2015. Ironically, Queen won critical acclaim and awards for its underlying message of women's empowerment. This story, too, first surfaced in early 2017 but died a quiet death after ruffling a few feathers.
This time around, several heavyweights have thrown their support behind the victim. Director and producer Anurag Kashyap admitted that he and the other partners at Phantom, the production house that Bahl is a partner of, knew of the woman's accusations, but did nothing. Prior to this admission, he released a statement saying that Phantom would be dissolved and its partners would be going their separate ways. In the past few days, the star of Queen, Kangana Ranaut, in an interview, accused Bahl of creepiness and a tendency to break personal physical boundaries. Her co-star from Queen, Rajkummar Rao, also gave a statement condemning harassment. Hrithik Roshan, who has star billing in Bahl's upcoming film Super 30, said it was "impossible" for him "to work with any person accused of such grave misconduct", and requested the producers "take a harsh stand, if need be".
Finding strength with the #MeToo movement
Another shocking incident resurfaced, adding more flames to the #MeToo fire.
On Monday, veteran TV producer and writer, Vinta Nanda, penned a powerful, poignant post on Facebook detailing her rape, harassment and assault by another veteran actor, Alok Nath, 19 years ago. In her post, she spoke about how Nath's abuse had left her emotionally shattered, and professionally ruined. She also spoke about the fear that had kept her silent for so long, but that she now felt strong enough to tell her story to the world, thanks to the support for the #MeToo movement. In a written interview with The National, Nanda said, "I feel liberated today. I have been carrying this burden for years. [When the assault took place] friends asked me to remain silent. Now times have changed. Now that I have spoken up, I'm sure other women will muster the courage to speak up too. I'd spoken up earlier, too, but there was no MeToo movement then."
Responding to the allegations, Nath tried to undermine both Nanda's version of events and the #MeToo movement by saying that the rape "must have happened, but someone else would have done it", and that the world was only getting to hear women's narratives because "they are considered weak".
His arrogant reaction is not surprising – Bollywood has a long, revolting history of shouting down women when they attempt to speak of their harassment, and protecting its men. While women are either forced to leave the industry or forgive, forget and move on if they want to continue, their abusers unabashedly enjoy success. Sexual harassment has never stopped the industry from rewarding even widely known perpetrators.
Lack of consequence for male actors
The "casting couch" is the industry's most infamous open secret, and the punchline of several ribald jokes, but the perversions of some of Bollywood's biggest names are not limited to demanding sexual favours in exchange for work.
Several big names such as Salman Khan, Irrfan Khan, Om Puri, Subhash Ghai, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna, Madhur Bhandarkar, Dibakar Banerjee and Aditya Pancholi, among many others, have been accused of a variety of crimes, ranging from rape – in some cases of minors – to exploitation, assault, abuse, intimidation, stalking and threats. All these men have gone on to enjoy great success and be lauded with awards, despite the allegations against them being public knowledge. The women, on the other hand, face abuse, harassment, online trolling and even professional loss.
One of the most controversial examples of this is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. In 2002, spoke about the emotional and physical abuse she experienced during her relationship with Salman Khan, and was replaced as the leading lady in Shah Rukh Khan's Chalte Chalte on Salman Khan's insistence.
Ranaut, too, has faced ire and ridicule for speaking about being physically abused as a minor by Pancholi, as a newcomer in the industry.
The need to speak out
In the early 1990s, actress Manisha Koirala's mother accused Subhash Ghai of coming on to her daughter during the shoot of the 1991 hit, Saudagar. While Koirala never said anything at the time, she also never worked with Ghai again. In 2010, author Rina Golan revealed similar advances by Ghai in her memoir.
"Speaking about the abuse has not been easy. I've had unknown men try to gain entry in my house. I've woken up to all kinds of threats. It takes a toll on you and your family emotionally and mentally. Support came later, yes, but when you're being intimidated, it's just you against them," Dutta told The National of the experience. One of her alleged abusers, Agnihotri, on the other hand, has a documented history of abusing and threatening women on social media.
Model-turned-actress Preeti Jain accused Bhandarkar, a National Film Award-winning director, of raping her 16 times between 1999 and 2004, while promising to marry and cast her in roles, in a complaint filed in 2004. Since then, Bhandarkar has made more than 10 films.
Rajesh Khanna's live-in partner, Anita Advani, accused him of sexual assault when she was just 13 years old. Former actress Pooja Bedi has also accused Pancholi of raping her 15-year-old domestic worker, while in 2013, Om Puri's wife, Nandita Puri, revealed in her biography that he had raped their 14-year-old housekeeper. She even filed a police complaint accusing him of domestic abuse when Puri flew into a rage after reading what his wife had written about him.
Even the outspoken, self-admittedly feminist leading ladies of Bollywood have always shied away from naming any perpetrators, even as they admit how rampant sexual abuse is in the industry, while condemning those who exploit women. Actresses Swara Bhaskar, Radhika Apte, Richa Chaddha, Tisca Chopra and others have spoken about the issue, recalling instances, but never giving any names.
Perhaps with the #MeToo movement gaining momentum, and women taking to social media to have their stories heard, Bollywood’s men will finally be held accountable and forced to respond to the many fingers pointing their way. God knows their Time’s Up.