By Arré Bench Jan. 19, 2021
After a year in which Bollywood was depicted in the Indian media as a bastion of drug abuse, nepotism, and “anti-national” attitudes, “Death in Bollywood” is a wake-up call that prompts a re-examination of a much more real problem in the film industry: sexism and abuse of power.
In January 2021, the BBC released a documentary titled Death in Bollywood, focussed on the death of British-Indian actress Jiah Khan. A three-part series released daily from January 11 to January 13, it delves into the toxic, misogynist culture of the Indian film industry, which contributed to the factors leading to Jiah Khan’s murky alleged suicide. After a year in which Bollywood was depicted in the Indian media as a bastion of drug abuse, nepotism, and “anti-national” attitudes, the BBC series is a wake-up call that prompts a re-examination of a much more real problem in the film industry: sexism and abuse of power.
Currently only available to view in the United Kingdom, clips from Death in Bollywood have nonetheless made it to Indian social media. In particular, one clip where Jiah Khan’s younger sister, Karishma, narrates how the Bollywood director Sajid Khan had sexually harassed Jiah. “It was rehearsal, she was reading the scripts and he asked her to take off her top and her bra. She didn’t know what to do, she said ‘the filming hasn’t even begun yet and this is happening.’ She came home and cried,” Karishma said in the clip. She also further alleged that Khan had made sexual advances at her as well, when she was only 16 years of age.
The allegations made against Sajid Khan in Death in Bollywood have once again highlighted the director’s problematic reputation as someone who attempts to use his position to elicit sexual favours. Sajid Khan was one of the big industry names to be exposed during the Indian #MeToo movement of 2018, when an anonymous journalist and two actresses, Saloni Chopra and Rachel White, came forward with their own accounts of Khan’s predatory and abusive behaviour. Other actors and models have also supplied stories of Khan’s inappropriate advances while meeting under the pretext of work. Apart from the bad press and stepping down from his directorial position for Housefull 4, there were very few ramifications for Khan despite all the women’s claims.
It’s damning evidence of the fact that many in the film industry turn a blind eye toward abusive behaviour, especially if it is being perpetrated by a powerful person.
Karishma’s account of Khan’s harassment of her sister establishes a timeline where he was engaging in his predatory behaviour years before anyone came forward to expose him. It’s damning evidence of the fact that many in the film industry turn a blind eye toward abusive behaviour, especially if it is being perpetrated by a powerful person. And the lack of consequences for those in power creates a cycle of abuse that is difficult to break, even when victims come forward publicly.
Jiah Khan’s death was a tragedy, but the BBC’s examination of the circumstances surrounding it should serve as a launching point for an overhaul of how accountability works in Bollywood. It’s telling that the series has not attracted as much media attention as the hysterical coverage of drug-related WhatsApp chats that came in the wake of Rhea Chakraborty’s involvement in the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide controversy last year. The bogeymen of drugs and nepotism were invoked to drive ratings – some channels went even further with claims of black magic! However, the very real issue of sexual harassment and exploitation brought up in connection to Jiah Khan’s death receives a tepid response.
The Death in Bollywood documentary shows how Bollywood’s institutional sexism will prove harder to eradicate than by merely naming the offenders.