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Casting couch, forced rape scenes: Why is Bollywood silent on sexual harassment?

In the post-Harvey Weinstein era, will Hindi film industry take a stand against sexual harassment, or casting couch as it prefers to call it?

bollywood Updated: Jan 09, 2018 12:47 IST
Sexual harassment,Harvey Weinstein,Golden Globes
As the black-clad Golden Globes 2018 has indicated, Hollywood has said an emphatic no to sexual misconduct. Why does Hindi film industry refuse to take a stand.(REUTERS)

It was about a decade back, maybe more. After a friend, let’s call her A, recounted her scarring casting couch experience, I decided to ask one question over and over again. Over the next few months, my interviews of people associated with the movie industry would have one stock question: just how blatant and pervasive is casting couch in India? The answer I received is probably why, even after all those years and in the face of Weinstein-gate, nobody is ready to talk about sexual harassment in the Indian movie industry.

Men and women, stars and aspiring actors, young and old, they all had the same answer: nobody forces you to sleep with someone, it is your choice to do so. As Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s systematic preying on women has revealed – there never is a choice. Like A, whose ‘no’ to a predator ensured her career ended before it began.

It started with her being called by a casting director who wanted her to enact a rape scene having invited her home late evening. Sensing something was off, she made her excuses and left but not before she was warned about what this may mean for her career. The warnings were true enough – the film industry doesn’t like people speaking out. For an industry which thrives on publicity, it is determined about keeping its skeletons in the cupboard. Casting couch has probably been its worst kept secret and the sexual harassment continues.

When I asked why nobody talks about it, a famous choreographer recounted– off the record, of course -- how a starlet related to a superstar, who was known for his short temper, was propositioned by a producer for casting her in the film. The superstar had to personally warn off the recalcitrant producer. Nobody spoke about the incident because, well, the woman’s “good name” had to be guarded at all costs. This was not the first case where the perpetrator went scot-free for the fear of victim shaming.

In America, Hollywood has finally declared war on sexual predators. On Monday, the Golden Globes red carpet was all-black as stars “fashionably repudiated” disgraced mogul Weinstein and others -- Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner and Dustin Hoffman. Hollywood industry figures including actors, directors and writers, wore black and supported the Time’s Up campaign to address workplace sexual harassment misconduct.

In Bollywood, sexual harassment is insidious and ubiquitous. In fact, the Bollywood tradition of mothers accompanying the actresses to the sets is chalked up to this. Stories of how stars such as Rekha and Madhuri Dixit were harassed during their struggling days have made it to books and media. In his biography of Rekha, Yasser Usman writes how during the shoot for Anjana Safar, later renamed Do Shikari, producer Kuljeet Pal, director Raja Nawathe and lead actor Biswajeet conspired to force Rekha into a kissing scene. When the director called “action”, Biswajeet grabbed Rekha and forced himself on her while the camera was rolling. The director didn’t call “cut” for five long minutes.

A young Madhuri Dixit, according to reports, was forced to do a rape scene by her director, Bapu. He dismissed her concerns saying “rape scene to hoga hi”. The crew on the set cheered after the shoot got over as the actor was left shaken. While there are a few such anecdotal evidences, Vidhu Vinod Chopra shone a light on how toxic the sets were in Bollywood till some years ago in his film, Khamosh. Shot as a film within a film, it showcases a rape scene being directed and Chopra managed to bring alive just how repulsive and cringeworthy the whole experience must be.

Many established actors have spoken about it but stopped well short of naming anyone. Speaking to HT, actor Richa Chadda said about sexual harassment in the industry, “We will lose a lot of heroes and several people will lose their lives’ work, their legacies. I think that’s what people will attack -- they can’t attack them monetarily so they will go after the legacies. And it will happen, I would think in the next four-five years.” Explaining her refusal to name anyone, she added, “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?”

Swara Bhaskar, another actor who spoke out against sexual harassment and how a director stalked her, also said women don’t have the option of a “feminist choice”. “The best way to ‘deal with harassment’ at the workplace is to lose the part but don’t get on the couch. It’s not a feminist choice, and it’s certainly not a liberating choice. It’s like giving a bribe, and that amounts to succumbing to a wrong,” she said.

However, as Weinstein’s downfall proved, truth is the only weapon. At the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey put it powerfully in words when she said, “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.” Alas, not so soon in India though.

First Published: Jan 09, 2018 11:57 IST