Why Bollywood Will Never Have Its #MeToo Moment


Why Bollywood Will Never Have Its #MeToo Moment

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Last year, my colleagues went to film a video with a bunch of Bollywood’s rather outspoken actresses, where they were given a startling piece of information. The actresses let slip that a certain star kid had a penchant for sending unwanted, lewd drunk sexts to a host of young actresses. They asserted that it wouldn’t be too long before the star kid was publicly outed, in the fashion of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.

This detail seemed to be common knowledge, a secret that had been in the open for an inordinately long time. Yet, months after that admission, the star kid in question, continues to be in Bollywood, his smooth delivery of one flop after another unwrinkled, his career intact. And his transgressions? They find a mention only in Bollywood’s whisper networks, perhaps meriting an occasional paragraph in a newspaper blind item.

As people connected to Bollywood at its outermost fringes, we’ve all heard rumblings from this whisper network. The honcho of an awards show who books the star and his female lead in connecting rooms even when she begs for another floor. The make-up artist who is flown to Barcelona and back with an actress for one day because the actress knows that at midnight, the film’s producer will come knocking on her door. And he knocks.

But this power-hungry, male-dominated Bollywood that thrives on nepotism, casting couches, and campy “connections” (now known as Instagram-friendly #squads), swallows up any allegation of sexual harassment against its most powerful. Instead, Bollywood poses on the magazine cover wearing its finery, its diamonds, and its million-dollar smile.

In February, however, the unthinkable happened.

Veteran actor Jeetendra was accused of sexual harassment. According to the victim, the incident occured over 47 years ago, when she was just 18, and the actor was 28. In her report, she divulged that Jeetendra, now 75, harassed her on the pretext of taking her for a film shoot in Shimla where he tried to penetrate her. As she tried pushing him away, the actor, who reeked of alcohol and was naked from waist down, continued rubbing himself against her, in an attempt to stimulate himself. When she protested further, he told her that that was how he could fall asleep.

The only option for actresses is to out their perpetrators on the informal whisper networks that can safeguard women from potential harassers

Jeetendra has, of course, denied her accusations and deemed them “baseless, ridiculous, and fabricated.” But the mere existence of the accusation and its public nature is a watershed moment for Bollywood that prefers sweeping the subject of sexual harassment under a rug. Even if the accusation is against an actor, who reached his expiry date in the Hindi film industry long ago, it is emblematic of the reality that meets most female “strugglers”, newcomers, and even established actresses.

While many have heralded the allegations against Jeetendra – who at the time of the incident was a powerful leading actor – as the wormhole through which similar accusations will slip through, it might just end up as nothing more than a rude exception. The chances of this “exception” turning into a rule, prompting Bollywood’s own version of the #MeToo movement is improbable, if not impossible.

Jeetendra’s victim was his own cousin, not dependent on Bollywood or its sketchy networks for her livelihood, making it marginally easier for her to name her perpetrator. (Even then, she had to wait nearly five decades, bowing to how heartbroken her parents would be to find that her harasser was their nephew.)

Unlike Hollywood, the workings of Bollywood still rely heavily on intricate filmi family and friends route. We might no longer have only family-run studios, but our leading actors still continue to run successful production companies, milking the monetary benefits of their stardom, puppeteering the fates of young actresses. To be an actress in Bollywood, and to speak out against one of its own, is to risk one’s career. Additionally, an accusation is also inevitably accompanied by the burden of of being victim-shamed. Naming a sexual harasser in Bollywood is to – basically – self-sabotage.

Back in 2011, Payal Rohtagi had summoned the courage to accuse Dibakar Banerjee of sexually harassing her. He had reportedly asked her to remove her top under the guise of checking her weight. Yet, despite several interviews and ample coverage, not only did her accusation cause no dent in the director’s career (he is directing a Yash Raj production this year) but she also found no support from within the industry, who chose to support Banerjee instead.

The only option for actresses then, is to out their perpetrators on the informal whisper networks that can safeguard women from potential harassers. It is due to these networks that we are aware that a reputed and married head of a celebrity management company has a history of propositioning women in return for making them the next star. These networks share and recommend tactics that actresses can adopt to avoid harassment on outdoor shoots, where they are often without immediate support. One actress would insist on her manager opening her door to entertain the inappropriate requests of her very drunk director, while another would pretend to be asleep every time her male lead knocked on her door wanting to “chat about life” and proceeding to grope her during the shoot the following day.

Take for instance the fact that in 2008, even Tanushree Dutta’s accusation against Nana Patekar for sexually harassing her on the sets of Horn Ok Please fell on deaf ears. At the time, Dutta had claimed that a solo dance song was changed at the last minute at the behest of Patekar, who wanted to do an intimate sequence with her. He’d also allegedly grabbed her by the arms, pushed her around, and asked the choreographers to move aside so he could teach her the steps. It resulted in Dutta halting the shoot and eventually opting out of the song. Ten years later, today, if Dutta can still afford to speak up about Patekar routinely misbehaving with actresses, it’s because she no longer depends on Bollywood. After all, it’s no coincidence that Dutta’s last film before she moved to the US, was in 2010.

The truth is, Bollywood is a frightening place to be an actress. For every allegation against Jeetendra and Nana Patekar, there are thousands that we hear nothing about. And yet, we will never hear any names. Since the onslaught of the #MeToo moment and the renewed discussion on consent, various actresses have admitted to either having experienced sexual harassment in Bollywood, or being aware of its existence, but none have agreed to go on record to name them.

In an interview, actress Richa Chadda succinctly summarised why Bollywood chooses to maintain a studied silence on sexual harassment. “If you give me pension for life, take care of my safety, my family, ensure I’ll continue to get work in films and TV or whatever I want to do, my career will grow unabated as it is right now after I name and shame somebody, sure I will. Not just me, million others will do that. But who will give that guarantee?”

As it turns out, no one. Which is why Bollywood will never have its #TimesUp moment. Which is why young actresses won’t stop receiving unwarranted sexts in the middle of the night.