I’ve had the good fortune of being virtually puked on by Akshay Kumar’s hooligan-ish fans for over 24 hours. It seemed less like fans supporting their idol and more like a bunch of men scramming to protect their licences to speak to women inappropriately and get away with it. “Itna mazaak toh chalta hai”. Oh, well.
Recently, a video was leaked from within Star Plus. It shows a comic expertly mimicking the PM as part of his auditon act on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. The contestant was lauded by the ringing of the ceremonial golden bell that led to his selection into the show. Unfortunately, he was later asked to scrap the PM Modi mimicry act and the video was not aired for reasons best known to God. As I rang the golden bell for this contestant on set, I was “jest-fully” told by one of Bollywood’s biggest stars Akshay Kumar, “Mallika ji aap bell bajaaiye, main aapko bajaata hoon” . I ignored it and went back to shooting.
Was it the single most vile act of inappropriate behaviour? No. Was it enough to make one uncomfortable? Yes. Would the superstar be offended had someone jokingly said to his daughter “Nitaara ji, aap bell bajaaiye main aapko bajaata hoon”? – most probably.
Which is what happened in this case. My father, who watched the leaked video, was left seething at the sight and sound of his daughter being subject to this idea of humour and banter by her colleague at her workplace. Even while I ignored it, he made his stance clear, as he generally does, indirectly making me question what kind of a feminist and person I am.
Here’s what happened. It was my very first day on a television set of this scale. We were tongue tied in the mammoth, presence of a Bollywood megastar to begin with. I don’t belong to Bollywood and I’m not fluent in its diplomacy and supposed charm yet. When he said “Mallika ji, aap bell bajaao, main aapko bajaata hoon”, in my head I went “WTF was that!” and that was all the time I had to process this. We went back to celebrating the contestant’s stellar performance and shooting the rest of the episode.
What stayed with me was why and how is that statement a joke, and why was it necessary to crack that one with a colleague? I also wondered why the same joke wasn’t directed at my co-mentors Zakir Khan and Hussain Dalal. I shrugged and went back to work, like women generally do.
Game of Thrones or Laughter Challenge, the network in question has frequent leakages and few plumbers. I however don’t enjoy getting drenched in someone else’s leakages, so when this video did the rounds, I had no choice but to acknowledge the responsibility I had towards my own self from last week, who spoke about #MeToo so very fervently. It would be hypocritical not to address this when my own father was made uncomfortable by it.
This isn’t about Akshay Kumar. This is about every big Bollywood star and every other big shot, who cannot tell the difference between charm and harm. This is about every big celebrity who thinks his colleague enjoys being grabbed by the waist and twirled without her consent. This is about workplace etiquette for everybody, men and women included, and about understanding the idea of professional communication so we don’t make someone uncomfortable in their place of work, unintentionally or otherwise.
As women we are used to normalising this kind of banter at workplaces because there are much bigger issues at hand, and that’s exactly what I did. People wonder, “why now?” Is it because the three mentors have been “fired” from the show? No Sherlock, that would make for a great K-serial, but that’s not the story. It was Star Plus that decided to replace us, not Akshay Kumar. Our contracts were not with Akshay Kumar. We have been treated respectfully by Star Plus, monetarily and otherwise, and were quiet and dignified through weeks of filthy news of us being supposedly “fired”. I could’ve leveraged my social media following to outrage right then, but I saw no reason to. Professional partnerships end all the time and this, if anything, was a mutual separation. Shit happens.
However, when this video was leaked, I was questioned about the lines said to me and about how they made me feel at the time and why I didn’t react then.
Well, this shit makes us uncomfortable AF and we hate it. However, we are not the emotional fools most take us to be. I refuse to act on impulse and jeopardise my career for a race of crass alpha males with licences to make us cringe. It amounts to committing suicide just because every second person in the world is an asshole or not crossing the road because accidents happen. So yes, we are 100% complicit in letting it pass, sometimes for our own sake.
If every woman was to quit her work and protest for what she is subjected to, there would be no woman working.
The comment made to me was undoubtedly and perhaps unintentionally crass, “Mallika ji, aap bell bajaao, main aapko bajaata hoon”. This kind of banter or even sharing a cackle with Rohit Shetty while vulgarly demonstrating just how sexually inappropriate dress-men on a film set can be, is nauseating and reeks of casual sexism and age old Bollywood entitlement. It’s normalised to such an extent that even I didn’t make a huge deal of it. I’m a huge part of the problem. Do not make this about Akshay Kumar and trivialise it. It’s about all of us.
To those who shame us for the characters we play, for example Tinder Aunty, these CHARACTERS are not speaking to you directly, they’re not your colleagues or fellow citizens, hell they aren’t even real! And above all they’re not forcing themselves upon you. Go ahead and protect your fragile, sexist and convenient morality nonetheless, but don’t you dare, tell us that we don’t have the right to address issues because we play sexually unabashed characters.
Is Kareena Kapoor not entitled to speak about things because she played Chameli? Is Vidya Balan not entitled to speak about things because she did Dirty Picture? The people who shame us for the characters we play are the same people who make it okay for a Bhupendra Chaubey to speak to Sunny Leone the way he did. Shame on you. Fortunately, you can’t stop us.
I fully understand that there are varying intensities of inappropriate workplace behaviour and while this is probably at the bottom of the pyramid for some, it still ought to be addressed because, why not? It’s perfectly okay to have a conversation about it.
There’s a reason banter and behaviour like this makes us uncomfortable and finds a place in section 354 of the IPC as a legal offence, as well as Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act. Yes, I didn’t know either, but now I do. The spectrum of Sexual harassment is extremely wide and every citizen ought to recognise and respect it. So the next time you think it’s not a big deal, remember that the law does.
(Breathe In, Breathe Out: Are you finding it tough to breathe polluted air? Join hands with FIT to find #PollutionKaSolution. Send in your suggestions firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp @ +919999008335)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)