Why Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar is a Crash Course In Understanding Workplace Harassment


Why Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar is a Crash Course In Understanding Workplace Harassment

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

It took some serious brainstorming and debate before a consensus was formed on the title of Sudhir Mishra’s 2013 project based on the delicate subject of workplace harassment. As the director revealed in one of the interviews, as many as half a dozen names were in contention – one of them even keeping up with his penchant for rather long titles. But after much deliberation, the film finally landed its eventual name Inkaar. The Urdu word, which conveys refusal or resistance, sounds fairly clichéd having been overused to no end in substandard Bollywood poetry. But few would argue this film could’ve been entitled any more appropriately. For the film makes it absolutely clear that a woman’s mere refusal to consent, even when not entirely explicit, demands being treated with due attention.

In early minutes of the film, Maya (Chitrangada Singh), a high-end business executive at an advertising agency, struggles to put words to her travails in front of a committee convened to hear the harassment complaint she has filed against her boss Rahul (Arjun Rampal). In the middle of the hearing, an office peon walks in aiming to eavesdrop under the pretext of serving refreshments. Maya instantly senses the sleaziness of his gaze and rather rudely asks him to leave. The little disturbance derails her train of thought and she further struggles to articulate her grievances. Those in the committee actively looking to find inconsistencies in her story cannot help but smirk for this further solidifies the narrative that Maya is too impulsive and emotional for a leadership role in a high-stakes corporate job.

This little incident perfectly encapsulates the nature of Maya’s struggle. It is very hard for her to explain what it is she exactly is accusing Rahul of. Unlike rape or sexual assault, workplace harassment is often impossible to coherently describe in words that would resonate with ordinary people. Even more so in an advertising agency, where the work culture encourages employees to be casual to keep the collective stress levels down. Rahul’s indiscretions have never quite gone past an occasional lewd remark, an uncomfortable stare, a few innuendos, and a generally condescending tone. In a largely male-dominated ad world, these are barely even acknowledged as inappropriate. The aggrieved person instead is patronisingly advised to “toughen up”.

Maya’s concerns are constantly trivialised for her past romantic involvement with Rahul is common knowledge in the office. Most find it hard to see her accusations as anything more than a relationship having turned sour. A few even go as far as suggesting she “used” Rahul for advancing her career and is only “acting up” out of bitterness now. The general sense of resentment that Maya draws her way for standing up to someone higher up the food chain results in her being reduced to a laughing stock in office gossip.

Unlike rape or sexual assault, workplace harassment is often impossible to coherently describe in words that would resonate with ordinary people.

In the entire sequence leading to Maya being ostracised by her colleagues, Inkaar highlights a key feature of twisted power dynamic and gender politics: That while organisations may encourage women employees to speak up, when push comes to shove, people shall protect their own interests first and conveniently side with where the power lies. And it is quite easy for the powerful alpha-males to get away with their problematic behaviour in the name of casual mischief – particularly in an industry where the supposedly creative minds require to be set free of corporate code in order to flourish.

The film, however, refrains from taking the easy route of painting its men as inherently evil. In fact, there are facets in Rahul’s version of events that merit due consideration. In his head, Rahul has perhaps only been flirtatious with Maya and given their history, feels he is entitled to taking some occasional romantic liberties. His behaviour, while often problematic, does not stem from a place of malice. And this is the grey area where harassment often becomes impossible to define. Is a person simply meaning no harm enough to pass off as acceptable behaviour? Does presuming consent to offend constitute harassment? When is the line crossed? There are no simple answers to these questions and Inkaar does not pretend to know better.

The events leading up to Maya finally lodging a formal complaint against Rahul are endlessly revisited in the film. In the process, many inconsistencies and even an odd bit of insincerity in both the narratives are exposed. But Inkaar seldom takes the investigative path aiming to uncover the truth from a web of lies. Its focus instead firmly remains set on highlighting the complexities of relationships. Two attractive people working long hours in close vicinity may inevitably lead to them surpassing the professional boundaries. But the power differential remains the underlying force that determines the nature of such relationships.

Maya is both attracted and intimidated by the relentlessly charming Rahul. Beyond a point, she finds it beyond her to resist his sly advances, not that she is repelled by the idea. It is also not like the obvious career benefits of getting involved with Rahul had never dawned on her.

But the film quite succinctly draws the point home that despite what Rahul may now feel was an arrangement Maya fed off, it does not entitle him to obnoxious behaviour. And that consent once lent cannot simply be taken for granted at convenience. However, the film’s most important takeaway perhaps is that not once has Rahul sexually violated Maya’s boundaries. And yet, his toxicity and the resultant emotional trauma that she has had to undergo does legitimately constitute harassment.

The discourse on safe workspaces in the Indian society is still nowhere near refined enough despite the shockwaves that India’s 2018 #MeToo movement sent across industries. In fact, one of the most high-profile cases to have come out during the time involved senior journalist- turned-politician MJ Akbar. Priya Ramani, a former subordinate of Akbar, accused him of sexual harassment post which several other women shared similar experiences with him.

Does presuming consent to offend constitute harassment?

A little over two years later, Ramani continues to fight a defamation suit filed against her whereas Akbar has had to lose little since having to resign as Minister of State in the aftermath of the allegations. He still remains a parliamentarian and has more or less started being normalised. But to little surprise, there were plenty in the media fraternity who wrote sly apologias for Akbar conveniently shifting the blame to the “tone and tenor” of the #MeToo movement. This is very much in keeping with the phenomenon explored in Inkaar where the powerful never run short of influential friends to bat for them while the victim gets systematically cornered.

In 2013, another celebrity journalist Tarun Tejpal had been accused of sexual assault by a former colleague. In his defence, Tejpal acknowledged the incident but insisted it was a “misreading of situation” on his part. A few months later, Manu Joseph wrote an elaborate piece for the Outlook magazine, which was a little shy of shaming the victim in so many words. And even so many years later, the discourse still remains fairly rooted into the medieval mindset of dishonouring the victim by finding fault in their accounts rather than actively holding the accused to an answer.

This week completes eight years since Inkaar released and went largely unnoticed. And though our understanding of a subject as sensitive as workplace harassment is unlikely to evolve any time soon, the film could certainly do with some retrospective appreciation.