Why the World Needs More “Difficult Women” Like Tanushree Dutta


Why the World Needs More “Difficult Women” Like Tanushree Dutta

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ten years after she first said it, and none of us heard, Tanushree Dutta has reiterated her allegations of sexual misconduct against Nana Patekar, an actor well known for both his philanthropy and temper. We are listening now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. At least the women are listening, and raging, while most men have gone into a convenient maun vrat.

Demanding a response from the men – especially men like Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan, who were questioned by the press, because they happened to be available – is an exercise in futility. We have known for years what they stand for. Bollywood and Bachchan are but convenient outrage targets that allow us the distraction of ignoring our own complicity, ignoring the fact that we live in glass houses too. Can we really ask Bollywood to grow a spine before we grow ours? Before we question the men in our homes?

Many of us did not believe Tanushree Dutta in the first instance. Check with the men around if they still believe her. Most would label her a “B-grade publicity-seeking actress”. (By that logic, of course, her co-star in what was certainly a very low-grade film, should be B-grade too. Yet he gets the benefit of an upgrade.) Many who finally came around to believing Dutta’s story did so because a journalist, an eye witness present on the sets confirmed her story. Almost every celebrity, most of them women, who now stands by Dutta, quote the journalist’s testimony. It is as if her word alone is not good enough.

Every woman understands very well the fear of her word not being good enough. And so wisely, we shut up, more often than we speak.

Real courage means speaking up in a space more difficult to fight than social media. I have attempted it, fought in my home, with men I love and admire – with lovers, friends, colleagues, family. Men who casually insert misogynistic jokes that I refuse to laugh at any longer. The result – I was in danger of becoming one of those dreaded strong women types men admire only in the movies but not in real life. I was becoming a “difficult woman”, the same label that was applied to Dutta when she refused to go along with the harassment.

I know stories of women raped by plumbers and editors and uncles and neighbours.

Not difficult enough though, or not persistent enough for I hardly changed anything that mattered. Yet I tried.

When an actress who accused an executive producer of molestation suddenly withdrew her complaint, I understood the pressures that must have made her do so. None of the men in charge – all good men – even cared to see her side of the now-retracted story. I tried very hard to explain to a man who could have made a difference. But it was not my story to tell, to pursue. The fair thing would have been to conduct an enquiry. But despite the law, almost no film or television production house has a sexual harassment redressal cell. And so her accusation was dismissed with lightning speed, shrugged off as an affair gone wrong. Such a convenient conclusion, even if we all knew there was not an iota of truth to the affair. Still the girl was smart enough not to be difficult, and her career survives. The man’s career, needless to say, thrives.

I heard a story recently, almost certainly an urban legend circulated in the boys’ network. The actress in question was of the same status as Dutta, labelled in Bollywood as a starlet. In an MTV Bakra-style prank, a director offered the starlet a role in exchange for sex and she apparently agreed. On camera.

Now this story is wrong on so many levels. The said director, who I know rather well, hasn’t had much work in years, so nobody in their right mind would sleep with him for a role. He has also behaved in a predatory manner with many women I know. Perhaps with me too, but many would say it was all in my head. For the world he was the stud and the starlet a slut, and his was the story that would be believed by the men.

I should have said something to the friend who recounted this story, said something in defence of the starlet. But what if I was not believed? So I kept quiet. What good would it do to the said starlet or me? Why be difficult?

Just after the allegations against Tarun Tejpal had surfaced, I was holidaying at a five-star hotel in Goa. Every time I was in the elevator with friends, all intelligent men, they would break into an academic discussion about the speed of the lift and the time required for rape. Their conclusion – the girl was making it up. All I told them was that they had the wrong hotel. They also had wrong mindsets, but who will tell them that? Not me. Not them. Perhaps their wives and daughters should.

I have many more stories of survivors, of actors and models, of those in the film business and beyond. I know stories of women raped by plumbers and editors and uncles and neighbours. But these are stories told to me in confidence, not my stories to tell. All I can do is believe them. I understand why these women will not step forward. They don’t owe us their traumas. They don’t deserve being tagged as difficult women.

Difficult women will give rise to good men. There are enough of them out there who only need a little prodding to speak up.

Here is a story of a man I’ve heard over the years from many different sources that has stayed with me. The man in the story is a superstar from the seventies with a larger-than-life appetite for alcohol and women. Every evening as the day’s shoot was about to conclude, the star would drop a handkerchief in front of a woman he desired. This woman could be the vamp or an “extra”, as supporting actresses that form the crowd are called. It was the job of the production to procure the said woman for the night. There was no discussion of consent when the story was recounted. After all which extra would dare say no to the alcoholic groping of a superstar? The punch line of the story was the now sober star, the morning after, unable to understand why the vamp was giving him coy looks.

I have no way of confirming the veracity of the story, which I’ve heard from many men, all of whom loved and continue to respect the superstar, but it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. All I remember is the laughter, the idea that men found it funny, that treating women as commodities, as long is it was not their women, is hilarious. I so get Christine Blasey Ford when she says what is “indelible in her hippocampus” is the laughter. I might have laughed too, because I did not want to be difficult then. That’s all that remains in my memory too: the laughter. More the guilt of mine than theirs.

Sorry boys. I don’t find the story funny anymore.  

So before we turn to Bachchan and Khan to speak up for us, it might be a good idea to tackle the mindsets where we actually have some degree of influence. With the men in our lives. Let us all lose our sense of humour when the jokes are on us. Let us be difficult women.

Difficult women will give rise to good men. There are enough of them out there who only need a little prodding to speak up. Farhan Akhtar has spoken up, and to those saying that his is a carefully controlled PR strategy to build his brand, I say more power to a brand or man that dares to cater to us difficult women. Bollywood, in the end, is a business and only when enough of us demand accountability and change the mindsets of its consumers, will a Hollywood style #MeToo movement be possible. Only when enough women speak  up, will enough men dare. After all they have no skin in the game. For us, it is our souls we are fighting for.

I have the privilege or perhaps sheer luck to know many good men. They like Frances McDormand’s fiery Oscar speech, Ellen De Generes’ spunk, and all  the women Meryl Streep plays on screen. But they like their difficult women far away. As do most men.

Tanushree Dutta is too close to home. But we are closer. Let us all be difficult women in our own homes so that one day Dutta and others like her have no reason to be.