Barely a year after the #MeToo movement struck Bollywood like a tornado and shook its patriarchal foundations, India’s tinsel town appears to be have pushed the dirt under the carpet. Alleged sexual predators named, shamed and ostracised during the campaign—inspired by a similar movement in Hollywood—are slowly being rehabilitated even as fresh charges have surfaced against powerful men, accused of soliciting sex in exchange for work from young actresses. The industry, which took a high moral ground by banishing the predators a year ago, has now turned around to the view that nobody from its fraternity should be presumed guilty or rendered jobless until the alleged misdemeanour is proven through a legal process. By all means, the proverbial Augean stables remain as dirty as ever, the casting couch out in the open once again. And it is the victims who are out of job, not the perpetrators.
That is, perhaps, the reason why new allegations don’t name the accused. But the charges are serious, nevertheless. Actress Zareen Khan says she was asked by a director to “rehearse a kissing scene” with him so that she could “let go off her inhibitions”. According to Surveen Chawla, a director wanted to see how her cleavage looked, another wanted to have a look at her thighs. Elle Abram alleges that a director scratched her palm with his middle finger when they shook hands, a gesture seen as the coded signal for soliciting sex.
Outlook’s June 11, 2018 issue had Bollywood and #MeToo as the cover story. Little has changed since.
The industry’s stand may well be in accordance with the basic tenet of the law but where does it leave the one-of-its-kind movement, which had raised a glimmer of hope that an unapologetically male chauvinistic industry would evolve into a better and secure workplace for women. As of now, the jury is still out on whether the film industry should embrace the accused in such cases back to work before they are absolved by the courts. But the fact remains that some of them have already slunk back into the limelight, picking up the threads of their career from where they had left off in the wake of the vociferous #MeToo outrage.
Director Subhash Kapoor, who shot to fame with Jolly LLB (2011) before facing sexual exploitation slurs, is returning to wield the megaphone for Mogul, a biopic on slain music baron Gulshan Kumar. Kapoor’s career was left in jeopardy after its leading man and co-producer Aamir Khan opted out of the T-Series mega-project in apparent solidarity with the movement spearheaded by several women who had raised their voices against sexual harassment rampant in the industry. “We believe that this is an opportunity to introspect and take concrete steps towards change. For too long, women have faced the brunt of sexual exploitation. It has to stop,” Aamir and his producer-wife Kiran Rao had said in a joint statement on October 10, 2018. Without naming Kapoor or the movie, they distanced from the project saying a clean-up was needed in the industry.
Accused of harassment by actress Tanushree Dutta, a former Miss India, during the shooting of a song sequence on the sets of Horn Ok Pleassse! way back in 2008. A case was lodged last year, leading to his removal from Akshay Kumar’s Housefull 4. But Mumbai police have reportedly closed the case, citing lack of evidence.
Now, Aamir has decided to return to the project because, by his own admission in a recent interview, he was troubled by the fact that his action might have cost Kapoor his right to work. “I couldn’t sleep at night because I used to constantly feel that my actions have inadvertently caused a person, about whose guilt I have absolutely no idea, to lose his right to work and earn a livelihood,” Aamir was quoted as saying.
Not surprisingly, Aamir’s move evoked sharp response from the flagbearers of the #MeToo movement. US-based actress Tanushree Dutta, whose allegations against veteran actor Nana Patekar had triggered the movement in India, criticised Aamir for being insensitive towards the actress who had accused Kapoor of harassment. According to her, the support of the superstars to alleged harassers in Bollywood is nothing but a bad omen. “I am thoroughly disappointed,” the 35-year-old actress tells Outlook. “It’s also scary that such irresponsible actors are being reported to play god on-screen even though in real life, they cannot even say no to work with someone who may have hurt a woman badly,” she says in an apparent dig at Aamir, who is rumoured to be among the cast of an upcoming movie based on the Mahabharata. Last year, Tanushree had filed a complaint against Patekar alleging harassment by him on the sets of Horn Ok Pleassss in 2008 but nothing came of the Mumbai police probe. Although Nana has not yet resumed shooting for any new movie, others facing harassment charges are gradually coming out of their hibernation.
Known for his zany comedies, he was removed as director of Housefull 4 halfway through its shooting after several women called him out. He was accused of seeking sexual favours. Bollywood is abuzz that he could be rehabilitated as director of a movie from a big banner.
Anu Malik, for one, is set to return to Indian Idol, a popular music reality show he has been hosting on TV as a judge for years. The composer, known for his inimitable couplets, had to leave the show last year after singer Sona Mohapatra and others accused him of harassment. The reports of his return to the show have left Mohapatra livid. “The rehabilitation of the multiple accused @IndiaMeTOO Anu Malik @SonyTV on Indian Idol within a year as judge is a slap to ALL the good people of #India who want a better & safer future for their children, let alone women,” she wrote with disdain on Twitter.
The channel hosting the show has not yet responded to her allegations, but Malik is not the only one staging a comeback after an unsavoury episode. Earlier this year, actor Alok Nath, who was accused of rape by a TV screenwriter, starred in Ajay Devgn’s De De Pyar De produced by filmmaker Luv Ranjan whose name had also figured at the peak of the #MeToo callouts. Incidentally, Devgn had supported the movement last year, saying he was disturbed by all the happenings with regard to #MeToo. “My company (Ajay Devgn Films) and I believe in providing women with utmost respect and safety. If anyone has wronged even a single woman neither ADF nor I will stand for it,” he had tweeted.
Accused of sexual misconduct by several women, including singers he had worked with. He was removed as judge of Indian Idol, a TV reality show he had been hosting for years. But the composer is said to be set to stage a comeback because little has come out of the allegations against him.
Earlier this year, another accused facing similar allegations, Vikas Bahl, was reinstated as director of Super 30 shortly before its release in July. He was removed from the film after Hrithik Roshan had refused to work with “the accused”. Apparently, an internal inquiry committee cleared the production company he was associated with, opening the door for his return. The controversy did not affect Super 30. It turned out to be a mega success at the box office.
Even though a section of industry watchers believes that nothing tangible is likely to come out of the movement, others are not disheartened. Telugu starlet Sri Reddy, who had chosen to strip in public in Hyderabad in protest against alleged sexual harassment by bigwigs from the southern film industry, tells Outlook that the #MeToo movement may not have achieved 100 per cent results, but it has brought about some perceptible changes. “The film industry people who had no qualms in making indecent proposals to the women earlier are wary of them now,” she says. “They have stopped sending lewd messages.”
Aamir Khan walked out of Mogul, a biopic on music baron Gulshan Kumar, which Kapoor was supposed to direct, following an actress’s allegations against the director. But thye man who delivered Jolly LLB is back in Mogul. Aamir has returned too, saying the charges were not proven yet.
Sri Reddy, who has since shifted to Chennai from Hyderabad for want of support from the local movie industry, says unless an aspiring actress or other women in search of work is ready to compromise, nobody can force them now. “It is a big change, which is not merely visible in the film industry, but in other sectors as well,” she says, vowing to continue her campaign against the sexual predators in the film industry.
Young auteur Rakhee Sandilya too admits that there are a few positive takeaways from the #MeToo movement even though the overall results look far from encouraging. “I, for one, had never thought that the movement would usher in an overnight change,” she says. “But it is definitely a small step towards a big change. Women have been harassed for years and this movement is like a torchlight that exposed something which was always kept hidden or obscure for years,” she says. “Isn’t it a big takeaway that it has started a conversation? Women are now freely discussing the issue amongst themselves, which in itself is a sign of empowerment.”
Was in the eye of a storm after a TV scriptwriter accused him in 2018 of rape 20 years ago. But the veteran actor, known for sanskari roles onscreen, quietly staged a comeback in a key role in Ajay Devgn’s De De Pyar De this year.
Sandilya, who directed the critically acclaimed Kalki Koechlin-starrer Ribbon (2017), remains optimistic that things will gradually fall in line. “Even though Aamir Khan has gone back to working with Subhash Kapoor and Vikas Bahl returned with Super 30’s success, the movement has not taken a step backward or fizzled out. Now, big production houses have taken cognisance of the issue and they take appropriate measures to ensure a safe working environment for the female workforce on the sets. It will take some time for things to change. You cannot expect to climb Mt Everest at one go.”
The director of Queen (2014), was accused of sexual harassment by an employee of Phantom Films. He was removed as director of Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30 midway, but was reinstated after an internal inquiry cleared him.
Sandilya may well be right. The thorny issue, which always found a cold shrug in this male-dominated industry, is at least discussed threadbare now, thanks to the movement led by a few gritty women who took the bull by the horns. But with the wheels within the wheels of the legal process moving at their own pace, it certainly looks like an uphill journey towards their coveted goal.
By Giridhar Jha in Mumbai