August 08, 2020
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Equality’s Stairway: Bollywood’s Turn

The unified cry for women’s equality in Cannes is a signpost in helping redress the power balance so in favour of men, something which breeds predators

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Equality’s Stairway: Bollywood’s Turn
50/50 by 2020 Women film professionals on the Cannes Film Festival red carpet
Photograph by Getty Images
Equality’s Stairway: Bollywood’s Turn

In India, marches are a familiar form of protest. It was Gandhiji who made marches the weapon of choice against an enemy so powerful. He knew the only choice he had was to provoke and inspire the silent majority to join the movement. Likewise, now that the #MeToo campaign has unpredictably snowballed into a global voice against sexual harassment, a women’s march on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival wasn’t out of place.

Not many know that in 71 years of the Cannes festival, only 82 women have walked those prestigious red-carpeted stairs as directors, as part of the official selection of the festival. In comparison, 20 times more men have—1,645 of them. Though I am delighted to be among the five per cent who have had that honour, this discrepancy is shameful. It is reflective of the historical wrong and bias that are still prevalent in the developed world.

Since my college days, I have been participating in women’s marches, usually on March 8, for International Women’s Day. I have marched with rural women, urban women, tribal girls and college girls and sometimes all of them together, though that world has always been far away from the glitzy world of cinema. But my two worlds collided on May 12. It was an incomparable feeling, being on the Cannes red carpet with only women and that too with editors, screenwriters, producers, sales agents marching alongside the usual suspects. All of us wore small badges that said ‘50/50 by 2020’. While it is unlikely that we can achieve this dream in two years, the demand for equality has been expressed, loud and clear. It cannot be ignored anymore.

After walking up the stairs, we stopped midway. Actor and this year’s jury president, Cate Blan­chett, and Agnes Varda, the Nouvelle Vague Fre­nch filmmaker, read out their impassioned spee­ch. They said, “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise.... As women, we all face our own UNI­que challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress. The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.”

And we did. To the top of the stairs. Some teared up, some smiled with pride, some squeezed the hands of the ones they were holding to show their solidarity, to express their excitement on this momentous occasion. On reaching the top, a spontaneous gush of emotions and choked voices began to fill the air. We hugged each other. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. The feeling of sisterhood was so strong that it felt most natural.

A young producer who held my right hand burst into tears. She told me that in the last 48 hours she had worked relentlessly for this initiative and she couldn’t believe that it had actually happened. The woman on my left apologised for her cold hands, a sign of her excitement. She said this was the most significant thing she had ever been a part of. It gave her a sense of purpose. Next day she came to the Manto screening and gave me a hug that conveyed more than any word of solidarity could have.

It is less than a year since the monstrous, shocking acts of Harvey Weinstein were reported. I rem­ember seeing him year after year in Cannes, sauntering around with models and actresses with brazen bravado. But it was the bravery of a few women that changed that forever. They inspired many more who felt compelled to add their voices to the protest, for their own sake and also for others. More and more women felt safe to share the traumas they had been carrying for years. What a rippling effect this has had!

The list of predators is long and depressing. They include liberals and conservatives, celebrities and the not so known, young and old, good-looking and not. A tragic, irrefutable proof, if one was ever needed, that it is primarily about the unequal power that men have had over women. And this was not unknown to all the men, and not just women, who chose to remain silent, year after year. We’ve all known such Harveys and so our sil­ence makes us all complicit.

Some of us hoped the #MeToo movement would hit Indian shores too. But the murmurs were too low here.

Some of us hoped the movement would hit Indian shores too, exposing the open secrets of Bollywood and of every other profession where men have misused their power to harass and ass­ault women. Unfortunately, the murmurs were too low here. Some even suggested that if women faced such pressures, it was only a ‘fair exchange’ for finding employment in a tough ind­ustry. The few who did speak out were predictably ostracised. Often abuse was given the colour of being consensual, silencing the ripples, even before they could become a wave.

While I have largely worked as an outsider in the film industry, I have been privy to such stories from most reliable sources. I have debated several times in the last few months whether I should be naming and shaming abusers as a third party. But I have decided against it. I feel that it is the prerogative of the victims to point to the predators. At least in these cases, as they are public figures and are not so voiceless. They need to make those decisions. Ultimately, they are the ones who will have to deal with the consequences. And there will be many.

My story was different. Lack of acting ambitions freed me from approaching any director for work. So no attempts at a casting couch were made. Also, my acting work that started with Fire, after about five years gave way to engaging on the ground with social issues. Right from the beginning, I have been vocal. While personally I have not experienced what can be called abusive behaviour, I have seen many men testing the waters, gauging the limits of their predatory beh­aviour. In the end, their fear that I might not shy away to hit back has kept them in check. Maybe I am perceived to be stronger than I really am, but I have done nothing to change that perception.

Predictably, there is a backlash building against the movement. What I hear has a common thread. “Watch out, at this rate, there will be no men left to give you the att­ention you want.” Or “We will stop hiring women and then they will realise how far they have taken this.” Or, “I am too scared to even look at a woman, lest she accuses me of harassing her”.  There is a mix of aggression and fear.

The movement must ensure that there is due process, as with any accusation. It takes a lot for a woman to speak up, knowing what she is up against, so allegations do need to be taken seriously. There is always a danger of a minuscule number of women misusing this new awakening, but that should not come in the way of this much needed larger correction. The men, and I am sure there are many who are not predators, have nothing to fear. In fact, they need to be our allies.

Despite the low murmurs, I am confident that even in India, we will find a way to be heard. Voices will emerge that will open doors for many more. After all, even in the West, rampant abuse stayed under the surface for decades. For years, some of the most powerful women had chosen to remain silent. It took a few brave ones to break it.

I have returned from Cannes stronger, having been part of the 82-women march who pledged to hasten the process. The onus needn’t be only on the women to speak up and be part of the #MeToo campaign. Our dream for an equal world must be seen collectively. It must be a sha­red dream, a call to action because the #TimesUp.

(The author is an actor and filmmaker. Her latest film Manto will be released soon)

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