The controversy hanging over filmmaker Anurag Kashyap for his alleged inaction in a sexual assault complaint against his former business partner Vikas Bahl has singed a short film he produced in an independent capacity. Shazia Iqbal’s Bebaak, which has been produced by Kashyap and Jar Films, has been dropped from this month’s Mumbai Film Festival.
Bebaak stars Sarah Hashmi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vipin Sharma and explores the misogyny faced by a Muslim woman during an interview for a scholarship. The 20-minute film was initially accepted in the Spotlight section at the festival, which will run from October 25 to November 1. But on October 15, Iqbal learnt that Bebaak had been dropped. She claimed in an open letter that while the festival had not given her an official explanation, she was privately told that Kashyap’s involvement with her film was the reason.
“Chopping off films and treating filmmakers like disposable trash is not starting a conversation,” Iqbal told Scroll.in. “You are shutting down the conversation. Film festivals are our only hope, because where else will we screen it? Especially a festival as prestigious as MAMI.”
In the light of the MeToo movement, the festival had previously removed Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh and the All India Bakchod production Chintu Ka Birthday from its line-up. Kapoor has been accused of sexual harassment, as have been AIB member Gursimran Khamba and collaborator Utsav Chakraborty.
Iqbal said that she was initially advised by the festival organisers to drop Kashyap’s name from the credits of Bebaak. “It was heartbreaking for me because Anurag was excited about the film from day one,” she said. “Anurag told me that films are bigger than people and that it was alright. So we took around five days to make the changes in the posters and trailers and take off his name from everywhere.”
Iqbal claimed that despite making the changes, a festival committee member whom she didn’t identify, told her on October 15 that the film was being dropped.
Iqbal had also entered Bebaak at an international festival. “We are a team in solidarity with the MeToo movement,” she said. “So I requested MAMI not to do this to us because the international film festival might think that we are partially in association with an accused. I also asked them for a written statement, but there was no response. They told me that if the film was played at MAMI, the Chintu Ka Birthday team would have had an issue. But it is a completely different case.” While Gursimran Khamba has been directly accused of misconduct, this wasn’t the case with Bebaak, Iqbal pointed out.
In its statement, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, which organises the Mumbai Film Festival, said, “It is a tough time for the film industry and our hearts go out to the filmmakers whom we may have disappointed by our decision to not screen their films at this edition. However, at MAMI we are in solidarity with #MeToo, and we stand by our decision because there is a larger movement that has begun. We request understanding from the filmmakers and the many people involved with making these films.”
A Mumbai Film Festival organiser told Scroll.in on the condition of anonymity, “Yes, the film had been selected. And yes, we did decide to drop it. We are struggling to do the right thing here. It is important to get behind the movement. It is important for us to put out the right message at this time.”
The organiser clarified that films which featured Kashyap in the credits and with which he was not involved as a producer would not be dropped. These include Ridham Janve’s directorial debut The Gold-Laden Sheep & the Sacred Mountain, which has been selected in the competitive India Gold section. Kashyap had given the filmmakers some money to complete the production after they ran out of funds.
Kashyap has been in the eye of the MeToo storm for allegedly ignoring a sexual assault allegation against Vikas Bahl. The complainant was a former employee of Phantom Films, the production company set up Kashyap, Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena in 2011. The woman claimed in an interview to Huffington Post that despite telling Kashyap about the incident, which took place in 2015, he took no action against Bahl, and instead deployed her to work with Bahl for a project. The woman resigned in January 2017. An initial news report on the alleged assault came out in the Mumbai Mirror tabloid in May.
Bahl has denied that the assault took place. Hours before the publication of the Huffington Post story on October 6, three of the four Phantom Films founders – Kashyap, Motwane and Mantena – announced that the company was being dissolved. Kashyap later issued a statement claiming responsibility for having sat on the complaint and asserted that he stood by the woman. Kashyap also stepped down as a member of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image board.
“I am deeply, truly sorry to the woman in question and she has known this all this while,” Kashyap said.
In a separate statement, Vikramaditya Motwane claimed that he had learnt of the alleged assault as late as March 2017, and that he too stood by the woman. “...I was silent in the press because I was trying to make things right in a manner that, at all times, sought to protect the identity of the girl in question, without assigning any doubt whatsoever to her version of what has transpired, and most importantly, on the terms that she wanted and expressly agreed to then,” Motwane said.
Motwane has also been affected by the controversy. A short film directed by Atul Mongia and produced by Motwane in his individual capacity has similarly been dropped from the Mumbai Film Festival line-up.
Vikas Bahl has filed defamation cases against Kashyap and Motwane to court for their statements. “The alleged incident has not been established in any court of law and you have exploited the media to propagate your own personal vendetta,” the legal notices sent by Bahl stated.
The case is being heard at the Bombay High Court. In her deposition, the complainant stated that while she stood by her allegation against Bahl, she did not wish to be involved in any litigation against the Queen director.
Shazia Iqbal has worked closely with Kashyap and Motwane on the first season of the Netflix series Sacred Games. Iqbal is one of the two production designers on the acclaimed show, which was produced by Phantom Films. The streaming platform has announced a second season, but has also said that it is “evaluating options on the path forward”.
Iqbal said that during her time at Phantom Films, she had never interacted with Vikas Bahl. “It is not right to be punished for a remote association,” she said. “People are telling me to take responsibility. But take responsibility for what? I would take responsibility if I assaulted someone or even if Anurag assaulted someone.”
Every case needs to be evaluated individually, Iqbal said. “I understand that it is very difficult for MAMI,” she said. “I was told that the board has taken this decision. But they could have called me and Anurag. But again, if that was the case, they should have removed all the other films that I have listed in the post.”
Among the titles that will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival are Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. The Danish director was accused of sexually harassing lead actress Bjork on the sets of their 2000 collaboration Dancer in the Dark. Bjork did not name Von Trier in her Facebook post, but alleged that he would hug her for a long time in front of the crew or alone and stroke her against her wishes. Von Trier denied the allegations, saying, “I touched her, it’s true. I did it with all my actresses… But if she thinks a hug is harassment, then I think I will not be able to succeed without touching my actors.”
Iqbal appealed to the Mumbai Film Festival director, Anupama Chopra and MAMI chairperson Kiran Rao to “sit down and look at each case as it is”. Iqbal added, “I do not want them to cancel anyone else’s film. But what they have done to the rest of the canceled films is unfair. To be heroes of the movement, they are going on the wrong side.”
The Mumbai Film Festival has had its share of controversies in the past. In 2016, festival organisers dropped the arthouse Pakistani film Jago Hua Savera from its line-up after the NGO Sangharsh Foundation filed a police complaint. The NGO’s president, Prithvi Maske, had said at the time, “Due to the tension and outrage among Indians against Pakistan and Pakistanis after the Uri attack, organisers of this event are more likely to flare the outrage by telecasting this Pakistani film.”
In 2017, the festival had to drop Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry refused to allow the film to be screened in the Indian Competition section. While Indian and international productions do not always need to be censored before being screened at film festivals in India, the ministry’s clearance is mandatory, to ensure that the films are exempted from local censorship rules. Sasidharan later changed the title to S Durga, but that did not prevent the International Film Festival of India in November 2017 from dropping the movie from its line-up.