India’s Convenient Feminism, Where Deepika is a Drug Addict and Kangana is Brave


India’s Convenient Feminism, Where Deepika is a Drug Addict and Kangana is Brave

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

It hasn’t even been three years since Bollywood’s #MeToo reckoning of late 2017, but it feels like it happened a lifetime ago. After several high-profile allegations and court cases – some of which are ongoing – most of them faded into oblivion, with accused harassers returning to their ordinary lives and work. Fans leapt to defend accused stars like Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, and defamed the women who gave accounts.

In recent days, however, another #MeToo conversation has reared its head, and received a very different response. Actor Payal Ghosh has accused filmmaker Anurag Kashyap of sexual assault and has filed a FIR against him. Kashyap was one of the few casualties of #MeToo; his Phantom Films dissolved after another founder was accused of sexual assault. Now, far from giving Kashyap the benefit of the doubt, people are demanding his arrest online.

Ghosh also named actors Richa Chadda, Huma Qureshi, and Mahie Gill, saying that Kashyap claimed they performed sexual favours while working with him. All three actors have denied any such involvement with Kashyap, as well as any knowledge of harassment allegations against him. Gill and Qureshi expressed their shock and outrage over Ghosh’s statements, while Chadda publicly filed a defamation notice against her. For his part, Kashyap has also threatened legal action, calling the allegations baseless and an attempt to silence him.

Kashyap has long been considered a “sickular libtard” and an outspoken critic of the government. He is also one of the few members of the Bollywood fraternity, including Chadda, who has consistently spoken out. Since 2014, much of the industry has visibly shifted towards making nationalistic films and avoiding subjects that might appear opposed to the government’s ideology. Those who have shown concern over rising intolerance, like veteran actor/producers Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, have found themselves embroiled in controversy, attacked by members and supporters of the ruling party for their views. And never has Bollywood’s political schism been more relevant than now.

Extraordinary times

Ghosh’s statement was levelled over Twitter and offered no details of the alleged incident. Ghosh did appeal to both PM Narendra Modi and the PMO, apparently due to fears over her security. It’s not clear why Ghosh thought she would be at risk – especially since Kashyap is an industry outsider who came up on the strength of his work rather than any influential connections – or why the PMO should be recruited to protect her from these shadowy dangers. Ordinarily, the police would look into matters of security.

Kashyap has long been considered a “sickular libtard” and an outspoken critic of the government.

But these are extraordinary times for Bollywood’s role in the power dynamics of the country. When actor Kangana Ranaut incurred the wrath of the Shiv Sena after remarking that Mumbai is akin to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, party workers protested her arrival in the city. Ranaut was provided with Y-plus CPRF security by the Home Ministry, a privilege generally reserved for prominent politicians.

On returning to Mumbai, Ranaut’s Bandra offices were broken down by the BMC citing illegal construction, a move that garnered the civic body a sharp rebuke in the Bombay High Court. Ranaut compared the violation to being raped and insisted she was being targeted as a woman. It’s not the first time Ranaut has conveniently co-opted and mangled feminist talking points for her own ends. And yet, in practically the same breath, Ranaut has referred to female colleagues who disagree with her as soft porn stars and fake feminists.

She has also been a major part of a broader smear campaign being carried out against an alarming number of women in Bollywood, all stemming from the narcotics charges laid against actor Rhea Chakraborty – whom Ranaut has previously referred to as a “daayan.” Ranaut has ripped into star Deepika Padukone, a mental health advocate, by saying depression is caused by drug abuse. For all her posturing on nepotism in Bollywood, she referred to actors Taapsee Pannu and Swara Bhasker as “needy outsiders” and “B-grade.” Pannu and Bhasker, along with Padukone and Kashyap, are not from any filmi family. However, all of them are known for taking liberal stances on a variety of thorny issues.

Chakraborty, initially ripped apart in the media for much more serious crimes that have yet to be substantiated, is currently in Byculla jail on charges of suspected possession of 59 grammes of marijuana. Now, a sudden and seemingly pointless crackdown on drug users has spread like wildfire through Bollywood, with reports implicating actors such as Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Rakulpreet Singh, and Dia Mirza – based on nothing more than rumours, speculations, and hearsay. Still, that hasn’t stopped the public and the media from responding with misogynistic abuse that stigmatises not only women, but the crores of Indians who are actually struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

The media plays along

On news channels, clips of their performances run in a loop, cherry-picked to show them drinking and dancing in skimpy clothes, out at nightclubs and parties. The message could not be more clear: Women enjoying themselves, even if they are just doing their job, are of loose moral character. Padukone playing the character of a wild-child in Cocktail must naturally be a drug addict. Although she’s also played a serious girl in Piku, and the historical figures Rani Padmavati and Mastani, these popular roles are not being splashed across the screens – they simply don’t fit the narrative being built. After all, as Padukone and Kapoor are being questioned on the basis of WhatsApp messages from 2017, there is currently no evidence beyond this fictional representation that links them and their fellow actors with the dark, drug-fuelled underworld.

Women enjoying themselves, even if they are just doing their job, are of loose moral character.

Of course, Ranaut herself has essayed similar characters in the past, and famously portrayed a cocaine-dependent model in Fashion in a role that hit close to home for the entertainment industry. But neither she, nor any men have yet been questioned in relation to this alleged epidemic of drugs in Bollywood; even when the late Sushant Singh Rajput’s drug use is discussed ad nauseam in the media, the blame still falls on Chakraborty, his girlfriend at the time, for “encouraging” his drug habits.

In India, it’s a tale as old as time: Men can get a free pass for smoking joints and drinking bhang on Holi, while women are being rounded up by law enforcement for mere suspicions of the same behaviour. Is this a new brand of feminist reckoning – one where women, instead of sharing their stories of harassment, are forced to defend themselves against this manifestation of respectability politics?

It certainly is three steps back from the nuanced dialogue about consent that were sparked off by #MeToo movement. Most disturbing of all though, is women like Ranaut and Ghosh, who discredit and destroy those who dare to speak up in opposition. Their selective application of feminism might successfully quell those who are critical of the current dispensation. But when the politics are done and dusted, it will only leave women – even the ones who for now are on the “right” side – farther back than ever before.