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Time to break the silence

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Women in India are finally speaking up against sexual harassment, and it’s long overdue, says Tanmaya Vyas

In India, and even more so in the glamour world, while everybody accepts that harassment exists, few admit it happening to them and even fewer name the predator. Tanushree Dutta is the first Indian actress to speak about the issue and also name the person concerned, exactly a year after Rose McGowan shared her horrific experience with Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein. However, the difference is Rose McGowan’s disclosure was followed by other leading actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Angeline Jolie and Salma Hayek, who not only supported her but came forth and shared their stories too, unlike the silence by other actresses in the Hindi film industry.

Tanushree Dutta had raised her voice ten years ago, when the incident occurred; she gave up her film career soon afterwards at the young age of 23 and disappeared till recently, while the accused, Nana Patekar, continued having his successful run at the box-office.

Since then, there have been innumerable changes in the system, and a key change has been the emergence of social media. A revolution of sorts, social media has been an important tool that has helped Tanushree garner substantial support and flag a movement that is soon gaining pace. Unlike ten years ago when Tanushree did not find support, leave alone a chance to have the matter investigated, today many prominent names like Farhan Akhtar, Priyanka Chopra and Parineeti Chopra have extended their support and applauded her courage. However, the accused Nana Patekar’s bastion, the Marathi film industry, has either stayed quiet or supported Nana, barring Renuka Shahane and Atul Kulkarni, who have urged an investigation.

Harassment—the term goes beyond sexual advances; it also encompasses physical or verbal abuse, ill-treating someone intentionally. The challenge is that women in India generally refrain from speaking about sexual harassment, particularly in the entertainment industry. In a corporate environment, where such instances also occur, the Vishaka Guidelines or a sound Human Resources Department can save the situation; the entertainment industry has no organisation for redressal.

Cine and Television Artistes Association (CINTAA), an organisation to safeguard interests and solve disputes among empanelled members, is the sole body for industry members; however, it lacks power to tackle issues pertaining to women, and today, around 30-40% of the workforce in the entertainment industry comprises women, from ground staff to highly paid actresses. Ten years ago, Tanushree’s complaint was not acted upon, though she filed a First Information Report (FIR).  Now, Sushant Singh (of The Legend of Bhagat Singh fame) and General Secretary of CINTAA, has reportedly apologised and acknowledged that the organisation did not do all that it could have. “I think, as an organisation, we didn’t discharge our duties fully,” he has said, adding that they are willing to re-examine the incident. He had earlier remarked that only three to four cases have been registered in the past five years and none of them involved prominent names.

The reality is clearly different. Yesteryear actress Simi Garewal recently tweeted saying that she has known of horror stories of the ‘predatory jungle’, of which some girls who were the victims became stars, while many disappeared. A comment by an industry veteran confirms the prevalence of these malpractices, and the silence that accompanies them. But why the silence? The reason observed usually is that ‘speaking up’ might jeopardise their careers, sabotage their ambitions of making a name in the glamour world and lead to stigma. Power plays a crucial role, as it does in any harassment dynamic. The last time, a mainstream actress spoke about harassment was when Aishwarya Rai opened up about physical abuse and harassment by her former beau, Salman Khan. The only support she got was from Vivek Oberoi. Both Aishwarya and Vivek faced massive losses in their respective careers for speaking against Salman.  Today, with social media, the situation is different.

As film actress Radhika Apte recently observed in an interview, newcomers face exploitation too. The industry is known to function primarily on personal contacts with big names in the industry and there is no particular system to screen new talent and thus there is exploitation.

When Weinstein, a more powerful name than Nana Patekar, was accused he was immediately excluded from every association and panel in which he held a position. In India, the repercussions of this newly started movement can be seen—slowly but steadily.

Soon after Tanushree Dutta’s revelation came charges against Vikas Bahl, director of the 2013 runaway hit Queen and a partner at Phantom Films, a major film production company that was recently dissolved; a former employee at the firm revealed how she was harassed by Bahl. This disclosure is supported by Queen actress Kangana Ranaut. In the light of these allegations and its acceptance by the other partners, Anuraag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, Hrithik Roshan, who stars in Bahl’s upcoming movie, Super 30, asked the producers ‘to take stock of things’ and take a harsh stand if needed. This is followed by many other non-actors sharing their stories; for instance, Rajat Kapoor’s film is now excluded from the upcoming MAMI Film Festival. The fact remains, however, that apart from Kangana and Tanushree, no other mainstream actress has come forth with specific names and details.

With the huge fan base that film stars have, the industry can set an example by acting against such malpractices. This silence is surprising, considering how it churns out films on women’s empowerment. Now, hopefully, the movement seems to be heading in the right direction.

Short takes

With social media emerging as a powerful tool, Indian film actresses are finally raising their voices against harassment.

By acting against such exploitation, the influential industry can set a powerful example.

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