Perhaps actor Alok Nath’s response to allegations of rape should be no cause for outrage. Perhaps it is only to be expected that the patriarch of Indian television and cinema, whose name is synonymous with “sanskar”, or traditional values, should have such unshakeable faith in his own moral authority that he feels he need not account for himself. Perhaps the real outrage here is that he should be questioned to begin with.
On Tuesday, writer Vinta Nanda went public with her allegation against Nath. In a harrowing account posted on Facebook, Nanda first described how he was thrown out of a serial she was producing in the 1990s after he molested the lead actress, how he used his influence to change the storyline and get back on the show, how she was finally humiliated and forced to leave the production. That is “when the worst happened,” Nanda writes. After a party one night, Nath offered to drop her home, the account goes. She claims to remember liquor being poured down her throat and waking up the next afternoon in pain. “I hadn’t just been raped, I was taken to my own house and had been brutalised,” she writes.
Nath’s response to this account follows the four stages of male denial. First, dismissal. When asked about the charges Nath seemed to wave them aside, saying he was not “confirming” or “denying” the incident. It did not seem to merit a defence to begin with.
The second stage can only be described as “gaslighting”, or manipulating someone by making them doubt their own sanity. Rape “must have happened,” Nath said, “but someone else would have done it”. It was a tactic worthy of Brett Kavanaugh, the presidential nominee to the supreme court of the United States who recently blustered his way through a hearing on sexual assault charges against him.
Clearly, according to both the accused men, a woman could not be trusted to remember the identity of her attacker, never mind how many times she says that details of the traumatic incident are engraved in her memory. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser and a clinical psychologist, tried to explain in the hearing that is how trauma works, that is how memory works. But Nath, like Kavanaugh, tries to cast his accuser as a woman out of her senses, both when the alleged incident occurred and when she went public with her charges, decades later. Since Nanda made her accusation, however, two other actors, Sandhya Mridul and Navneet Nishan, have gone public with their stories of harassment by Nath. It would be interesting to see if the actor tries to claim they were deluded about who their harasser was as well.
Third, injured entitlement. If Kavanaugh bellowed about how he went to Yale and served in the highest levels of government, Nath claimed that Nanda owed much of her success to him. So how could she now accuse him, her benefactor, who had allowed her to draw from the spoils of his success? Nath seems to fall back on his public image as the good father, the noble patriarch who went through so many ordeals to protect the honour of his daughters in countless films and television serials. When faced with unpalatable charges in real life, he has assumed the stance of sanskar under fire.
Sanskar, in Bollywood, is more than just traditional culture or morals. It is a value system that flows from the authority of a few powerful men. For decades, the industry and its networks have been formed around these men, in the spheres of influence that surround them like a halo. Like Nath, Nana Patekar, another Bollywood veteran accused of sexual harassment, initially reacted by simply dismissing the charges against him. Next came sympathetic testimonies about what a good man Patekar was, what an untiring social worker. In other words, a sanskaari man incapable of misdeeds. While a number of actresses spoke out against Patekar, most of the old guard of actors remained silent.
The phalanxes of sanskaari men may have been breached at last, and younger filmmakers such as Vikas Bahl have faced professional consequences after being charged with sexual harassment. But Nath’s response shows just how much ground still needs to be covered.
Like Nana, Nath’s fourth response: the threat of legal action for “the unnecessary defamatory statements”.