On September 25, Hindi film actress Tanushree Dutta accused Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her in 2008 on the sets of the unreleased film Horn ‘Ok’ Pleassss. Dutta also alleged that upon Patekar’s request, men backed by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena attacked her car while she and her father were inside it. Dutta had made the same accusations 10 years ago, and Patekar had denied them.
Three days later, Dutta accused filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri (without naming him) of asking her to strip and dance to give her co-actor Irrfan cues for a shot on the sets of the 2005 film Chocolate. Agnihotri denied the allegation. On October 2, Dutta thanked the Mumbai Police for providing her with 24-hour protection in response to alleged threats from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The next day, Dutta said in a statement that she had been served legal notices by Patekar and Agnihotri. She also claimed that two unidentified men had tried to break into her apartment in Mumbai on the same day while the police personnel were on a lunch break.
Meanwhile, a defamation case against Dutta was filed by the Maharashtra Police based on a complaint by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Beed district president, Sumant Dhas, which said that the actress had defamed MNS Sena chief Raj Thackeray.
Several Bollywood personalities, including Farhan Akhtar, Priyanka Chopra, Varun Dhawan, Anushka Sharma and Kalki Koechlin, have come forward in support of Dutta. The Cine and TV Artistes Association, to whom Dutta had complained in 2008, released a statement condemning the incident and admitted that Dutta’s complaint was not properly addressed at the time.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Dutta spoke of what led her to talk about the 2008 incident in September and the challenges she has faced since. Edited excerpts.
How do fame and success enable abuse and assault in Bollywood?
It is not that fame and success give such people the confidence to know that they will get away with harassment. In the US, many famous people have been booked and charged in similar situations.
In India, what enables these people is the deeply patriarchal and misogynist environment where they know that once a victim speaks out, it is the victim who will be shamed and then discredited. They know that the system can be tweaked to be advantageous to them. Their first instinct is to shame, launch a smear campaign, put legal pressure, and draw false comparisons between victim and the perpetrator.
Fear is the biggest issue, and it makes sense. Today, it’s more vicious. The more the fear, the more the viciousness. Then, there’s the societal conditioning that puts the blame on the victim.
What do you make of the way the Indian media has covered the issue?
The news media has been very compassionate and supportive. The MeToo movement was, after all, driven by the media. And it created a big impact. The media and the public, in the last 10 years, have evolved and are empowered. Social media gives you its share of creeps, but it has also done good. Ten years back, I faced the slander, the morphed photos, the threats, everything, but, this time, the support is huge.
Could you take us back to how the ten-year-old incident blew up again in India?
I returned from the US for a holiday in the end of July. I had left for the US in June 2016, and I settled there for two years. This year, I had spare time of a few months before I could buy an apartment in a neighbourhood I was really fond of. I thought, why not come back to India and stay here for the meantime?
Right after I got out of the airport, I got clicked. And the pictures went viral, understandably, because I wasn’t around all this while, and I was available on Instagram. I got my fair share of fans’ comments plus the body-shamers. I got called for interviews. One of them went viral, which was something on the lines of, Tanushree Dutta gives it back to the trolls. One by one, I kept getting calls for interviews from various web portals. And I had nothing to do, so I thought, why not?
I attended a web series awards organised by TV18. [The second edition of iReel awards held in Mumbai on September 6]. The next day, a journalist from TV18 interviewed me, and suddenly asked, why do you think the MeToo movement hasn’t arrived in India?
Now, I don’t plan and talk. I don’t remember what I will say five minutes later. In between my reply to the question, I said, if I did not get justice back then, and was bullied instead, what can we expect? Her interest was piqued and she kept asking questions. I answered. Next day, the interview was picked by almost every place under the sun.
Journos who were cubs or who were around at the time, they are in prominent positions today, and they remember. So my story found quick traction in the media. The MeToo movement after all was driven by the media.
The fact that the incident took a decade ago is being repeatedly brought up to discredit your testimony.
First of all, the fact that I am bringing this up suddenly after 10 years itself is a lie. I did speak back then, and what happened when I did? The MNS threatened and attacked me. There is video evidence. Where CINTAA was supposed to protect me, I was embroiled in a situation that was leading to me giving compensation to the producers, and all this while I was hoping for retribution.
In between these 10 years, whenever someone asked me about this very well-documented incident, I did talk. This has blown up now because of the collective consciousness. It wasn’t started by me. If I cannot escape this incident, why would I brush it under the carpet?
Back then, I would either be very disturbed or I would probably break down or avoid talking about it or get agitated. Today, it doesn’t evoke too many emotions. I just narrate it. But the memories are there.
In a statement on October 2, the Cine And TV Artistes’ Association said it regrets its inaction on your complaint.
I do not know how much has changed within CINTAA in the last 10 years. Their apology is sincere, but before forgiveness comes repentance. Unless you repent and at least do something to show that you are really sorry, what’s the point of an apology? Everyone will just do what they feel like and say sorry.
Actor Sushama Reddy and Sattyajit Gazmer, an assistant director on Vivek Agnihotri’s ‘Chocolate’, have claimed that you were unable to follow the director’s instructions.
I cannot address or give credence to each and every piece of misinformation being peddled about me. I will waste my energy if I do so and I don’t want to fight that battle.
Whenever a person in my position speaks out against harassment, the tools are similar. There’s character assassination – a woman seen in hot photoshoots or glamorous roles speaking out against a pious man. Then, there’s intimidation through the legal system. Where the legal system should be a tool for victims of harassment to seek justice, it is used as a weapon to silence them. The common phrase being thrown around to shrug off the responsibility of taking a stand is, let the law take its course, let the courts decide. Of course, the court will decide, but years later. By then, in India, witnesses get silenced or discredited. False witnesses are produced to back the perpetrator.
Another kind of intimidation is through the political system, in this case, the MNS. People like Nana Patekar get the confidence to do what they do when they are in cahoots with groups like the MNS.
Another way to discredit you is by circulating pictures and videos of your dance sequences from films. Nana Patekar’s stature as an award-winning actor is also being mentioned.
Nana Patekar is just an actor. Just because someone has had an image carefully crafted for him over the years does not make the person credible. If I hadn’t quit the industry after that incident, perhaps, I could have stayed on for a decade and made my way into more substantial roles.
Recently, I was watching a news programme in a channel for which I had done an interview. Right before my interview came, they showed Nana in a khadi kurta worshipping a god’s idol, and beside that, there I am, pouting in a sexy photoshoot.
If you are so god-loving, why do you need cameras to show that? Aren’t worship and devotion to be practised in silence? But somehow, Bollywood has this exhibitionist side to it. Before a film is to be released, they take blessings. So go and take them and come back. And you don’t even have to go, just pray in a corner in your room. But no, you need five cameras to show it.
People need to wake up and be more intelligent. You can trash me. I am used to it. But people, for their own sake, should become more aware. The old constructs are falling down. The new world is coming. You need to adapt to that.
The discourse is of a failed actress going up against a respected artist.
The perception that he is a big star, and so he could do not this, or that he is a respected man, and hence, he cannot do this, is absolutely wrong. If he was really respected, wouldn’t the industry come forward to speak for him en masse?
As for me being a failed actress, people need to understand that I chose to walk away and find my way in a spiritual path. If someone has stayed from the film industry for 10 years, she must have found something equally enticing.
Could you elaborate on your spiritual journey?
I was always a spiritual seeker. But after the incident in 2008, my foundations were shaken. That turned my interest towards pure religions. I travelled to the Himalayas. I went to Ladakh. I studied and practiced Buddhism there. I practiced Shiv Sadana in Coimbatore. I began meditating. I then developed an interest in bible studies, which I carried with me on my journey to the US.
One day, I was sitting with a book in a cave, high up on a mountain in Ladakh. And my phone buzzed with a message that spoke of a film offer where I would get to play a cop. It was a fairly big banner. I was bald at the time, and I told them that. And they had no problems. But now, if I took the film, I would have to cut my trip short, fly to Mumbai, go for script readings, test shoots, rehearsals. I wasn’t ready to leave the beauty I had in front of me.
Are you returning to acting this time?
Absolutely not. Whatever little shred of interest I had in the deep recesses of my mind, I have lost. Here, the rumour is that I am going to be on Bigg Boss. No, I am not. The thinking here is that one’s highest aspiration is Bigg Boss. Will someone live the good life in the US and come back for Bigg Boss? Do I need that shouting and cussing in life? I don’t like drama anyway, and I have enough of it right now in life.
You could return to the United States. What is making you stay back?
That was the plan. But now this has begun a dialogue that I hope is not a fly-by-night affair. I hope it doesn’t die. There are many women like me whose voices have been stifled and haven’t had the opportunity to speak out of fear.
Of course, I am not okay with the drama. You think I don’t mind if a violent political outfit threatens me with dire consequences? If a smear campaign is out against me, do you think I can be okay? Can I be okay when legal notices are being served against me? You are wondering, how the hell is she not a bag of nerves? How is she so calm and not falling apart? How is she not suicidal? That’s a different question altogether. To answer that, one needs to walk the path I have for eight years.
I know I will be fine at the end of this. I know I will find retribution. Justice will be served at a divine time.