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No Weinstein for Bollywood

By Zeenat Hansrod

The Weinstein effect where men in power are held accountable for their sexual misconduct has had a ripple effect across the world. But has it reached Bollywood, the worlds’s most prolific film industry? Three Indian journalists have examined how India's cinema capital and its media deal with sexual predators in B-Town.

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With at least 2,000 movies released each year, India’s Hindi film industry is the most prolific in the world.

And Bollywood’s casting-couch policy is an open secret. It is such a common practice that it shocks no one and is almost accepted as being part of the way to become an actress.

In a patriarchal structure such as Bollywood, journalist Veena Venugopal explains, actresses rely on a sort of godfather figure who helps them navigate the industry, in exchange for some form of compensation.

“For someone who is well-established in the film industry, they’ve got there because they’ve played by the rules,” says Venugopal, who writes on gender issues for the Hindu daily. "And one of the rules is that you accept the existence of the casting couch and you keep quiet about it.

“Talent is important but the ability to navigate a very difficult landscape, especially for women, is even more important."

Culture of silence

Women in the Indian film industry feel no incentive to complain about any form of sexual misconduct because, up until now, perpetrators have hardly faced any serious repercussions. Rajeev Masand, film critic for CNN–News 18, recalls the recent cases of two film makers who faced charges related to sexual misconduct:

“Vikhas Bahl was accused of sexual harassment by assistant directors, nothing came of it; Madhur Bhandarkar was accused of rape, the court ultimately let him go for lack of evidence. There has not really been a landmark judgement… that would encourage other actresses to come out and name names," he points out. "This is a culture that thrives on silence.”

After the US's Harvey Weinstein scandal hit the headlines, some top Indian actresses confided, off the record, to Masand that they had faced similar  behaviour on the part of filmmakers. While they told Masand they wished they could have reported the situation, they admitted they didn't do so and, instead, opted not to work with these film makers.

“They all seemed to think that was the best route to take and it doesn’t cross most people’s mind that perhaps it is more important to name and shame," concludes Masand.

Victim-shaming and financial insecurity

In India victim-shaming in sexual violence cases is very common. Venugopal says that victims are shunned by their friends and family. Because there is such a low number of women in the workforce, the ones who are assaulted are blamed and meant to think that they have asked for it, she observes.

“This is a culture where victims are shamed and blamed," Masand agrees. "The first question that would be asked of a woman who’d complained she was harassed would be 'What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Was she smoking? Did she ask for it?' You can see why women would be very apprehensive about naming names."

Financial insecurity is another reason why some actresses prefer to keep silent. RFI Delhi correpondent Vickram Roy has interviewed a number of budding actresses who chose not to report incidents of sexual harassment to the police.

“They will not name their molestors because there is no support system in India,” he says.

Women and actresses who enjoy financial privileges and do not have bills to pay at the end of the month can afford to refuse to work with the most dubious characters of the industry. Others do not have that choice.

More recently, the Bollywood “whisper network” indicates that casting-couches have now been extended to male actors as well. Veena Venugopal heard stories about “producers and directors seeking sexual favours from men as well".

“It is all in the realm of gossip right now," she says. "There are no formal complaints lodged. If there is, I don’t how that will play out legally because homosexuality is a criminal offence in India."

Film critic Rajeev Masand corroborates: “There is an unspoken condition that if you were 'flexible' … if an aspiring actor was willing to be intimate with a gay filmmaker, there would be chances to further his or her career but this is in the realm of gossip.”

Flawed justice system

Among the evidence released against Weinstein is the audio secretly recorded by an Italian model meeting him in a hotel room in 2015.

Audio and video recordings are only admissible as evidence in Indian courts if their authenticity is established, Roy points out.

“There lies the problem, as courts are reluctant to rely on them as clinching evidence. Electronic documents produced through media sting operation are seen as unreliable by courts,” he says.

Seventy percent of Indian women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment do not report it and, according to Vikram Roy, the convictions in rape cases is negligeable.

“It is a scandal. Why should anybody come out before the firing line and … complain about sexual harassment when the offender will get out acquitted or come out on bail and hound them?" he asks. "Unless we give the women stronger laws, things will not change as fast as perhaps it changed in the United States."

"What has happened to Harvey Weinstein is unimaginable in India for many, many years to come," says Veena Venugopal. "I highly doubt I will see it in my lifetime."

Bollywood power

The allegations against Weinstein run over the last 30 years but the reports only came out now when the Hollywood moghul was no longer as powerful as he used to be. One of the American reporters said that he faced pressure not to release reports about Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.

Does Bollywood wield such power over the media and can it exert pressure for damaging reports not be released?

Vikram Roy believes this is the case and that some entertainment journalists have to “toe the line” or run the risk of being boycotted.

“Public relations firms are now the interface between the media and Bollywood. They protect their celebrity clan with much enthusiasm. Some of these companies dictate what one can ask at a red carpet. Often production houses write up the fine print on what media can report and what media cannot,” he declares.

Masand disagrees. A lot of journalists enjoy considerable freedom and are not afraid of “going after sacred cows/film directors”, he believes. But he also says that entertainment journalism has become “PR driven”.

“Film journalism is just dull! They are not doing responsible, investigative journalism. If you had your facts and the people on the record, I do think a story like that would be explosive and would be completely embraced by news organisation. I don’t think that Bollywood has that much clout that it could kill a story like that.”

Venugopal believes that it is not so much a case of Bollywood producers exerting pressure on media houses but rather the kind of pressure they can apply on the victims.

“If a potential Bollywood actress was to talk about this in public – [she would need] to come on the record before you carry a story like this – that is virtually the end of her career! That is where the Bollywood power really is. It is not in clamping down on the media, it is clamping down on potential victims.”

At the end of the day, it is the very nature of Bollywood that drives its moral compass. As Rajeev Masand puts it, “Bollywood is a boy’s club.”

“It is a very insular business. Anybody who complains in Bollywood is quickly labelled difficult. That person quickly becomes unhirable, unlike Hollywood where the support is for the victim. In the Weinstein case, when the lid was blown, so many people in power came out and condemned it. I don’t see that happening here. It embarasses me a great deal to admit that unfortunately here, the support will rally around the film makers and the perpetrators. It is just easier to hush the victims”

Follow Veena Venugopal on Twitter @veenavenugopal

Follow Rajeev Masand on Twitter @RajeevMasand

Follow Vikram Roy on Twitter @PrataoChakravar

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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