The barrage of sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein has created a storm, and Bollywood too is caught in that whirlwind. Nikita Wadhawan tries to figure out why we brush the reality under the carpet
It’s everywhere, yet it doesn’t exist. But once in a while it comes out from hiding when someone like Harvey Weinstein is exposed in public. Sexual harassment is a reality in every profession but glamour world is its worst-hit target. The film industry today has become a place with a hierarchical power dynamic, with an ambitious talent at the bottom and a powerful person at the top, exploiting that said talent. While we may not have unearthed the Bollywood’s Weinstein yet, he is lurking around unabashedly of his exploits.
This is not a new phenomenon, but a global spotlight on this issue has raked up ‘those times’ when top stars knew these incidents happen. Actor Vidya Balan says she knows people who went through it but kept quiet as they “didn’t want to be known for this controversy”. “And there’s also this fear that other producers won’t give you work. Having said that, whatever you want to do for the sake of your career or your life, no one should be judging you either way,” she adds.
However actress Kriti Kharbanda talks about the other side of the coin when she says many struggling actresses also try to extort people via these allegations. “I know where people have spoken about casting couch to get into the limelight. So then, how do you know who is saying the truth?” she asks.
But is this issue only relevant when big names talk about it? “I don’t think we provide an environment to our women to speak up about sexual abuse. We only listen to people once they are successful or famous. There are a lot of women who are at the struggling stages of their career who talk about these things but no one will listen to their story. We too have our own issues like the TVF incident (its CEO Arunabh Kumar was accused of molesting a woman). You hear about these things for half a day and then it is gone. We need to take responsibility for our own stories. I feel it’s about time we start listening to them,” adds Kalki Koechlin.
Men say #MeToo
And if you think only women bear the brunt of sexual abuse, think again. “You do experience these things; you get such invitations as well. A person might propose ‘If you sleep with me I’ll give you work’, but you have the power to say no. Such indications are given to both men and women, but women face it more. It has happened with me too. A lot of times I’ve been told clearly that if I compromise I’ll get the work. It (invitation) has come from both, male and female. It becomes a slightly weird situation because when people who you know and respect a lot give you such offers, you feel that now the dynamics of the relationship will change. That’s the sad part. But I have the power to take or refuse the offer,” reveals Irrfan Khan.
Films have time and again tried to showcase this issue on the big screen. Filmmaker Onir made ‘Shab’ which exposed how even women in powerful position can take advantage. “In the end, it is all about power. Women also exploit and sexually harass men, but since we live in a patriarchy society, many guys are unable to open up about it. Having said that, everyone is speaking as if it is something new, but it has been going on for years. It is omnipresent in most industries. People should start naming the culprits; that is how it will stop. There are some men who have abused so many women and now they are coming out to be champions of women rights,” says Onir.
Don’t blame the couch!
It angers casting director Abhishek Banerjee when sexual harassment is talked in the same breath as casting couch. “Let’s not call it casting couch; it can be done by a director or a producer. It is not that all the casting directors are doing it. There are some bad apples in every field,” he says. Banerjee, who along with his partner Anmol Ahuja, has casted actors for movies like ‘Rock On! 2’ and ‘Toilet – EK Prem Katha’ advises people to stay away from such invitations. “If you know that certain person is a sexual predator, better to stay away from such person. You can’t spend a night with someone and become a star. Rather spend 50 nights practising your craft,” he adds.
It’s not easy to talk about these issues, especially when we live in a patriarchal environment and work in a male- dominating industry. Powerful people tend to take advantage of the weak and needful but Southern actress Parvathy says that we have to power to say ‘no’. “There was a time in the Malayalam industry when it was expected of me. It was asked very openly by senior actors and directors. But I never worked with those people. The movies I have done are not like that. Maybe that’s the reason I did not get to do films for a long time. The thing is, I didn’t care. I did other movies in Tamil and Kannada,” says Parvathy, who is making her Bollywood debut opposite Irrfan Khan in ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’. The actress says she refused to give in to the pressure of career. “Some people even tried to convince me that this is how the industry works. But I stuck to my ground. I will do something else if I can’t work in a film but I won’t agree to sleep with a powerful person for a movie,” she says.
While Parvathy openly speaks about this issue, there’re actors like Siddharth (‘Rang De Basanti’ fame) who prefer to bury their heads in the sand. “It is very disrespectful if you are insinuating that the South industry has a casting couch phenomenon,” he says purportedly getting offended when being asked about the reality.