Nearly a month after The Viral Fever founder Arunabh Kumar was accused of sexual harassment by a slew of women on social media, reports of another molestation case in the entertainment industry have surfaced in the media – this time revolving around filmmaker Vikas Bahl.
According to a report in Mumbai Mirror, a young woman employed at Phantom Films, which Bahl co-founded in 2011, alleged that Bahl “forced himself” on her during a trip to Goa a few months ago. A Phantom “stakeholder” quoted in the report has claimed that this is not the only molestation complaint against Bahl, and that there are “multiple victims”.
Bahl, director of the films Queen and Shaandaar, co-founded Phantom along with filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and producer Madhu Mantena. The company has a 50-50 partnership with Reliance Entertainment, which, according to the Mumbai Mirror report, is looking into the woman’s complaint by setting up an internal committee in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Bahl categorically denied the allegations, and stated that no complaint had been made to the human resources team (of Phantom and Reliance Entertainment) and no committee had been constituted.
The details of this particular case are not known, and will perhaps remain in the realm of unverified gossip since the complainant has chosen not to pursue the case by filing a criminal complaint. But the controversy, coming close on the heels of the TVF allegations, once again raises a pertinent question: is the entertainment industry – which operates largely through short-term contract work – sufficiently equipped to redress cases of sexual harassment?
Unorganised sector, weak HR
Setting up an internal committee to investigate the woman’s complaint – as Reliance Entertainment is reported to have done – is certainly a necessary response. However, a committee is not meant to be instituted after the fact.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act actually mandates that every employer must have an internal complaints committee set up at all times, comprising a female presiding officer and at least two other members from within the company. Each member of the committee has a term of three years, and the company has to ensure that all employees are made aware of the existing of the committee – and the names of the members – so that women know who to approach should they wish to make a sexual harassment complaint.
For most production houses and employers in the film industry, however, such diligent compliance with the Act seems to be an ambitious expectation.
“The film industry is a very unorganised sector, and the penetration of proper HR in the industry is not large enough,” said a human resources executive who has been providing external HR services to the entertainment industry for several years. Requesting anonymity, the executive said that most of the industry works through people’s equations with the boss of the production house. “So even if they do have an HR team, how much voice will it have?”
Not a priority
For most film producers, the immense pressure of getting projects off the ground, ensuring that films are completed on time and within budgets, means that following many HR functions – such as performance management, employee grievances, trainings – is not on their priority list. “I have seen that they don’t really have the will to do any of these things, so they procrastinate,” said the HR executive. “So if we were to tell them to have a one-hour workshop for employees about sexual harassment at the workplace, it would simply not be on their agenda.”
Film sets are also not what one would consider a typical workplace. Artistes and crew members are often away on shoots for long periods of time, and most of them work on contracts or sub-contracts through agencies – they are not direct employees of the production company.
Technically, any harassment faced by a woman working on a film project would be clearly covered under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, which recognises any space where work is carried out as a “workplace”, and includes temporary and contract workers under the term “employee”. But the film industry is also a hierarchical world, and the position and influence of a complainant would impact her ability to get a redressal in case of sexual harassment.
“Most production houses would only concern themselves with their main employees, not necessarily those on contract,” said Rizwan Siddiquee, a lawyer and activist who has worked on cases in the film industry for the past 18 years. “Background dancers, for instance, have been the most exploited people on a film set, and if one of them is harassed, there is not much she may be able to do about it.”
The majority of women in the film industry, Siddiquee said, have faced some situation of harassment or another, but are not always able to come out in the open about it because of their vulnerable positions.
“For those who want to remain in the industry, there is a large element of appeasing the boss at play,” said the HR executive. “They don’t want to speak against powerful people, whether it is about harassment, low increments or anything else.”
In addition to all this, the film industry is also a very sexualised sphere, and feminist lawyer Veena Gowda points out that in the midst of the partying and flirting, it is important to remember the concept of “continued consent”. “This means that if someone consents to one thing – like kissing, for example – it does not automatically mean they have consented to taking things further,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Vikas Bahl controversy, at least some members of the film industry have attempted to spark a conversation on boundaries, workplace professionalism and sexual harassment.