Ever since the Harvey Weinstein revelations shook Hollywood, triggering a series of exposes on sexual harassment in the American film industry, there have been expectations of a similar avalanche in Bollywood.
But as weeks turned into months, there were nothing more than occasional murmurs about a similarly pervasive culture of sexism in India’s film industry. Even in cases where sexual assault allegations were made, a pan-Bollywood movement to decry harassment did not materialise.
Why has Bollywood’s sexism failed to be articulated beyond unattributed gossip and euphemisms such as the casting couch? BBC World’s documentary Bollywood’s Dark Secret, which was premiered on the channel on Saturday, answers that question – somewhat.
Featuring interviews with a few Indian actresses, including Radhika Apte and Kalki Koechlin, the 20-minute documentary attempts to understand why the country’s biggest film industry has been reluctant to speak up about instances of sexual harassment. While the documentary fails to adequately explore the problem in depth – undoubtedly because few were willing to go on record on the subject – it does make it clear that the reason for Bollywood’s reticence is not that the sexism doesn’t exist, but that the power structures are so deep-seated that they have so far proved impossible to dismantle.
According to National Film Award-winning actress Usha Jadhav, that needs to change. “I think it’s time we need to come out and talk about our experiences. I have faced it. I am facing it,” Jadhav, who has starred in the acclaimed 2012 Marathi film Dhag, told BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan. Jadhav claimed that a filmmaker refused to cast her in a film because she was unwilling to offer sexual favours and also threatened to hurt her career. She told him, “I don’t think you have that much power.”
Koechlin tried to explain why the moment hasn’t come yet: “People don’t listen to you if you’re nobody. If you’re a celebrity it only becomes a headline. Plus, you’re dealing with hundreds of people, men, throwing their opinions on you.”
BBC also spoke to actor-director Farhan Akhtar, who runs Men Against Rape and Discrimination or MARD, and director-editor Aruna Raje.
Apte, who in an earlier interview narrated an unpleasant experience she had with a male actor in a southern film, was refreshingly outspoken here too. “People are so scared...because here, some people are regarded as gods,” she said, pointing to a key challenge to organising a cohesive movement for change.
The documentary also features a 25-year-old aspiring actress, who said she was sexually assaulted by a casting agent and then a director. “This [your sexuality] is your biggest weapon, you should be happy to use it,” she was reportedly told. The actress said she was afraid of going public because she would be shut down and called publicity hungry.
Bollywood’s dark secret, then, seems to be that it’s not yet ready to confront sexism, not while women continue to be kept out of positions of power in the film industry. Though the documentary does little to unravel sexual harassment, it does leave viewers with the uncomfortable realisation that the climate may not be ripe yet for the film industry – or Indian society – to say #TimesUp.