Thursday, June 1, 2023
Support Our Journalism
HomeFeaturesLights, camera, sexual harassment—PoSH committees in Mumbai showbiz failing MeToo

Lights, camera, sexual harassment—PoSH committees in Mumbai showbiz failing MeToo

Four years since MeToo, seven associations, and one federation of 31 associations that ThePrint spoke to have received zero complaints.

Text Size:

She sat in her room on a stormy Mumbai morning, imagining what the action on set would be like. Up until recently, she was at the heart of the set, doing what she feels she was born to do — making movies. Today, she feels benched for raising her voice against sexual harassment.

A colleague had grabbed a mic pinned on her shirt right above her breasts, put his mouth over it and yelled into it. She complained.

The male colleague’s behaviour toward her escalated. He was even verbally abusive, she alleged. In the end, she had to leave the project, while the colleague, an assistant director, saw it through.

Four years after Bollywood’s MeToo revelations promised a new era of POSH committees and scrutiny of male behaviour in the unorganised, hydra-headed film industry, women continue to face sexual harassment and are still punished when they complain. Many of the 2018 accused have crawled back, and the blinding flood lights continue to hide the predators.

Silence is the de facto response. For fear of getting earmarked as ‘difficult women’ who shouldn’t be hired, women tend to stay quiet. These are the ways of a competitive industry where most work on a contractual project-to-project basis, and don’t know where the next cheque is going to come from. To live the Mumbai dream, many nightmares ought to be lived through.

Also read: Pathaan is Shah Rukh Khan’s love letter to his fans. And RSVP for boycott gang

‘Difficult women’

In 2018, many women from the film industry accused celebrities such as Sajid Khan, Alok Nath, Nana Patekar, Anu Malik, Rajat Kapoor and Kailash Kher of alleged rape, flashing, harrassment. Bollywood sprang into action. The response of the Indian Film and Television Producers Association to the MeToo movement was ‘Mission Samman’, where they planned to distribute pepper spray and alarm bells to female workers. The initiative was stalled by the pandemic, and hasn’t been rolled out yet.

And many celebrities named in 2018 have since been accepted back into the fold. Despite facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment that year, and a subsequent year-long suspension by the Indian Film & Television Directors’ Association, Sajid Khan bounced back.

Cancel culture and outrage just didn’t stick.

In October last year, actor Sherlyn Chopra went public accusing Khan of harassing her while they were participants in the reality show Bigg Boss 16. But it was only in January that he was eliminated. His new movie, 100%, is scheduled to be released this year.

Bringing him back to the mainstream normalises rape culture, says Sherlyn Chopra.

“The message these molesters convey through their unapologetic attitude is, ‘get used to sexual exploitation. If you suck it up and let it in, you become the dream girl of millions. To gain something you have to lose everything is their motto,” she told ThePrint.

For a brief moment in 2018, things appeared to be changing.

Various associations of directors, producers, artists, crew members, workers came together and instituted Internal Committees under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act (2013) for women to come forth with their complaints in a safe manner. But these committees are mere window-dressing.

Almost five years later, seven associations, and one federation of 31 associations that ThePrint spoke to have received zero complaints of sexual harassment. The committees of these associations were formed in the aftermath of the MeToo movement.

In the absence of internal committees at the workplace, women have the option of approaching the Local Committees constituted under the District Magistrate. But according to sources in Maharashtra’s Women and Child Development Department office located in Chembur, in the last five years, the Local Committee has received only one complaint of sexual harassment from the Hindi film industry.

“We can’t force anyone to come forward and complain to us. But people are generally afraid of speaking up against harassment fearing they won’t be hired anywhere else,” says B.N. Tiwari, the president of Federation of Western India Cine Employees.

Female crew members ThePrint spoke to painted a very hostile environment within the entertainment industry. Expletives are punctuations in language on sets, misogyny is rampant and redressal systems are often non-existent.

People commenting on your body, casually putting arms around your waist, asking personal questions about sex lives and drinking habits even during interviews is commonplace, a crew member with almost a decade of experience in the direction department alleged.

“If you’re dating someone on set, and people find out, your relationship is discussed in a very crass way. At the smallest slip up, people say, ‘You’re going to be exhausted if you don’t sleep at night’,” said the crew member.

Also read: K-pop in Ekta Kapoor serials — the Korea-India YouTube boom no one saw coming

A complicit industry

Speaking up comes at the cost of job opportunities because the industry operates through word of mouth. Taking any solid action against harassment faced on sets threatens their ‘image’ in the industry and future gig prospects. The industry is complicit in this, silence is its prop.

A script writer who was allegedly harassed by a leading producer says she struggled to find support within the industry once her story went viral. The ‘difficult woman’ tag stuck to her like a burr. Years after her accusation, she is still regarded with caution and scepticism in the industry.

In 2018, when women started sharing their experiences, the script writer shared her experience with a journalist. On the encouragement of members of the Screenwriters Association, she wrote to the human resources department of the Mumbai-based production company the accused had been working with at the time.

“Madam, this is to let you know that Mr (name redacted) is no longer an employee of our company. With this, we are treating this matter closed at our end,” the production house wrote back, and that was that. ThePrint has a copy of the email communication. There was no investigation, no PoSH committee sittings at the production house, which incidentally is owned by a well-known businessman.

“When I finally found employment last year, with a woman-led leading production house, my immediate boss’ face lost all colour when she realised that I was the same woman who had levelled allegations against a big producer,” recalled the script writer.

“You should have told me,” the scriptwriter’s immediate supervisor at the production company reportedly said before sending her for the legal team. “I had to sit with the legal team for hours, recount the entire incident to them and return with advice on future conduct.” The script writer did not divulge details on the future conduct required of her.

Even producer associations agree that women don’t choose to complain about sexual harassment, fearing ostracisation by producers. Suresh Amin, the CEO of the Indian Film and Television Producers Council, a body of more than 400 production houses, contended that producers don’t want to work with ‘vocal women’, fearing their project might get hampered.

“It’s a matter of livelihood. This industry is run on a contractual employment basis. Look at Tanushree Dutta, she stopped getting work anywhere after complaining about Nana Patekar. Had to shift base to the United States,” he said.

While Twitter warriors were rallying behind #MeToo complainants, Bollywood was shifting uncomfortably in its seat. But after the initial wave subsided, the women who had stepped up found themselves alone again, while dealing with the flotsam and jetsam of accusations and apologies.

“Women stopped getting work after they went public with their complaints. The aftermath of the campaign has taken a toll on them,” said veteran filmmaker Vinta Nanda who had accused actor Alok Nath of rape. She is working on a movie SHOUT on India’s MeToo wave, which is expected to be released soon.

“Looking at their situation, which woman will dare speak against harassment in the industry ever again?” she added.

Women are discouraged to speak up even by their colleagues. Crew members of various WhatsApp groups were hesitant to share their experiences, and in some cases have been actively dissuaded from talking to reporters.

“There are no jobs in the market. Producers have no money to hire a good crew. And we, who need to support our field in order to progress, are digging holes into it,” wrote a member in a Female AD (assistant director) and Cost group.

Another woman, who was allegedly raped by a colleague, replayed a call recording of a man she claimed was her former employer. “I will constitute a PoSH committee… but promise that it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass,” the employer’s voice in the recording was crystal clear.

Also read: Pathaan is not just any other Hindi movie. It’s a battle for India

Shoddy implementation 

Action, if taken, while on sets is often delayed, which means that the complainant and the ‘harasser’ have to work together. A crew member, while working on the set of a spy thriller movie slated to be released this year and starring Aparshakti Khurana, recalled approaching a senior producer to complain about the first assistant director who was reportedly harassing her.

“I didn’t want anyone to lose their job, so I was fine with him getting reprimanded. But his behaviour just worsened over time,” said the crew member.

She sent long emails to the Mumbai-based production house, which was incorporated in February 2021. But the AD started verbally abusing her for daring to complain against him, even after the intervention of the director and producer.

As the “verbal” harassment continued, the complainant had to leave the project midway. “Nothing happened to him. He was just reprimanded, no action was taken against him,” she alleged.

The respondent, against whom accusations were levelled, denied that the incident ever took place.

“A person having left the set due to her lack of performance may be falsely trying to put the blame on me or trying to spoil the image of the movie by the rights available to her,” he wrote to ThePrint in a WhatsApp message.

In March 2022, within days of the incident, the crew member resigned from the production house. In her resignation, she cited breach of contract by the employer for failing to comply with Clause 2.12 of her contract which stated, “The Service Provider agrees and acknowledges the producer has zero tolerance towards sexual harassment and shall promptly act upon any allegations of sexual harassment brought to the producer’s attention. The service provider shall fully and strictly comply with the policies of the producer with respect and the terms of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act 2013.”

According to the crew member, the production house allegedly never informed her of the existence of an internal committee, and failed to provide details of members when she asked for the information.

“The company has claimed that they’ve had an internal committee in place since September 2021. Even if that’s true, I was never informed about the members, even though I asked for their names several times.”

After she resigned, she approached the co-producers of the movie, Zee Studios.

“Their liaison on set stopped picking up my calls and messages. I went to their office and demanded to meet someone from the Internal Committee in March, but Zee Studio’s legal team sent me back with a fake telephone number,” she claimed.

ThePrint wrote to Shariq Patel, CEO of Zee Studios via email, but didn’t receive a response at the time of publishing. The copy will be updated with his reply as and when a response received. Zee Studios wasn’t party to the complaint.

The crew member filed a complaint with the National Commission for Women in April, since the production house (not Zee Studios) allegedly failed to furnish details of their internal committee.

In response to ThePrint’s queries, the production house threatened legal action, adding they were compliant with the law. “All requirements of the POSH Act 2013 and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Rules, 2013 have been complied with by our Client before the Hon’ble District Women and Child Development Officer (DWCDO),” their legal representatives wrote to ThePrint.

The production house didn’t answer ThePrint’s queries on why the complainant was allegedly not given names of its internal committee members even though she claims she asked repeatedly, or if they had an internal committee in place when the alleged incident happened. “I was called for a meeting on 4 October, since DWCDO had directed the production house to conduct its own investigation. I didn’t go for the meeting because I was informed of the same less than 24 hours before, on 3 October. And the names of internal committee members were still not revealed to me by the production house,” said the crew member.

Sana Hakim, senior partner with PoSH At Work, a government-empanelled law firm, said that contractual employees have to be protected under PoSH guidelines.

“It is incumbent upon the employer to duly inform its employees about the PoSH Act,” she said. The Act also states regular awareness workshops. Displaying the names of the PoSH members at a public place in the office is mandatory. For the most part, it’s being treated like a bureaucratic necessity.

Also read: Tina Dabi is an IAS celebrity. Jaisalmer media has turned into paparazzi

What happens when you complain 

Complainants claim that even HR practices are stacked against them. The few who do speak out described how they start losing hope very quickly.

A member of the direction team of a production house approached a senior producer at Ding Infinity with a harassment complaint but returned with unsolicited advice on modest dressing. Ding Infinity, is a subsidiary of AltBalaji, were the producers of the show Fitrat.

“A colleague had been harassing me over the phone. He was sending unsolicited messages and calling me late at night. When I finally decided to take it to the seniors, I was told that I should dress properly and check how I talk to my male colleagues,” the woman told ThePrint.

The woman wasn’t aware of the PoSH Act or the existence of an internal committee. She claimed that all the senior producer at Ding allegedly said to the man who was harassing her was, “This is strike 2”.

According to the woman’s version of events, the man insinuated that she had been “inviting” because she had once asked him for sanitary napkins. In her recollection of the events in 2019, he said in his defence, ‘Who talks like that? It was provoking.’

ThePrint reached out to the accused via WhatsApp but he didn’t respond.

Ding Infinity said they fired the man after the matter came to light. “When the incident was brought to light, both sides were spoken to and the accused in question was terminated. Please understand that it is imperative that we get to the bottom of accusations before making a career-altering decision toward someone,” Tanveer Bookwala, founder and creative director of Ding Infinity told ThePrint, in an email response.

He also said that in 2019 they were a company of “four people” and thus didn’t have an internal committee. An office is supposed to have an internal committee when it has more than 10 employees on its payroll.

The woman, however, said that both she and the accused continued to work on the show until March 2020. Ding neither confirmed or nor denied the timeline but said the accused was fired for “bad behaviour and a variety of complaints.”

That’s one of the sore points of the PoSH Act that’s exploited in the industry. Medium and small-scale production houses do not have a PoSH committee because they employ only a handful of people on a permanent basis.

The industry works largely on a project-to-project basis, when their contractual employees can swell up to even 100, even 150. In such cases, PoSH committees are absent, even though in most contracts, compliance of the PoSH Act is a clause in signed contracts.

“Every contract today, signed with a production house, has a PoSH clause in it. But I don’t know how strictly the Act’s guidelines are implemented,” said Pranjal Khandhdiya, who co-founded Outsiders Films with actor Tapsee Pannu.

Their upcoming movie, Dhak Dhak, had a proper PoSH briefing before shooting began.

A similar SoP, industry insiders said, is followed by big production houses like Dharma, YRF, Endemol and Drishyam. ThePrint verified this with several employees.

But even established players don’t guarantee full compliance.

A woman who was working with BBC Studios India for the Hindi adaptation of the second season of Criminal Justice, reported an unsolicited sexual advance by their assistant director to her seniors.

“Yar, your A** is so good. Let’s have sex na!” the man in the direction team allegedly told her on 26 August 2020, when shooting had been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the response from her seniors, she said, was not encouraging.

“They said if this had happened on set, we would have taken action. But we’re definitely blacklisting the accused,” he said.

BBC Studios did respond to ThePrint’s queries but didn’t explain why the company didn’t take necessary action under the PoSH Act.

“We don’t respond to individual cases but take allegations of this kind very seriously. We have our own internal PoSH committee, which investigates complaints of sexual harassment in line with the law. Additionally, BBC Studios has its own processes in place to deal with incidents in the workplace,” said a company spokesperson.

Though he was reportedly blacklisted as per the claims of the complainant, the alleged abuser’s LinkedIn profile says he is with BBC Studios as an associate director.

Does PoSH cover oral complaints? Sana Hakim said there’s no specific obligation under the law. “However the law states that assistance has to be provided by the IC to file a complaint in case the aggrieved is unable to give a complaint in writing. The IC as per law can only redress written complaints.”

If employees and production crew are stymied by a poor response, then women who are ‘daily wage earners’ on set are worse off. Women in the make-up or costume department, or hairdressers that ThePrint spoke to said they had no idea that they could seek redressal.

The association leaders of make-up, hairdressers and costumes didn’t even know about the existence of the PoSH Act. And while production crew is provided pickups and drops, there is rarely such a facility in place for daily workers.

“Our department has to reach the set hours before shooting begins, and winds up two hours after pack up,” an association leader, requesting anonymity, told ThePrint.

He claimed that production houses often don’t take care of transportation.

“We have to walk in and out of the film city at odd hours in a jungle area where there are leopards. Women walk on pitch dark roads, and producers haven’t made arrangements to light up the area. Transport arrangements are not made even for women,” the association leader added.

Picture for representational purposes: A set in Mumbai’s Film City | Shubhangi Misra ThePrint

In June 2022, following a meeting with the principal secretary (labour), Maharashtra, Vinita Vaid Singhal, the Producers Guild of India had issued a guideline to all members about women safety.

“Productions should be especially mindful of the working conditions for female workers and make adequate arrangements for their safety and comfort,” reads the mail sent to members of the guild.

But the advisory/guideline is toothless in that there are no checks and balances that the Guild can implement in its capacity as an advisory body. It is not a judicial body.

More often than not, even basic infrastructure such as the number of toilets on sets isn’t adequate. One toilet is often shared by at least 60 people on a set, which leaves them in an unusable condition. “We’ve asked producers for toilets so many times but our demands have fallen on deaf ears,” says Tiwari, president of Workers Federation.

A road leading to the Film City in Mumbai. Crew working in various projects say that the lack of street lights on this stretch is a safety concern. At night, there is also fear of being attacked by leopards, they claim. | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

Suresh Amin, the CEO of the Indian Film and Television Producers Association, however, disagreed with Tiwari. He insisted that producers provide transportation to the nearest hub for autos/buses. And said “there’s a toilet attached to every make up room on set.”

If there is change for the positive, it’s taking place among OTT platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney HotStar and Netflix whether the set-up is more corporate. That said, none of the three platforms responded to ThePrint’s request for information on whether they have internal committees in place or if women working on sets can approach them for redressal.

But a unit photographer, with more than 15 years experience, said she prefers working with OTTs.

“I am increasingly choosing to work with Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hotstar because the condition on sets is much better,” she said. The photographer picks projects carefully. ‘No’ is a word she is comfortable using when declining projects.

But not everyone, especially young women at the start of their careers, have this option.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular