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Behind Bollywood industry bad behaviour

Unlike Hollywood, the crusade against sexual predators in Bollywood industry is bottom-up instead of top-down. Let there be no illusion that the industry is still dominated by men

Saturday, 06 October 2018 | Rinku Ghosh | in Comment & Analysis– This is not a story of comparison. Nor should it be. But it helps explain why a #MeToo movement has a long time coming in the Indian film industry, Bollywood in particular. Hollywood actor Gal Gadot, whose Wonder Woman is the only woman superhero success of the DC franchise, refused to sign the sequel contracts as the studio was financed by director and producer Brett Ratner, who had been accused of sexual harassment and even assault by a number of women. She forced the studio’s hand over endorsing a wrong-doer and stood up for the many wonderful women on and off screen took for granted and considered peripheral midgets. She used her power as one of the highest-earning stars to make a point and win an argument. Still, Gadot is not bigger than a studio, producers or the guilds. But she used her time in the spotlight to clean the dirt under the red carpet. And in Bollywood, there is Tanushree Dutta, a has-been Miss India and actor, with a clutch of lip support from here and there, mostly from “outsider” players in the industry — Richa Chadha, Swara Bhaskar, Anurag Kashyap — seeking justice for inappropriate behaviour on the sets, a professional public arena, by co-star Nana Patekar years ago. She is battling a barrage of defamation notices, slut-shaming and a new low, threats from the MNS for calling out its leader Raj Thackeray over unleashing goons to terrorize her at the behest of Patekar. Then and now. While Gadot made DC pay a price for endorsing a proclaimed sexual offender, Dutta says she is being made to pay a price for speaking up. The only women witnesses from the industry who have stood by her are an assistant director and a choreographer, on the weight of whom an A-lister like Sonam Kapoor and an out-of-spotlight Raveena Tandon have taken a stand. Priyanka Chopra, too, but then she has quite disentangled herself from Bollywood and is more Hollywood now. But for the many divas and leading ladies who rule the trade, not even a whisper of solidarity or coalescing of ideas for a working code on the floors. Though none of them is exactly Meryl Streep, one had expected an encouragement for a just cause. They could have afforded to, considering that many of them have held up a film on their shoulders and driven 100-crore plus revenues as onscreen protagonists of women’s issues. This despite CINTAA (Cine and TV Artists’ Association) admitting that Dutta’s complaint wasn’t investigated or addressed properly all those years ago and apologizing to her. And just like a decade ago, when ceaseless harassment forced her to move to the US, she is being branded a publicity-monger. Nobody realizes that it was precisely to avoid cheap publicity when the harrowing incident happened years ago that she moved out of the arclights. She had spoken out than of a breach of the contract clause on body exposure, inappropriate gestures, and coercion in the professional workspace and staked her career on the oblivion forced upon her by the industry. Once an insider, she knows the rules of the game and now that she has nothing to lose or prove a point, she is not raising a bogey or lobbying but rather seeking validation for herself. Unlike Hollywood, the crusade against sexual predators here is bottom-up instead of top-down. While in Hollywood to it began with the outliers, Oscar winners like Streep, Oprah Winfrey, and Frances McDormand lent it to steam, turning it into a mainstream campaign to end exploitation in the industry. Cut to home and most A-listers, except Kangana Ranaut, while acknowledging the casting couch syndrome, fail to mention specifics or claim immunity on the ground that they had not been subjected to exploitative advances though others may have been preyed upon. If we were to collate all these comments, it would seem that the topliners of the industry really had a smooth, happy ride and their male counterparts were rock solid gentlemen. And therein lies the problem. The entertainment industry across the world has sold itself on the “showgirl syndrome,” one where the women were projected as an object of beauty and fantasy. Peddling them were mostly men, who were financiers, producers, and directors. And though women in cinema onscreen have traversed the growth curve to being flesh and blood, this has not translated offscreen where young aspirants have to trade their integrity to get past the misogynist powerplay and make a point. So traumatized and ashamed are they of this mostly unwilling but sometimes willing compromise that they shove it under the carpet. Take the case of Gwyneth Paltrow, who has openly admitted that had it not been for her then-boyfriend Brad Pitt, who threatened offender-producer Harvey Weinstein and asked him to back off from seeking favors over casting her, she would not have made it ahead. Refusals are usually followed by hitbacks or a snip of the career curve, which force most exploited women into silence. Hollywood women spoke out only when they had somewhat cemented their social, political and economic relevance in the industry. Back to Bollywood. While women-oriented films are doing well and pay parity is emerging as a re-negotiable issue, this is just a small uprising against feudatory practices in an industry that has continued to remain revisionist despite corporatization. There is still career dependence on male superstars or producers, even among A-lister women. And let there be no disenchantment that it is a male-dominated business. A word here and there can make or break a star. Casting is still more a prerogative of the male star/producer, sometimes both being the same person, and women actors are known to have benefitted from their recommendations and references. Which is why this clammy friendship restricts them from speaking out against their misbehavior even if they aren’t the victims themselves. Imagine the case of aspirants or starlets then. Yes, they could say no at the beginning, but for the many who do not have privileged lives or have no option B to fall back on as a career (especially rebels and runaways), crossing the line is a grey area. And the sweep of denial is, therefore, stronger, the transgression usually trashed as an unfortunate episode. The powerful have preyed on this fundamental middle-class insecurity and fear of being exposed for overstepping the Laxman Rekha. Hypocrisy is justified as self-preservation. Then there’s unabashed nepotism, with film families holding each other’s hand in a clannish manner, spreading their tentacles in multi-disciplinary aspects of the industry — production, direction, acting, promotion, live shows, endorsements, franchises, campaigns — even spilling over into mainstream culture like sports, seminars and books and, most importantly, spawning their next of line on social media from the moment they are born. There is no theory of natural selection here, there is an only election among known candidates and privileged club cards for those coopted.  No free speech can be encouraged among such a stranglehold of lobbies. Only Khushi and no Gham allowed in this incestuous dream parivaar. As Tandon tweeted, the wives of offending men were equally guilty of turning a blind eye to their partners’ indiscretions, seasonal flings and eroding a newbie ’s career after the gratification and fleeting pleasure. If this is true, half our industry men would lose their ageless sheen. Driven by outrage over molestation, even the Malayali film fraternity set up a women’s collective like in Hollywood, where women actors, producers, agents, writers, and executives have formed an ambitious, sprawling Time’s Up initiative to fight systemic sexual harassment. This includes legal aids and funds, pushing for legislation to penalize companies tolerating sexual harassment, discouraging non-disclosure agreements to silence survivors, ensuring pay parity and relentlessly raising issues on the red carpet. This collective is a far cry in Bollywood. The punishment, even farther. But remember this is the first time an actress has decided to name the errant actor and seek justice. Let’s not forget that studio head Harvey Weinstein is bankrupt after his dirty doings tumbled out of the can. Also, once dubbed “America’s Dad,” comedian Bill Cosby, 81, has been labeled a “sexually violent predator” by a US court. Perhaps, it is Bollywood’s turn to pay back. (The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)  

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