Actor Tanushree Dutta’s allegations of sexual harassment against Nana Patekar, her co-actor in a film 10 years ago, and of a claimed cover up by the directors and producers concerned, ought to make Bollywood sit up, though it is unlikely it will. In a recent television interview, Dutta alleged that Patekar had harassed her and used his political clout to intimidate her when she rejected his advances. Dutta has said that she was replaced by Rakhi Sawant in the movie after she brought up Patekar’s behaviour. A 2008 article in the Times of India reports that she filed a complaint with the Cine and Television Artistes Association for damage to her property and reputation. Patekar’s response, so far, has been, “What sexual harassment?”
Dutta’s story conjures up the life of the film set, where ideas of artistic licence have often bled into sexual licence which is non-consensual or inflected by unequal power dynamics. A welter of stories about the darker side of the set have begun to emerge from other film industries. Take Maria Schneider’s revelations that she was not fully informed about the rape scene that was to be filmed in The Last Tango in Paris and director Bernardo Bertolucci’s explanation that he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress” to the humiliation inflicted on her. Other incidents have little to do with the trope of the “abusive auteur” but seem to seek justification in the atmosphere of the carnivalesque associated with film crews. Numerous accounts of women who work in production units in the West testify to a culture where sexual abuse is routine. Bollywood, by all accounts, is no different.
This mythification of the film set as a space that is different from other workplaces has proved toxic. Recent cases of sexual harassment brought to light how unprepared Bollywood is to deal with such allegations. Last year, when a woman accused filmmaker Vikas Bahl of sexual abuse, Phantom Films, the company he had co-founded, hurriedly put together an internal complaints committee in line with the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. And that was largely because Phantom Films was in partnership with Reliance, which complies with the law. For most other studios in the largely unorganised film industry, compliance with anti-sexual harassment laws seem to be a tall order. It was only in July this year that seven of the biggest Bollywood production houses set up sexual harassment cells, reportedly at the behest of Women and Child Development Minster Maneka Gandhi. Other production houses have been requested to follow suit. Film sets and the companies that run them need to meet the requirements of responsible, modern workplaces.
It could help foster a work culture where other targets of sexual abuse in the film industry can speak out. In the United States, the multiple allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and several other powerful individuals have spawned a new era of consciousness about sexual politics in the film industry. The #MeToo movement, whatever its limitations and contradictions, has enabled a conversation about abuse in the industry. But Bollywood maintains a serene silence. At most, actors like Richa Chadda have spoken out about the perils of “naming and shaming”, alluding to a rampant culture of sexual abuse. The few cases that did make it to court went nowhere – witness the rape case against Madhur Bhandarkar which took a bizarre turn when his accuser was convicted of a conspiracy to kill him.
Dutta’s case shows Bollywood’s culture of silence is not going anywhere. A journalist who spoke to Dutta at the time backs her account, but almost everyone else, from the film’s choreographer to influential actors, has either dismissed the charges or been shiftily non-committal. There has not been a single voice from the industry saying that Dutta’s charges need to be taken seriously and are worth an investigation, at the very least. Bollywood’s craven refusal to take on powerful men is best encapsulated by Amitabh Bachchan, one of its most powerful men: “Neither my name is Tanushree nor Nana Patekar. So how can I can answer your question?”