#MeToo in India’s ‘Ollywoods: Cheer this Moment, But With Caution
As the #MeToo movement in India sweeps across Bollywood, a group of women in the Malayalam film industry aka Mollywood, are closely watching it.
Men in Bollywood losing their jobs for sexual misconduct, men being investigated by the police, men being sued – it feels like a revolution, but award-winning editor Bina Paul strikes a note of caution as she observes these events unfolding.
“Those Dolls Should Shut Their Mouths”
Paul is a founder member of Mollywood’s Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) formed after the abduction and rape of a leading woman star in February 2017, allegedly at the behest of the superstar Dileep. “The biggest learning” from WCC’s battle against discrimination, she tells me, “is that while we as women think this is such an obvious cause, the patriarchal structure of the film industry resists like mad.”
“We thought innocently in the beginning that this was not going to be such an uphill task. But it’s turning out to be tremendously contentious. Asking for what we think is any worker’s right is being viewed as a challenge, a challenge from those ‘dolls who should in fact keep their mouths shut’!” Paul explains, before addressing women artists in other industries. “So, be warned everyone, it’s not easy.”
It Feels Like a Revolution. Is It?
In September 2018, when circumstances caused former Miss India Tanushree Dutta to reiterate a 10-year-old complaint that Nana Patekar acted inappropriately with her during a shoot, she did not know she was providing the immediate spark for a #MeTooIndia campaign in Bollywood that has spilt over into other film industries and other professions. Scores of women have since taken to social media to recount experiences of sexual harassment, assault and male privilege.
The Mumbai Police have now registered an FIR against Patekar. Director Vikas Bahl has reportedly lost a project with Amazon Prime and may be excluded from promotions of his directorial venture Super 30, over an allegation that in 2015 he sexually assaulted an employee at Phantom Films where he was a partner. And musician Anu Malik has been fired from his judgeship of Indian Idol after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.
Heartening though these developments are, it is telling that Salman Khan – arguably Bollywood’s most powerful male star today – is not being mentioned in the context of #MeToo despite decades of murmurs about his violence towards his girlfriends and an on-the-record confirmation in 2003 by Aishwarya Rai that he had physically abused her.
His persistent image as a golden-hearted man-child is a reminder that we must not over-estimate the reach of #MeTooIndia.
Why Now, Bollywood?
When Dutta objected to Patekar’s behaviour in 2008, India was a different country. The episode soon faded away from the media, Bollywood’s Cine and TV Artistes’ Association (CINTAA) dismissed her complaint, she acquired a reputation for being difficult and her film career soon ended. Now, however, a confluence of circumstances has jolted Bollywood out of its indifference.
It was a campaign made possible by an unprecedented joining of hands between the news media and the public, on the then relatively nascent social media. Violence against women has shifted ever since from inside pages of newspapers to regular Page 1 coverage and prime-time TV. And ordinary citizens continue to use social media to explore their activist instincts, reach newspersons, lobby them and air personal grievances.
Women speaking up can now easily reach out to each other, and they are consequently finding safety in numbers. This combined with pressure from news media is spurring some authorities to act on complaints, if nothing else then to maintain a facade of political correctness.
When Rai (now Rai Bachchan) spoke up against his violence in 2003, Bollywood was openly divided. Thirteen years later in 2016, when he told the media that his training for the film Sultan made him “feel like a raped woman”, few in the industry took to public platforms to defend Khan although he is a much greater box-office phenomenon today and this was a comparatively minor transgression.
To rights-conscious members of the public, Bollywood’s silence in 2016 was offensive. However, even their silence heralds a marked change in this patriarchal industry: after all, among colleagues who did not condemn Khan’s insensitivity would be those who in the past may have spoken up for him but this time chose not to do so.
A Cause for Cautious Optimism
None of this should be cause for anything but cautious optimism.
In the first flush of #MeTooIndia, it may seem like the movement has netted big guns, but the truth is, across industries and countries, the biggest of big guns still roam free or are resurrected at lightning speed.
A recent article entitled “The Men of #MeToo Go Back To Work” in the US magazine The Atlantic points out that while Weinstein and Spacey’s careers may perhaps be unsalvageable, a substantial number of other men with #MeToo revelations against them have either returned to work or are on the road to doing so. “...studio heads and producers have been relatively quick to welcome back actors, directors, and writers who’ve been accused of harassment and assault, particularly when their status makes them seem irreplaceable,” the write-up notes. “It’s a dual-edged message: Don’t abuse your power, but if you do, you’ll still have a career.”
This should actually not be surprising. Weinstein and Spacey may have been blasted into exile by #MeToo in the US, but as The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert puts it in a bracketed aside in that piece, with tongue somewhat in cheek, “A brief pause to note that one of the sleaziest abusers of the casting couch during his tenure as an NBC reality star currently sits in the Oval Office.”
The parallels here in India in the highest seat of power and in film industries are glaring. Journalist-turned-politician M.J. Akbar, for one, was compelled to quit his ministerial post this month, while the Snoopgate allegations published on the websites Cobrapost and Gulail in 2013 were not even investigated, and have consequently left the country’s two most high-profile politicians unscathed. If Bollywood is viewed as a microcosm of India, then its present alacrity in acting on complaints (versus the hostility Kerala’s WCC is facing in Mollywood) should be observed with a shovelful of salt: the true test will come if the #MeToo wave were to throw up the name of an A-list star in Bollywood equivalent in stature to Dileep in Mollywood. That has not yet happened.
A Call For Inclusiveness
Besides, irrespective of the empowering nature of the social media, #MeToo is dependent on unrelenting support from news media. This is evident from the current enthusiasm for women’s rights in Bollywood, which faces scrutiny from media across India, whereas the virtual indifference towards Mollywood of most media outside southern India has made the journey more arduous for WCC.
While Bollywood’s CINTAA is at present vocally backing women, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) in Kerala, which suspended Dileep after his arrest last July, casually reinstated him this June – it took over three months of unflagging insistence from WCC, the liberal public and media in southern India for AMMA to get him to resign. Pan-India media attention could have hastened his exit.
WCC is not an isolated instance of neglect. Singer Chinmayi Sripaada and her colleagues outing Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu and other music stalwarts, Mollywood newcomer Divya Gopinath’s testimony of harassment by senior character artiste Alencier Ley Lopez, Nadigar Sangam’s decision to form a panel for the safety of Tamil film, TV and stage artists, the FIR against acting veteran Arjun Sarja based on Tamil-Kannada actor Sruthi Hariharan’s complaint of molestation and harassment, and other voices beyond Bollywood have been a blip on most ‘national’ news platforms outside south India.
Apart from the injustice of a pro-north, pro-Hindi bias, this cherrypicking is also denying #MeTooIndia the strength of larger numbers that it would get from greater inclusiveness.
Warning Bells for #MeTooBollywood
In the US which gave birth to the hashtag #MeToo, a poll published this month by The Economist, shows a shift in public opinion against the movement one year since its inception. In just a month, Bollywood is already witnessing a change in mood.
This is curious. Grover’s case is tricky and requires a separate discussion (he has been anonymously accused of sexual misconduct, he has supported his denial with meticulously collated facts, and the unknown accuser has not responded), but the charge against Motwane and Kashyap is black and white: inaction on learning of the assault by Bahl, their partner in the now-dissolved Phantom.
Netflix’s clean chit to them contradicts this admission Kashyap himself made to HuffingtonPost India, “Whatever happened was wrong. We didn’t handle it well, we failed. I cannot blame anyone but myself.”
Even if Kashyap had not admitted wrongdoing, he and Motwane are accountable for Phantom violating India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, by not having an internal complaints committee in place to investigate the allegation against Bahl. Apparently, Netflix’s enthusiasm for Sacred Games outweighs its empathy towards women.
How Privilege Can Protect
The composition of CINTAA’s complaints committee is another red flag. Actor Raveena Tandon has reportedly agreed to join. Tandon’s eligibility for the task should be questioned considering that on an NDTV show on 14 October, she was disturbingly insensitive towards the survivors of harassment and assault who were present – including Hindi television veteran Vinta Nanda, who is a rape survivor – when she claimed she has suffered “professional harassment” because she is “strong” but has never faced “sexual harassment” at work because “no one had the guts to” and “people were scared” of her, as if survivors are weak and gutless.
In truth, male sexual predators have destroyed careers, not because their victims lacked strength, talent, diligence or sincerity, but because patriarchal systems and social orders gave men collective and individual clout to prey on women – and men – of their choice. #MeToo is a protest against that gross imbalance of power. Its longevity and efficacy depends on staying alert to the beneficiaries and allies of patriarchy who would have begun hatching plans for the movement’s demise almost as soon as it took birth.
(Follow The Quint’s coverage of #MeToo here.)
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of ‘The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic’. She can be reached at @annavetticad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)