Bollywood's #MeToo movement
It was only a matter of time before the echoes of Hollywood’s #MeToo and #TimesUp movements reached Bollywood, India’s film industry. That watershed moment finally arrived this September, when Indian actress Tanushree Dutta made accusations of harassment against industry veteran Nana Patekar. But whereas most Americans accused of misconduct were dropped from projects and their careers seemingly put on hold, the treatment of the accused has been different in Bollywood due to the inescapable presence of Indian society’s own flavor of misogyny.
Dutta actually first made these accusations against Patekar in 2008, after the two worked together on the set of the film Horn Ok Pleassss. Dutta now alleges that she was threatened by the political group Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), who sided with Patekar, after making those initial accusations. Even so, her decision to break her silence now, almost a decade after the events she described took place, has caused a national debate in regards to Dutta’s credibility. Patekar himself responded to the accusations with a vehement denial, painting Dutta as a daughter-like figure to the public while privately slapping her with a legal notice. Hateful and shaming comments were waged against Dutta on social media. Critics in the industry, such as producer Samee Siddiqui, accused Dutta of "raking up the issue for publicity” in an attempt to revive her dormant career.
It’s notable that Dutta decided to speak out at the same time that Brett Kavanaugh was being accused of committing sexual assaults years before in America. The controversy of Kavanaugh’s alleged victims coming out with their stories years after the actual event may have bled into how Indians perceived Dutta’s account of misconduct in Bollywood. Like in America, most rhetoric about survivors of sexual assault in India often places the onus of responsibility for the event on victims. While there has been an Indian movement against victim-blaming, it has mostly challenged narratives that focus on the fact that victims’ appearance and/or conduct do not cause rape. The idea that there is no “perfect victim,” that there is no specific way a victim should or does behave post-assault, is still largely untouched in the Indian narrative. Indian culture still largely maintains the idea that victims should speak out immediately after an assault happens, of course failing to take into account how our society conditions women to blame themselves and how the mental trauma of assault may affect victims post-assault. A survivor’s trauma is often even compounded by inadequate and outdated medical analysis as well as the still-persistent cultural inclination to victim-blame.
This general attitude in Indian society is arguably only amplified in Bollywood. Take, for example, “item girls,” Bollywood actresses who perform a song in movies called an “item song,” which is often sexually tantalizing and offers viewers a chance to gratuitously objectify these women. “Item girls” usually have very little (or nothing at all) to add to the actual plot of the movie. In the early 2000s in particular, Bollywood films became more bold in their portrayals of sex, and “item girls” were often cast in particularly steamy scenes. Some actors even became known for these particular roles. This occurred on screen at a time when even open acts of kissing were still taboo in most of India. Although this phenomenon became more accepted in the late 2000s, actors who became known for appearing in such scenes early on carried that notoriety with them for years later. Tanushree Dutta, a former Miss India, happens to be one.
Dutta refused to perform another item song after Nana Patekar allegedly touched her inappropriately in 2008. At that point, Dutta was effectively silenced in Bollywood and her experience trivialized, especially because of the nature of her past on-screen performances. She was ridiculed and disbelieved — and, more seriously, even attacked by members of the aforementioned political group, MNS, a far-right Marathi party. This attack occured as the result of a misplaced understanding of nationalism: Patekar is a notable personality in the Marathi community, and Dutta’s accusation was immediately twisted by some to seem like at insult to the entire culture.
While Dutta’s case is now probably the most high-profile one of a woman in Bollywood speaking out against sexual harassment, she is not the only one who has. Between 2010 and 2018, actors Priyanshu Chatterjee, Ashish Bisht, Ayushmann Khurana, and Ranveer Singh have openly spoken about their “casting couch” experiences, where they were asked inappropriate questions or sexually assaulted during casting processes. In 2017, before #MeToo gained traction in Hollywood, actress Kangana Ranaut spoke up about the sexual harassment and physical abuse that she said she experienced at the hands of actor Aditya Pancholi in the early years of her career. Recently, she also spoke up about Vikas Bahl — who directed her in Queen, one of her best known works — after another victim accused him of molestation. Like Dutta, Ranaut received support as well as backlash for her statements. Mallika Sherawat, who, like Dutta, established her career as an “item girl” in the early 2000s, alleged this July that she was fired from projects after she refused to sleep with other actors.
As bleak as these events may sound, there is also hope: Dutta received enormous amounts of support both in and out of her industry. Journalist Janice Sequira seconded Dutta’s statement with an eyewitness account of what happened on the film set in question. Other industry personas also offered their support, including Indian actors working in Hollywood such as Priyanka Chopra and Freida Pinto as well as Bollywood industry veterans Pooja Bhatt and Renuka Shahane.
What’s more, Dutta has inspired more victims to come out of silence. Fellow “item girl” Koena Mitra applauded the step taken toward addressing Bollywood’s corrupt practices. Emraan Hashmi, Dutta’s former co-actor, expressed support for #MeToo and advocated for sexual harassment clauses in contracts. More industry veterans accused of sexual harassment, such as Sajid Khan and Subhash Ghai, have been publicly condemned. Sajid was even called out by his own sister Farah, a notable choreographer, while Ghai was dropped from his collaboration with actor Aamir Khan like hot coal, as Khan reiterated his commitment to making Bollywood a safer place. Writer-producer Vinta Nanda followed Dutta’s footsteps by speaking out against Alok Nath, another industry veteran, after 19 years.
While the societal attitudes toward accusations of sexual misconduct and assault still have a way to go, therefore, it’s clear that public support for Dutta and other victims has arguably been more prevalent than ever, hopefully demarcating a landmark moment for India toward combating sexual harassment. One can only hope for better things to come as Bollywood turns a new leaf.
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