The trailer for Sudhir Mishra’s new film on sexual harassment in Indian workplaces is deliberately ambiguous. It shows an attractive couple working together in an advertising firm, obviously in a relationship and sizzling with sexual desire.
The man is the chief executive and the woman’s mentor, encouraging her to be creative and independent. But at some point the relationship sours and what used to be enjoyable flirting at work turns into an accusation of sexual harassment. No guilt is imputed. The woman is not necessarily the victim, nor the man necessarily the culprit.
Inkaar (Denial) is released in the UAE today and could not be more timely. India has been convulsed by the death of a 23-year-old woman who was raped by six men in a moving bus in New Delhi. She was tortured with such ferocity that she never recovered from her injuries.
Ever since the December 16 attack, Indians have been debating what is wrong with their society and why millions of women face groping, ogling and lascivious behaviour in public every day.
Starring Arjun Rampal and Chitrangada Singh, who plays a copywriter, the film is expected to make a contribution to the national debate, but more by raising questions than by giving answers. Mishra says that “sexual harassment is happening all over India” in every office and workplace. He even commissioned a special survey on the issue and will publish the findings to coincide with the film’s release. The survey will, he says, confirm that harassment is depressingly common.
An Oxfam India survey conducted last month found that 17 per cent of working women faced sexual harassment at work, with many failing to report it for fear of losing their jobs. But women’s groups believe the figure is actually much higher, reflecting gross under-reporting.
“My hope is that the film will generate debate on all the issues that we Indians haven’t confronted yet,” says Mishra, who is known for featuring strong women in his films. “That’s why I’m pleased it’s got a U certificate. I want mothers and fathers to go and see it with their sons and daughters and then discuss it.”
Undoubtedly, new tensions have crept into the workplace as more women have joined the workforce. Indian men are unused to working with women, uncertain on how to deal with strong, independent women and ill-equipped to know how to behave around an ambitious female colleague or boss.
This subtle dynamic between the sexes in the workplace is what Mishra explores in the film.
“It’s a volatile cocktail,” he says. “It’s new territory for men. They are losing their power and nothing, from childhood onwards, has prepared them to deal with this situation. They don’t know when they are crossing the line. It’s a very precarious situation for them.”
He chose an advertising firm as the setting, because that is where people work odd hours, travel together, socialise extensively and work closely on campaigns that often use sex to sell a product. As a result, conversations about sex are common.
"Like everything else, my character is totally grey," Singh told the Hindustan Times newspaper. "She thinks it's her right to be as ambitious as any man but she can also be manipulative."
Singh is one of the very few Indian actresses who started acting after marriage. Asked whether she had experienced sexual harassment in the industry, she replied: “I haven’t. I’m not saying nobody looked at me lecherously or hugged me in that way. Of course they do, but that can happen even at family functions.”
The stereotypes – including the “toy boy” man involved with an older female colleague, or a woman in a relationship with her boss viewed as calculating in her career – are all examined in the film. Grey areas, such as when flirting segues imperceptibly into harassment, are also tackled.
Mishra says there is no resemblance to Disclosure, the 1994 film starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas about workplace harassment. Nor is Inkaar based on any real-life incident. While some prominent Indians have faced sexual harassment charges – M?R Phaneesh Murthy, a senior executive of the software giant Infosys in 2002 and David Davidar, the former president of Penguin, Canada in 2010 – the film has been "inspired" by various incidents but is not based on any particular one.
“I’ve been struck by how big the issue is,” says Mishra. “So many companies now take it very seriously and have elaborate systems and procedures in place to deal with sexual harassment.”
The private sector may be taking sexual harassment seriously, but India did not even have a law dealing specifically with it until last September, when Parliament passed a bill prohibiting unwelcome sexual advances, demands for sexual favours, making suggestive remarks or showing pornography.