Bollywood sexual harassment: Women speak out about Indian cinema’s open secret and say that unmasking of abusive men in industry is long overdue.
The casting couch is one of Indian cinema’s most open secrets, although more actors have started talking about it, after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s crimes came out in the open. Though none of the Indian actors who spoke on the topic could identify an offender similar to Harvey Weinstein, they all agree that unmasking of abusers in the Indian media and entertainment industry was long overdue in India, the world’s largest producer of films.
There is a deeply entrenched culture of actors – mostly women, but some men – being pressured to exchange sexual favours for roles and the promise of fame. It is always very subtle. People try to insinuate that there are 10,000 girls for one role – so what can you do?”
“Now I understand why in the olden days the actresses used to take their mothers on shoots,” says Bollywood actor Swara Bhaskar.
“They make situations uncomfortable and load choices in a way where if women want to get ahead, you have to do certain things,” says Bollywood actor Tisca Chopra.
“In terms of awareness of the laws, girls who come from small towns with big dreams – they face maximum exploitation,” says Amit Behl, the senior joint secretary of the Cine and TV Artists Association in Mumbai.
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This year, a shocking allegation roused the women of one Indian film industry into action. In February 2017, in Kerala (home to Malayalam film industry), a prominent female actor was bundled into a car and sexually assaulted for several hours before being dumped on the street.
Police arrested Dileep, a Mollywood superstar, for allegedly orchestrating the kidnapping and assault (though he denies the charges).
“All the big actors went and met with him, said everything would be fine. Some industry figures attacked the victim, suggesting she was lying or might have staged the crime for publicity,” says a shocked Padmapriya, a National Film Award-winning Mollywood actor.
The same whisper networks that trafficked warnings about Weinstein in the US also exist in India. Off-the-record, Bhasker reeled off a dozen household names in Bollywood who are regarded as “serial harassers”.
It is an industry where actors have to wear any kind of dress or do intimate scenes and people assume, if you’re up for doing that, then what’s the big deal?
Women in Cinema Collective aims to advocate for women, but also provide counselling, legal advice and a formal redressal mechanism for when accusations of sexual harassment or assault arise. Actors are now becoming more open about it, complaining, expressing their ire on social media, going to the cops.