We, the men of Bollywood, have been complicit in #MeToo for long enough

Patriarchy is real.
Patriarchy is real.
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
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It’s been around two weeks since the second wave of #MeToo was set off in India, but it feels a lot longer.

As a man who’s been part of the entertainment industry for a decade, it’s been heartbreaking to see the volume of stories—brutal, raw, angry—from incredibly brave women coming out, one after another.

It’s been difficult grappling with how broken our system is to allow the abuse of power at this level. And it’s been devastating to know that there are so many people you have worked with, cared about, looked up to and loved, among the survivors…and sickeningly, among the perpetrators, too.

It’s hard to imagine the toll these couple of weeks would have taken on the scores of women speaking up and reliving their pain so publicly, and on the hundreds and thousands of more who have had to privately live with their own #MeToo stories. Not because they aren’t brave enough to speak up, but because we have, for far too long, normalised our patriarchal culture and desensitised both sexes to this.

On the face of it, our seemingly progressive industry has been rallying against this very culture through the years, in various pieces of feminist-identifying content that have won us awards from across the world, and given hope to so many about the new India that’s rising from our collective conscience.

But we live in a country where feminism is the last rung of a ladder that we’ve never bothered climbing because we haven’t even been taught that first step of gender sensitisation.

And so, my most shameful realisation at this time has been that systemic abuses of power are never far removed from us. In fact, they are probably taking place right under our noses, the whole time.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a difficult industry to break into, and a hard one to be a part of.

It’s well known that the old guard with the money bets mostly on your name, and not your talent, because of the inherent public relations value that comes with being part of a “legacy.” You’ve always heard that even if you do manage to get your foot through the door, there are innumerable people in power you have to be on the right side of, to make your way to the top, to be that person in power others whisper about.

And if you are a woman, you are always warned about certain people, certain institutions, certain workplaces, because if you can’t fight them, perhaps you don’t join them at all.

As a man, I’ve heard many such stories of women being harassed in the name of work and fame, and each time I would come to know of a horrific incident or a horrifying perpetrator, I’d distance myself from that world. I’ve personally let go of multiple, well-paying opportunities over the years to avoid being complicit to a repulsive environment. And I know many men like me who’ve slept in peace knowing that our moral compasses are functioning like well-oiled machines, and we have nothing on our respective conscience.

Over the last two weeks, that illusion has shattered to pieces. Because the truth is that by ignoring the culture, we’ve been complicit. By thinking of our own interests, we’ve been complicit. By not raising our voices, we’ve been complicit.

Because the culture isn’t an external being, the culture is us.

This culture doesn’t exist in a bubble. It builds its foundation through the cracks in our ethics. When we ignore sexist comments, “boys talk,” and slut shaming in our auditions, on our sets, and at our parties, we give rise to the culture. When we ignore misogynistic jokes on our WhatsApp work groups, we help foster it. When we allow, for so long, for dance numbers featuring women to be called “item” numbers, or when we think stalking in our movies is funny because it’s “just a film,” or when we don’t object to 50+ men romancing 20-somethings in our movies because they are “stars,” we actively support the culture.

The fact is that when we don’t intervene in the problematic behaviour of the men we work with, we are complicit in the patriarchy we believe we have no part to play in. Why are we okay with most Bollywood studios not having proper sexual harassment guidelines in place? Why do we shove the misbehaviour of “stars” on our sets under the carpet? When we let the men we work with get away with every level of unkindness to women, where does it stop? When they get away with words, does that empower them to believe they can get away with their actions? When we try to live and exist in our own delusion, are we shielding ourselves or fooling ourselves?

For way too long, Bollywood, and the media industry at large has excused the terrible behaviour of people in power because we can’t stop putting people who have “made it” on pedestals. We overlook misconduct, verbal abuse, unkindness, and even misogyny/bigotry because these people are able to make us money.

A huge reason why it’s taken so long for these stories to come out is because, as a society, we have equated terrible behaviour to being an eccentricity of power and talent, and hence given the “genius” of these powerful men more importance than the suffering of real human beings.

And when you devalue human life and humanity itself for capitalistic gains, a culture of silence will always prevail over punishment and justice. It’s terrifying that so many women have been afraid to speak up for so long about abuse, or many times, are convinced not to, because men in power are considered omnipotent, and women know they won’t be believed. Even with our industry’s perceived evolution and wokeness, we’ve let this status quo thrive all around us, because, of course, it was convenient for us.

If we truly want things to get better in the industry, we need to introspect about how we are complicit in contributing to this culture of misogyny. If we need safer working environments, we need to hold ourselves accountable to this change, and work at ensuring them, not just in our professional lives but also, and more importantly, in our personal lives.

We need to call out sexism, misconduct, and unkindness and we certainly need to stop glamorising power as a prowess that can help one get away with anything. For once and for all, we also need to change our priorities from wanting to be important people to really just aiming to be decent ones. To everyone.

As men, from the industry and otherwise, the most important thing we need to do is listen to women. We need to stand and fight by their sides. And we need to speak up when they are wronged because #MeToo is not about women versus men, it is about dismantling the patriarchy that has been unforgiving to the women who were told that they are weak for centuries, till the point that they had to stop fighting it…until now.

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