Silent screams come out from it, like in a B-grade horror film. It’s a closet Bollywood has always locked up tight. Skeletons hide there, all the putrid secrets of a movie industry that appears to the outside world dressed in shiny tinsel. A murky, parallel world of sleaze and exploitation—of forced, unwelcome sex—exists underneath that razzle-dazzle, invisible to its millions of besotted fans. Out West, Hollywood has been looking at the mirror of late, self-critically—conducting an honest audit. The testimonies of women victims—often, incredibly, top actresses—have curdled blood and newsprint alike over the past year. Many a hero has been felled from his pedestal. Last week it was the venerated Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. Back in India, however, the culture of silence still insulates our very own Harvey Weinsteins. Our moguls, who see and treat their female colleagues as just harem.
It’s at the portals to B-town that the ‘hunt’ begins. Newcomers are the prey, and they roll in incessantly as if on a conveyor belt. Bollywood is the ultimate destination for aspiring actors and actresses of all hues. For a multitude of them, it’s a proverbial leap into a half-lit world where desperation and insecurities expose them to all kinds of exploitation by the industry’s resident predators.
The West has no patent on Weinstein. Bollywood has always been rife with unscrupulous dream merchants—some of its biggest names—who considered ‘sex-for-work’ a legitimate quid pro quo for giving breaks to freshers. Some were subtle, others quite brazen. They could be anybody, not necessarily a big studio owner like Weinstein: a producer, a director, an actor, a technician, a casting agent, even an underworld don financing a slew of projects, all sorts of people who have made the casting couch the dirtiest phrase in B’wood’s lexicon.
Who are these faceless desi Weinsteins? Why has nobody come forward to name and shame them the way their counterparts from American cinema have done?
Actress Neetu Chandra thinks it will never happen in Bollywood or elsewhere in India. “Unlike Hollywood, ours is a very small industry in comparison. Only a handful of people dominate it. Whoever speaks up against the casting couch here will only end up putting her own career in jeopardy,” says Neetu, who has spoken about her own experiences with indecent proposals during the early phase of her career (see interview).
Did our actresses fritter away a golden opportunity to bring their predators to book? At a time when #MeToo became an enabling slogan, did they duck and let the winds of change from Hollywood blow over? Even last week, on May 25, when Weinstein was formally charged with rape and sexual abuse by the New York police, and unbelievable stories about his pathological exploits filled the media, there was a chance. Actress Rose McGowan, one of his 80 victims who spoke out, called it “a concrete slap in the face of abusive power”.
It’s not the desire to see the mighty fall—just a regard for fairness and justice—that makes you wonder how many of Bombay’s stalwarts would have been liable to walk, handcuffed, to a court a la Weinstein. If only the power asymmetry was not so stark, and Indian actresses were not conditioned into believing “this is how it is”—the sentiment choreographer Saroj Khan expressed recently on TV news. Or are our divas too invested to speak out?
Perhaps there’s a change in the air. Priyanka Chopra has been quoted as making a charge implicitly incriminating Bollywood, among others. Speaking in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, Priyanka said: “I don’t think there is ‘a’ Weinstein. I don’t even think there’s ‘one’ Weinstein in Hollywood. There are a lot more, and not just in India, but everywhere else.”
Actresses from the new generation—Kangana Ranaut, Radhika Apte, Usha Jadhav, Richa Chadha and Swara Bhasker—are indeed beginning to break the omerta. But no collective spirit has caught on. Many actresses Outlook spoke to refused to speak up. “In a country where even the rape of a minor girl is politicised, what’s the point in talking about the casting couch,” asked a young, talented actress, indignantly.
Bollywood’s silence has been rather conspicuous compared to fields such as the academia. A list released by Raya Sarkar, a law student at the University of California, carrying the names of alleged sexual predators on Indian campuses hit academic circles like a tornado in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, but even that could not galvanise Bollywood into action against the industry’s dirty men with feudal vices (and an equally feudal vice-like grip on things).
Worse, one heard rationalisations. Saroj Khan, as we noted, said the casting couch has been part of the industry since the time of “Baba Adam”. “There is nothing new about it. At least, Bollywood provides a livelihood. They don’t leave someone after raping them,” she said.
Others such as Shatrughan Sinha accepted it was not a new phenomenon. “Sexual favours are demanded and given in both the entertainment world and in politics,” he told reporters after Khan’s remarks kicked up a huge row. “It’s an old and time-tested way of getting ahead in life.”
He’s right. The history of the casting couch can be traced back to the black-and-white era when big studios dominated the trade. In the initial decades of Indian cinema, it was not so pervasive because few women opted for what was then seen as a “not-so-respectable” career. As cinema caught the fancies of the masses post-Independence, young girls from distant places and diverse backgrounds started streaming into Bombay, the city of dreams.
Faced with that surge, filmmakers initiated what was originally a fair method of selection: the screen test. Here, an aspiring actress had to perform a scene or a song before the camera to showcase her histrionic capabilities and also for it to be known how she looked on screen. It helped filmmakers ascertain a candidate’s true potential.
But it wasn’t long before the innocuous screen test degenerated into a handy tool for voyeuristic filmmakers to exploit star-smitten girls. Rare pictures from that era showing scantily-clad girls undergoing this test at a producer’s office in the presence of many men, which surfaced on the internet sometime ago, give some idea about how aspiring actresses were humiliated and exploited blatantly those days. Over time, things went from bad to worse.
The stories are legion. For years, a rumour about a legend-ary filmmaker did the rounds: that he would always insist on getting a topless shot of any newcomer who approached him for work. But such was his reputation that even well-established actresses were willing to do anything to work with him. He was no lone wolf. Another well-respected producer-director of his time exploited a popular dancing star for years by keeping her under his contract, which barred her from working outside his banner without his permission. A big actor-filmmaker known for his Casanova image earned notoriety because he would deliberately wear a transparent sarong while meeting struggling actresses and starlets. Even as late as in the 1980s, a popular star would openly joke about deflowering a debutante on the sets of the very film they were working together at the time. It mattered little to him that the young girl was the daughter of a yesteryear actress.
The list of such stars and filmmakers is quite long and their names are an open secret in Bollywood. But nothing happened to besmirch their reputation during their lifetime or beyond. Once in a while, a minor worthy would face charges. The most notable episode involved an actor known for his villain and comic roles, who was caught justifying the casting couch on camera in a sting operation. Another actor from the 1980s had no qualms sexually abusing a young starlet for long before she made it to the top league in the Tenties. No one was ever punished. Why? Lack of evidence. Or the inability of victims to pursue cases for want of support from within the industry. In some cases, some influential industry figure intervened to help strike a deal between the accused and the victim. All this, of course, emboldened the predators.
It was only recently that Telugu actress Sri Reddy dared to name the son of a big producer. She went on a dramatic topless protest, hitting the headlines, but still received no industry support whatsoever. Many, instead, lambasted her for resorting to “a cheap publicity gimmick” (see interview). Similarly, when a young Bollywood actress, a former beauty queen, accused a veteran actor of inappropriate behaviour, the film industry responded with hostility—she stopped getting work. The scornful responses offer a hint to why Bollywood’s actresses fight shy of, well, the good fight.
Is it always the men who are to be blamed? Do women also use their sexuality to further their career? Sandeep Nath, lyricist and filmmaker, insists nobody can compel a girl to make compromises. “In most cases, I’ve observed that allegations come to the fore long after the alleged incidents have taken place,” he says. “Even in Weinstein’s case, some actresses who have accused him of exploitation had gone to Cannes and other places along with him,” he says.
Nath, who worked with Madhur Bhandarkar during the making of Page 3 (2005), when the filmmaker was charged with sexual exploitation by a starlet, believes such allegations are often levelled after “something goes awry in the deal struck by the two individuals.”
Can women not be formally protected from the casting couch? This is by now a formal industry, after all. And yet, it’s a messy, sprawled out ‘industry’. It’s not possible to forewarn and counsel all aspiring actresses, nor is it feasible to keep a tab on all fly-by-night operators who lead struggling actresses up the garden path. B.N. Tiwari, president, Federation of Western India Cine Employees, says his organisation, the oldest and largest of its kind, provides all support to any member who comes with a complaint. “We cancel the membership if anybody is found guilty of misconduct after an inquiry,” he says. “But such cases mostly involve people at the top. The average worker remains too preoccupied in making ends meet.”
Tiwari admits complaints about the casting couch has only shot up in recent times. “Some people do it for sheer publicity. During my 42 years in the industry, I’ve observed that girls who are not talented enough fall in such traps,” he says. “Thankfully, actresses from the new generation are well educated and they know where to draw the line.”
Industry observers believe senior actresses should come forward to raise awareness about it. Award-winning film writer Vinod Anupam says well-established actresses such as Shabana Azmi and Vidya Balan, who are active on social media, should create the awareness that only the audience can help build careers—and not a godfather who has to be satiated. “Making a Hema Malini or a Madhuri Dixit is in the hands of audiences only,” he says. “They should not let a filmmaker or casting agent exploit their insecurities.”
Actresses should also be canny enough, he says. They should realise no genuine filmmaker would risk a project worth crores for a one-night stand with a starlet, he adds. “Girls who fall in the trap of unscrupulous filmmakers don’t come prepared to the industry, like say a Deepika Padukone. They want the shortest route to success,” he says.
Rakhee Sandilya, who directed the acclaimed Kalki Koechlin-starrer Ribbon last year, thinks freedom for Bollywood’s women is nigh. “When Weinstein was sexually abusing women, did the thought cross his mind that he would have to pay for it after so many years?” asks Sandilya. “Had he anticipated a movement like #MeToo spearheaded by his victims even in his wildest dreams?” She holds out a warning note: our filmi alpha males and their dads and uncles may want to imagine such a prospect right now when they have the chance, she says. For Bollywood’s Weinstein moment may not be far away.
“See, the film industry is a part of our society and unless society changes its mindset, we can’t expect Bollywood to change overnight. We are way behind the West as far as woman empowerment is concerned. Think about it, we were not even comfortable discussing the security of women until the Nirbhaya case happened in 2012. But things are beginning to change,” she points out.
Sandilya says actresses like Swara Bhasker, Radhika Apte, Kalki Koechlin and others are ushering in the future right now. “They are an enlightened lot and they are freely discussing everything. The gender divide has blurred, which is another positive sign,” she adds.
Sandilya is an optimist. “I see even small changes as a precursor to a future revolution,” she says. “It will take some time but the women in Bollywood are bound to step out and expose their exploiters. Wait for a few years. Their time is up!”