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Talk Point: Is there a culture of silence on sexual harassment in Indian film industry?

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Multiple accusations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sparked a social media trend #MeToo. What started as an attempt to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry is now a rallying cry for women across the world. Thousands have written and spoken about their experiences of being sexually harassed and how it was handled.

As the Harvey Weinstein case fuels a #MeToo campaign, is there a culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment in the Indian film industry?

We asked Swara Bhaskar, Kalki Koechlin, Tisca Chopra, Bhairavi Goswami, Rajeev Masand and Advaita Kala.

We are all guilty of being in-the-know, and of being silent 

Swara Bhaskar

Sexual harassment is a universal phenomenon, because fundamentally it is about power. About the misuse of power – sometimes physical, sometimes situational. And as Foucault would remind us – power is everywhere.

There is probably no relationship in the world devoid of a power dynamic. But perhaps power operates most brazenly and blatantly in an unregulated workplace. And that is what Bollywood is. Bollywood, in its organisation, and the film set, in its operation, are both fundamentally hierarchical, feudal places. I don’t know why, perhaps that is the only way films (mammoth undertakings in themselves) can get made. Certain people give instructions, others execute them. Certain people have a vision, a host of others make that vision a reality.

Bollywood is also a very uncertain place, ruled by that cruel seductress called fortune. It’s also basically an industry where everyone is a freelancer. As a result it is (mostly) full of people who are insecure, anxious, forever hustling. Ambitious people these. Everything is exaggerated in Bollywood. If you succeed, an unreal amount of fame, money, glory & power come your way. And when you fail, it feels like the world has fallen apart.

Power, glamour, fame and money mixed into a context of ambition and insecurity – a heady place where, of course, power dynamics will operate brazenly. Of course, power will be abused. Of course, the conditions for sexual harassment at the workplace will be ripe; of course, instances will be many; of course, there will be a lot of silencing, self-censorship by victims.

Of course, #MeToo.

Everyone’s experience of sexual harassment is specific and unique. So I speak for myself only.

My experience has been that men in positions of power (i.e. in a position to cast me) have propositioned me – directly, indirectly, sometimes too directly, sometimes too subtly – so that I didn’t realise it was a proposition till much later. But no one ever forced me. Sure, there were moments when I felt genuinely vulnerable and nervous, I lost some roles, some people stopped responding to messages. But luckily, I was never forced upon in a physical sense and the situation always remained in my control, and I was able to manoeuvre myself to a safe zone in the interaction.

However, a predator knows how to pick which prey. I am an articulate, aware, educated, confident girl. I think I give the vibe that I will not take things lying down. I’ve heard stories of far more aggressive & shameless propositioning from girls younger than me, from less culturally elite backgrounds. Girls who seem ‘easy’ prey.

Bollywood is not famous for introspection. And producers have too much money at stake, and are too beholden-by-the-rules to government agencies (like the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and CBFC) and now to lumpens & goons (like the Rajput Karni Sena) to unite and fight even for their own creative freedoms. I do not expect them to attach themselves to a ‘controversy’. Actresses and actors are too vulnerable, insecure and perennially out of work, and too ambitious to want to risk their careers for the cause. And, it is risking our career to speak up.

Perhaps, Bollywood needs to follow the example of the Malayalam film industry, which has instituted an anti-sexual harassment committee – after the rape of the Malyalam film actress – to create a safer working environment for victims and potential victims, and to create a platform to get victims justice. Sadly, it’s unlikely to happen soon.

Meanwhile, ladies (and gentlemen), lose the part but DO NOT get on the couch. It’s not a choice thing. It’s certainly not a liberating, or feminist choice. It’s an act that perpetrates an entrenched, unethical, and perverse structuring of power in work relationships. It’s like giving a bribe. It’s wrong.

So let’s stop giving, let’s stop silencing and let’s start talking, sharing, and asking for a collective platform to deal with this entrenched and prevalent issue. Because we are all guilty, at the very least, of being in-the-know, and of being silent. And that, friends, is called complicity.

This is a power game and it is being broken down through social media

Kalki Koechlin

Sexual assault and harassment are both a power game. People who face sexual assault are not in a position to talk about it because it might threaten their jobs. I have very openly spoken about this.

Once, when I was new to Bollywood, I was asked by a producer if I would go out for dinner with him and get to know him better because he was giving me a big opportunity down the road. I said no and that I wasn’t interested. Even though the film never got made I never felt like I should fight it because it was never a question that I would consider.

I think that people in power almost always abuse their power, and once you get to a position of power it is really important that you get conscious of that and not abuse your power. There is also not only sexual power, there are other ways you can use your power in a mentally coercive manner.

The #MeToo campaign is interesting because you can see the number of people who have been threatened or have been asked for favours because of trying to get somewhere in life. I think this is a first step for people to come forth and talk about it. This gives more confidence to people in the future when they do face these problems to speak up. If there’s no platform of support, one lone woman can be condemned for being crazy or lying.

This is a power game and in this game both genders get sexual propositions when they are at a struggling level.

Even though there may not be any major transformation in the next six months I think in a decade it’ll become difficult for people to get away with it like they have in the past.

Also we talk about Harvey Weinstein in LA but not about High Spirits in Pune or the TVF incident. So, there is also something to be said about media response and what is considered important ‘news’.

The casting couch has been one of Bollywood’s worst kept secrets 

Rajeev Masand
Film critic and Entertainment Editor at CNN-News18

One of the few positives to emerge out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has revealed literally dozens of cases of sexual harassment in Hollywood is the conversation it appears to have triggered locally too.

The casting couch has been one of Bollywood’s worst kept secrets, with major A-list filmmakers and actors known to be routinely guilty of the ‘practice’. The Madh Island bungalows, the suites reserved at a popular Juhu hotel, the ‘secret den’ tucked away inside powerful producers’ offices. It’s the stuff of legends; seldom, if ever, directly addressed or exposed because of the culture of silence that has existed for as long as one can remember.

Some might argue that the cliché of the lecherous Bollywood producer and the ingénue may be true of the shady 80s and 90s, but that things are vastly different now in a studio-driven landscape where the very concept of ultimate power has been wrestled away from individuals. To be fair, there may be some truth to that claim. But one only needs to peer at social media – to see the dozens of young female actors, directors, technicians, make-up artistes, hairdressers, assistant-directors, and journalists who’ve used the #MeToo hashtag to cite instances of harassment in their professional careers – to acknowledge that the problem is far from over.

Because asking for sex in return for a role isn’t the only charge that constitutes harassment. Veiled comments, snide jokes, any form of unwarranted physical contact, those long creepy stares… all of it has got to go. Victim shaming has got to stop too so that more women (and men!) feel comfortable to come out and call out the perps. And when they do, swift action must be taken. For this is the one place where silence ain’t golden.

Women are just as much to blame, because they put themselves in those vulnerable positions 

Tisca Chopra

I’m not even sure that I’m going to say the thing that you want me to say. I’m going to be very categorical when I say that women are just as much to blame, because they put themselves in those vulnerable positions. Why do these women go to hotel rooms? Do they not fear for their personal safety? Have they not heard of people’s reputations, and why do they engage with those men?

Why do they not say “N-O:no” point blank? And why be alone with a person like that? Every human being is hardwired to protect themselves. Self-preservation is the biggest instinct human beings have, why do they lose that? They think that somehow they will be the one that will duck the pattern and will escape. Knowing someone’s reputation, why would you put yourself in that position with them?

Being a woman, I would say that first of all, protect yourself. Don’t put yourself in that position. The more women start saying flat-out “no”s, the more these men will understand that this is not the way, this is not going to work. But a woman goes and says yes, and so it gives them the authority to say “If this one won’t do it, then that one will do it,” or “I’ll take that one, I’ll take this one”. So, you know, those choices need to stop becoming available to these men. It just has to be absolutely not possible.

What is happening in Hollywood is largely 30 years of somebody becoming a blatant predator. People, by and large, say “chance maaro, how can it hurt to ask”. Unless somebody says “no”, and the kind of “no” you say, and the manner in which you say it should convey that it is completely unacceptable to even ask this question.

Don’t let your career hang in the balance. Work hard on your acting, take a little longer to build your career, don’t take any shortcuts.

After carrying favours, enjoying success, these women suddenly remember they were sexually harassed years ago

Bhairavi Goswami

The women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment are Hollywood actresses born and raised in California, London, NYC or some other cosmopolitan city. Most were born to parents who were in some way associated with the entertainment industry. They weren’t small town girls unaccustomed to the ways of showbiz.

The entertainment industry all over the world is brutal, and competition in all the departments is fierce. After these women have had a personal relationship, curried favours, got more assignments and enjoyed their success to suddenly remember that they were sexually harassed 10-30 years ago is demeaning and belittling to genuine sexual harassment cases.

What’s even more amusing is that from one actress the number balloons to 40 actresses, all of whom suddenly remembered they were harassed 20-odd years ago.

A new media obsessed with scandals is quick to hang the producer with no police arrest, jury, trial or legal verdict.

TVF founder Arunabh Kumar was accused of sexual harassment in an anonymous blog. In a week, that number grew to 55 women who claimed they had all been sexually harassed by him. There was no FIR, arrest or formal investigation. It was trial by media where they hung a man solely on the basis of 55 anonymous social media posts.

Are we going to deny the fact that that both men and women have consensual sexual relations to further their career, then scream ‘rape’ after 10 years? To defend women saying they were scared is preposterous. These aren’t uneducated tribal people from a tiny village off the grid. They maybe from smaller towns but now they live in Mumbai, party seven days a week, indulge in substance abuse, alcohol, and sex games, and the media says these poor innocent virgins were scared.

Does the media understand the long-term ramifications of making a joke out of sexual harassment?

Much like migrant women who work on construction sites, there are no protections for women in the film industry

Advaita Kala

The Harvey Weinstein fracas in Hollywood has opened up a can of worms like never before. How could a predator be allowed to operate with such impunity and sanction (no other way to describe it) for decades? It brings us back to the conspiracy of silence men are permitted to get away with such acts because in the glamour industry it is considered to be part of “the game”.

In India, the film industry remains in the unorganised sector. The world of films may be under the public lens rich, glamourous, seemingly empowered, but women have little agency; much like migrant women who work on construction sites, or the young woman who works in a shop in Sarojini Nagar, there are no protections. No Vishakha guidelines to protect them against predators. Don’t let the glittering lights and the perceived privilege fool you.

A few years ago, there was an incident of a rape case filed against a director, I asked other male directors what they thought of it. The response was unanimous, each felt they must install CCTV cameras in their cabins to record meetings with female colleagues and aspirants. It was typical that they felt victimised and had little time or concern for the rampant sexual abuse prevalent in the industry.

The cleverly termed “casting couch” has couched consent and it is the prism through which all such interactions are viewed, i.e. “she” knew what she was getting into. Will it ever change? Only if the most famous women in the business speak up about their experiences. But will they? In a business where image is everything and empowerment of women is measured in terms of acquiescent presence and the ability to work with every camp, it is a long way away.


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  1. Lol. Tisa if she is saying this..surely she has never gone thru this. You don’t know what the circumstances become at that time..if a girl child is sexually exploited…and she dosent know why her father is doing this to her. When mum is not at home…she is young and maybe think that it is a thing everybody does..what about that?..what if u are standing in a crouded bus ..which Tisa ..surely may have not done since she us an actress…and someone does that ..and u cannot shout since u are not sure …if it a mistake or something else…what will she do? Not everybody is like u strong and confident and not caring what would happen out of it……there are lots of circumstances..blackmailing of Bose’s to throw her out of the job…money …etc etc..

  2. Bhairavi is spot on. These women themselves want to take easy route n opt for Godfather. Instead of auditioning in queue like others. And after getting break and success, they play victim. Did anyone put a gun on their head? No. It was a opportunistic choice they made for their own career advancement. Media shud focus on issues faced by women outside Bollywood bcoz that is where the victims are. Nobody in Bollywood is a “victim”. There are women too who hv propositioned or throw themselves at big stars. That is harassment too. Or women producers who take advantage of men. Make harassment gender neutral.

  3. There is something deeply troubling about both Tisca Chopra and Bhairavi Goswami narrative.
    For too long the discussion has centered on whether or not women ‘compromise’ and all this happening to only women who ‘compromise’. But that’s BULLSHIT. The fact is that sexual harassment started not when the woman entered the hotel room, but when the producer/casting director/co-star suggested that she should. We HAVE to move the discussion away from what the woman did and talk about how men dare to assume that a woman wanting to work must also be available sexually. The onus of saying NO must shift from women to men. In any corporate setting if you appear for an interview and are suggested to meet up for a private rendezvous, that right there will be construed as harassment.
    And as for Bhairavi, here’s a thought: Partying seven days a week, sleeping with a new man every night, playing ‘sex games’ is not power. Even with all that, women still get harassed. When was the last time anyone from Bollywood was penalised for taking advantage of young women? And why is it that only ‘innocent virgins’ get your belief and the rest your scorn? Perhaps you’ve never been at the mercy of a powerful man and known he will go scot-free. But then, you know such men. You are just busy finding excuses for them.

    • I agree with you completely. This points to the victim blaming narrative that is prevalent in India. Women don’t feel empowered enough to speak up because they know how it’s going to go. People will say “why was she there?” “What was she wearing?” “She knew what she was getting into”…allowing sexual predators to continue their pattern of preying on seemingly vulnerable people. It’s not easy to fight back when these people operate with such impunity, knowing they will not be persecuted or even reprimanded for their actions. We’re often told to just deal with it. So the people who say that women have a say in what happens to them in this industry are delusional. Everywhere you turn, sexual harassment is waiting for you around the corner. It’s almost impossible not to encounter it and it’s high time we faced this monster head on and took it to task. THAT is reclaiming the narrative and saying, “things are going to happen my way now and I will be the master of my own destiny”.

  4. I completely agree with Tiscachopra and I share the same opinion. You are out there looking for an opportunity and you are invited to join your director/producer/casting director on dinner followed by a private discussion in the hotel suite, don’t you know that you are risking your personal safety there? You agree and go, sending signals that are perceived as “Yes, I am interested in your proposition.” Later, you become a star and when you are at the helm of success, you call this guy “filthy” and give lectures on sexual harassment and abuse. In such cases, it’s neither harassment or abuse but mere compromise. These people should not use, #MeToo

  5. Bollywood is a very grey zone. The redeeming aspect, if one may call it that, is that there may not be significant coercion, which is what happens in conventional cases where a woman is violated against her consent. There is a completely transactional, even mercenary, aspect to these incidents. It boils down to what price an aspiring actress is willing to pay for success.

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