In late October, actor Imran Khan – declared missing from the big screen for more than three years – made a comeback in newspaper headlines with his comments on the sexual assault allegations against director Vikas Bahl. Khan admitted to knowing about Bahl’s misconduct for years, having heard stories that ranged from “inappropriate touching to straight up saying that if you were cast in the film, what will I get in return” from three actresses. He even revealed that like everyone else in the industry, he’s also aware of innumerable instances of sexual harassment and abuse that have been normalised for many years by the predatory culture of Bollywood.
While we appreciate Imran Khan’s honesty, we can’t seem to recount a report that mentions Khan and everyone else who says that “They knew” speaking up or taking names. Instead they followed the golden rule of the promised land – silence.
But yesterday, Rajkumar Hirani, the director of Sanju, 2018’s biggest hit, was accused of sexual harassment by a female assistant director who worked with him in Sanju.
Ever since Tanushree Dutta spoke up about Nana Patekar for the second time in the wake of #MeToo (nobody paid heed to her when she made the same accusations in the pre-MeToo days), hundreds of women have outed powerful and influential men – in the entertainment industry and the media. And Bollywood that has always been in awe of its “reputed pillars” – the foundation of the industry – followed suit. But after Babuji and Ghaiji, Bollywood seems to be in no hurry to shake the other reputed pillars that hold up this establishment of predatory patriarchy, even though, like Imran Khan, we all know who they are.
There are many “open secrets” like these in the industry. Remember, it takes a massive crew of ADs, editors, DOPs, assistants, and set dadas to make a movie so yes… everyone knows. Everyone knows, and at the same time, no one knows.
Everyone knows that months ago, when a young actress reached the sets of her upcoming big-budget film she was accosted by the A-lister hero working opposite her. In his bid to make her feel “comfortable” on her first big film, he placed himself in her vanity van. The minute she entered, he proceeded to make her even more “welcome” by taking off his shirt and forcing a kiss on her. When she confronted him and threatened to complain to the film’s director, the A-lister – a veteran in sexual harassment – simply laughed and left.
Everyone knows that the actress complained to the film’s well-connected director, who promised to take care of it. But instead the director complained to the hero about how she spoke of his “friendliness”. Everyone knows and doesn’t know that from then onward, the actress had to single-handedly fend herself from the actor’s physical advances – public groping, grabbing her breasts in his vanity van on the pretext of rehearsing a scene, and repeated attempts to kiss her – almost every other day. Her crying face became a crude inside joke on the film’s sets and when she halted the shoot midway, reports about her being “unprofessional” started doing the rounds in almost every tabloid. Everyone knows as the A-lister took it upon himself to narrate his version of the story at almost every Bollywood party he attended.
Everyone knows the “open secret” of the exploits of the famous ’90s director whose stories are also so well-known that they might as well be written in stone.
And like this, everyone knows the “open secret” of the exploits of the famous ’90s director whose stories are also so old and well-known that they might as well be written in stone. Over the years, the industry has rewarded him with awards and lauded him for his vision, which included a “creative process” that occurred in his upscale bathroom: As he sat naked in his bathtub with his hands folded, the female lead of his film was required to remove all her clothes and present her naked body in front of the director. His eyes would sincerely make note of every body part and channelise it to invoke creativity. This blatant misuse of power would repeat film after film and on some cases, would involve a fair bit of “sacrificing” on the actress’s part. All done in the comfortable confines of a bungalow bathtub, of course.
Likewise, everyone knows of the reputed senior actor – now a champion for women – methodically grazing the breasts and butts of every young actress. His impossibly long career is replete with him preying on young actresses and getting them to sleep with him. And the ones who protested, had their drinks spiked. He’d force himself on them and replace them from his film anyway. But, I suppose the icing on the cake is the modus operandi of the yesteryear actor – with origins in Bollywood’s filmi family – who’d drunkenly insist that his wife watch him force himself on screaming female leads.
Yet none of these accounts – a mere drop in the ocean – have revolted the gatekeepers of Bollywood enough to break their silence. And so over the years, Bollywood A-listers – actors, directors, producers, casting directors, and even character actors – have comfortably operated under a framework where actresses existed in the industry to satiate their urges.
But after Rajkumar Hirani, Vikas Bahl, Nana Patekar, Alok Nath, and now Subhash Ghai, will Bollywood to look at its bigger players? The one who hides under the cloak of patriotism to reveal his predatory ways on outdoor shoots and keep knocking on the actress’s room until she is forced to take him in? Or the casting director, who refuses to record any woman struggler’s audition unless she takes her top off?
Shouldn’t the stage now be set for bigger revelations, the ones that have been disseminated in controlled whispers, shielded from public documenting? In the past week, the change has been seismic. The current climate guarantees, at the very least, shaming. There’s no better time than now for Bollywood to back its own #MeToo.
After all, what good is a #MeToo movement in India, if Bollywood, an industry known to exploit its women, is out of reach?