Monday, March 27, 2023
HomeOpinionAfter Saroj Khan’s remarks, it’s time for Bollywood’s #MeToo moment

After Saroj Khan’s remarks, it’s time for Bollywood’s #MeToo moment

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Ranbir Kapoor, the yuvraaj of one of the most blatantly nepotistic families, says he’d be ‘very sad if the casting couch exists’. Really, Ranbir?

Saroj Khan is right about one thing. The Bollywood ‘casting couch’ isn’t new. It is, by this time, the well-worn futon at a house party everyone chooses to look away from because someone is clearly being harassed on it and intervening would be just “too awkward”. It’s the way we look away from a man trying to intimidate a woman in public because “why get into personal matters, yaar?”

Bollywood’s first line of defence is what Richa Chadda said: “I think people are making ‘mountain of molehill’. There’s narrative that people in Bollywood are the worst and indulge in malpractices which isn’t the case. She meant to say it takes place in all industries, why is Bollywood being singled out?” This is true, too. Bollywood is not the only industry where people are sexually harassed, intimidated and assaulted.

What’s scary is the fact that the survivors of Bollywood have no mechanisms for aid and recourse. Most other industries, under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, have to constitute a committee against sexual harassment in their offices, and have to build up processes that help survivors by affording them safety and protection against future retribution.

Do these guidelines always work? Very often, no. They require a lot of patience and investment of time and resources, and not many workplaces are willing to do the grunt work required. However, they’re real, important guidelines that exist and offer some form of succour. Bollywood, with its lack of structures and transparency, is the perfect breeding ground for some of the most misogynistic, nasty practices, which maintain a status quo that not only keeps people with disproportionate power safe, but also sets precedent for the creation of more such people.

For a lot of people, the first response to any allegation against a famous person is “but why didn’t she speak up?” Well, the way actress Sri Reddy was treated should tell you all about why women in the entertainment industry don’t talk about the abuse they face. She was not just arbitrarily dismissed, but also had to face a barrage of insinuations on the lines of “things like these” happen to “girls like her”. We’ve been so tightly wound in our narrative of a ‘good girl’ that any woman who actually comes to the fore with her story is slut-shamed long enough for her voice to be invalidated. Women are blamed, consistently and constantly, for ‘allowing’ themselves to be harassed.

Remember when Tisca Chopra asked why women go to hotel suites with men? This is the line of questioning and invalidation most women who speak up face. The onus to not be exploited is thrust upon the shoulders of young, vulnerable, disenfranchised people who are pushed to a corner and threatened not just with lack of work, but expulsion from the industry itself. Bollywood is built on gatekeeping and exclusion — the stories of nepotism and favouritism are often marketed as industry quirks, but they point to a deeper rot in the system. The consolidation of power in a few hands makes it practically impossible for anyone to name their abusers.

When Ranbir Kapoor, the ‘yuvraaj’ of one of the most blatantly nepotistic families, talks about how he’d be “very sad if the casting couch exists”, it’s very difficult to have any reaction except complete amazement. Really, Ranbir? You haven’t had to barter your dignity for a role in a movie that wasn’t made? What a surprise. What’s funny is that your contemporary Sonam has a better grasp of the ground realities.

The men of Bollywood would disagree with you, too. Ranveer Singh and Ayushmann Khurrana have both been open about the fact that they’ve faced this horrid, demeaning paradigm. Sexual favours aren’t about the act of sex itself. They’re not about pleasure, or shared joy, or affection. They’re about nothing but brute power being thrust upon someone as a reminder of what they’ll lose if they dare to speak up.

Bollywood, both in what it produces, and how it produces it, remains an immensely patriarchal industry. Most of the men who run it have been doing so for years, and have little or no fear of being brought to justice because they know that the industry will shield them. As Hollywood sees #MeToo taking shape and causing a (however perfunctory) fall of a giant like Harvey Weinstein, the complicit silence of Bollywood shows up in starker relief.

This isn’t just about the act of assault itself. It’s about what all leads up to it. It’s the constant barricading against women directors, writers, and camera people. It’s the relentless reduction of women and their roles to arbitrary distractions. It’s about the painful reminder that a woman on screen is not worth more than what her body is. Bollywood is a dream come to life for many people. It’s a machine that fosters and sells hopes and aspirations, and it has a duty to make sure those are not sullied.

It’s time for the actors who make Bollywood to speak up. It’s time for those who have the privilege of knowing they can’t be ruined to pass on their mics and platforms to those who don’t have access to any. It’s going to be difficult, messy, and hurtful. Many age-old truths will have to be reexamined, and the constant retelling of trauma will take its toll. This will be an exercise in purging, and to heal, we’ll have to undo the sutures that have kept the festering wounds hidden from the world.

If it’s time for anything, it’s time for Bollywood’s #MeToo moment. And we’re the ones who will bring it to the fore.

Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.

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  1. First some of these actresses go to any extreme to bag a role in a major film, and then they cry wolf and raise a bogey of casting couch. Recall, some time back, two actresses were found in hotel suites with some fellows in Hyderabad. Even the police gave a statement that they had been rescued from clutches of sexual predators. What a height of hypocrisy?

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