As Hollywood undergoes a churn set off by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, Bollywood, too, may be slowly acknowledging its own dirty secrets.
India’s glamorous Hindi film industry is no stranger to stories about the “casting couch.” In recent months, actors and actresses have spoken out about being asked for sexual favours in exchange for roles. But while the churn has felled powerful men in the West, notably Harvey Weinstein, and sparked a demand for more women in decision-making positions, real change is still elusive in India. And for good reason.
The industry, after all, is steeped in sexism with hardly any checks and balance in place, according to a new BBC World News documentary. Bollywood’s Dark Secret details the harrowing experiences of an anonymous 25-year-old aspiring actress who recalls being touched inappropriately by a casting agent when she was just 19. She was even asked to take off her clothes for a director who wanted to see her “assets.” Her complaints were dismissed by the police who reportedly said that “filmy people” could do whatever they wanted.
A culture of silence prevails, the actress argues, because those who do come forward rarely receive support, and are, instead, often accused of being publicity-hungry.
The documentary features actresses Usha Jadhav, Radhika Apte, and Kalki Koechlin, besides actor Farhan Akhtar, who speak about the obstacles to Bollywood’s #MeToo moment.
The threat of powerful men
Like most industries in patriarchal India, Bollywood is the bastion of powerful men—and it’s not easy to go up against them.
Jadhav, a 2013 national award-winner for her role in the Marathi movie, Dhag, tells the BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan in the documentary that she’s been threatened for refusing sexual propositions from directors and producers. After she rejected his advances, one reportedly told her that “you’re not going to get any good roles… nothing good will happen to you.”
For those new to the industry, such threats can be intimidating, making it seem like complying is the only option.
“Some people are regarded as gods. They are so powerful that people just don’t think that my voice is going to matter. Or people think that if I speak, probably my career is going to get ruined,” Radhika Apte, star of the movie Padman, says in the documentary.
What’s worse is that there’s very little institutional support for those who face sexual harassment.
“People don’t listen to you if you’re a nobody,” actress Kalki Koechlin says in the documentary, adding that when more famous women do speak out, it simply becomes a shocking headline.
A shadowy business
The police who don’t want to get involved in accusations against “filmy people” are only part of the wink and nudge system.
Apte argues that in the West there are formal channels through which actors and actresses can rise through the ranks, notably acting schools and the stage. In Bollywood, getting roles often depends on things like personal contacts, your appearance, and what you’re willing to do to get a role. Director Aruna Raje adds that while it is legally mandatory for other industries to have a sexual harassment cell to probe such complaints, there’s nothing similar in Bollywood.
What adds to the problem is the industry’s long-running preference for portraying women as sex objects on screen, designed only for the pleasure of men.
Sexism on screen
Over the years, female characters in mainstream Bollywood films have often been portrayed in a demeaning way. A study of 4,000 Hindi films last year showed the pervasiveness of gender bias and stereotypes, with women often relegated to being beautiful but passive accessories to the story.
This is exemplified by the “item song,” one of the favourite motifs of Bollywood movies—and increasingly of India’s non-Hindi film industries, too. This trope often involves a raunchy song-and-dance sequence with one scantily-clad actress gyrating to lyrics loaded with double entendres, and inevitably being ogled by crowds of lecherous men.
What’s more, stock movie plot lines frequently involve women being effectively harassed by male lovers determined to turn a “no” into a “yes.”
Raje, one of the few female directors in the business, says women are still treated as “objects of desire.” And all this feeds the culture of sexism outside of movies. After all, with films themselves leaving women at the mercy of the male gaze and desire, it’s unlikely that their makers would treat actresses with respect.
That’s why having a lot more women in control may be the need of the hour.
In recent years, Bollywood has produced a handful of feminist films showcasing female characters and stories with depth and meaning. Lipstick Under My Burkha and Parched show active, well-rounded female characters, as opposed to passive objects of attention—and that’s a huge step forward for the industry. Not surprisingly, female directors have often led this change.
Having more women decision-makers helps shift the power balance and create a safer environment for aspiring actors and actresses. But as Koechlin argues, it will take men’s efforts, too.
Farhan Akhtar, among the few male actors to have spoken out on the topic, tells the BBC that Bollywood’s #MeToo moment is approaching. However, he adds that more women need to speak up and shame the perpetrators. If they do, he argues, they will find support today.