A year after #MeToo's second wave, systemic change eludes Hindi TV industry, but attitudinal shift in evidence

Natasha Coutinho-Dsouza

Nov 07, 2019 09:22:45 IST

A little over a year since the second wave of the #MeToo movement stormed social media timelines in India, the entertainment industry has seemingly taken an adage popularly associated with it — “the show must go on” — to heart.

Just months after his association with Indian Idol had reportedly ended in the midst of #MeToo allegations, music composer Anu Malik is back as a judge on the latest season of Sony’s singing reality show.

Last October, the singer Shweta Pandit had shared an allegation against Malik on Twitter, stating that in an incident dating several years ago, he asked her to kiss him after she recorded a song at his studio.  Pandit said she was 15 at the time. Malik categorically denied the allegation, and in a statement to Firstpost, his lawyer had said: "The allegations made against my client are emphatically denied as completely false and baseless. My client respects the #MeToo movement but to use this movement to start a character assassination mission is obnoxious".

This October, as Malik was reinstated as a judge on Idol, the singer Sona Mohapatra listed out the allegations against Malik that had been aired during #MeToo. Her stance was seconded by another singer, Neha Bhasin, who said that she had been made uncomfortable by Malik’s inappropriate behaviour during what was meant to be a professional meeting.

As of now, however, the Twitter outrage seems to have accomplished little, as there has been no news of Malik’s Indian Idol stint being affected by it. Both, the channel (Sony) and Malik, have kept mum in the face of the backlash.

The Hindi television industry is a different cup of tea than its sibling, the film business. While the Hindi film industry is well-known to be a mostly male bastion, TV — as far as the common perception goes at least — seems to be ruled by women. Whether it is the all-powerful czarina who casts a large and influential shadow over the business, or the leading ladies who spearhead the TRP-generating monster hits — women in the TV industry are visible in a way that is far more obvious than when it comes to Bollywood. But the row over Malik’s Idol reinstatement does give pause to ask: How well does TV really treat its women, especially after #MeToo?

Veteran writer-producer Vinta Nanda, who brought the pioneering Tara to our TV screens back in the ‘90s, says that after the #MeTooIndia wave last year, there was much talk of bringing about systemic change. However, there has been little tangible sign of it, Nanda rues.

 A year after #MeToos second wave, systemic change eludes Hindi TV industry, but attitudinal shift in evidence

How well does TV really treat its women, especially after #MeToo? Illustration courtesy Namaah K for Firstpost

“It was made mandatory by the Producers Guild of India for all production companies to implement the Vishakha Guidelines and set up ICs (internal committees),” Nanda told Firstpost. “But most haven't followed the rules. If they have, then I don't know and therefore, I can be corrected. The Screenwriters Association and CINTAA (Cine & TV Artists Association) have been very active; they’ve formed a strategic alliance and they’ve been conducting workshops to create awareness and make young aspirants understand that there are places they can approach if they feel they are being abused or violated.”

Firstpost reached out to Siddharth P Malhotra and Rajan Shahi, the producers of the popular shows of Sanjivani and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, respectively, to find out what measures their companies had instituted to guard against workplace sexual harassment. Malhotra and Shahi both told this correspondent that while their production houses didn’t have a formal IC, they had guidelines in place to ensure safe working environments for their (female) employees.

“Every production house, including mine, has informed its cast and crew about who they can address their grievances to,” Shahi said. “Awareness is important and women who have grievances should be given a proper platform.”

Malhotra said that gender parity was a guiding principle at his production house (his wife Sapna Malhotra is a partner, overseeing financial and creative aspects of the business). He also said that hiring women across the board — not just for the onscreen roles, but also behind the camera, in the position of directors, assistants, writers — was a practice the company followed seriously. If an issue of harassment were to crop up, Malhotra says, “We will set up a committee internally, and consult experts on the mater, but right now, with just two people running the company, there is no scope [for a committee].”

This correspondent reached out to several leading actresses of the small screen, and while they are easily accessible for show promotions and features, none wished to comment on whether or not the TV industry offers a safe working environment to women. Female crewmembers also did not wish to speak on the record, although a stylist with a TV show told Firstpost on condition of anonymity, “Men on set are more careful after the #MeToo movement, be it how they talk or behave. So the movement did seem to have a positive impact.”

Our source also said that the sheer number of women working in the TV industry had led to a fairly equitable workspace. “There is not much disparity in terms of money or how we are treated, as compared to our male counterparts,” the stylist said. “We do work long hours to meet episodes, especially if it is a daily [show], but we get between 3-4 days off a month. Work timings depend on the actors’ schedules, so they aren’t fixed per se.”

Last October, CINTAA set up an anti-harassment committee, announcing that actresses Taapsee Pannu, Raveena Tandon and Renuka Shahane, along with filmmaker Amole Gupte, would be part of the committee. Members of the industry have been invited to raise their grievances before the committee, although it is unclear how many have actually approached the members thus far. In an interview at the time the committee was formed, Pannu told this writer that in their very first meeting, she and the other members had discussed what the focus of their work should be — prevention or damage control, what could be done for survivors, and how such instances might be avoided in future.

Vinta Nanda, who stepped forward with a searing allegation of rape against actor Alok Nath last year, feels that the TV industry hasn’t taken an unequivocal, zero tolerance stand against misogyny. (Nath was granted anticipatory bail by a Mumbai court in June 2019, in the rape case filed against him by Nanda. He was also seen in the May 2019 release, De De Pyar De.) “Instead of setting examples of zero tolerance, the industry instead has re-installed some of the accused without due process or for that matter, questionable due process. This does not send out the right message,” says Nanda.

Nanda told Firstpost that while “#MeToo has made men by and large afraid”, it has also had an alternate impact, “which means that men are wary of working with women — and that is not a good thing.”

Nanda added that the general refrain surrounding #MeToo is that “the movement failed, just like all women's movements and movements against patriarchy fail when they meet systemic road blocks”. “Until and unless more women populate creative, management and administrative and performance spaces, it cannot be expected for things to change,” she emphasised.

Systemic inertia notwithstanding, there has been some attitudinal change at the very least, courtesy #MeToo. “I feel the movement has made a lot of people more responsible about what they say and how they say it,” says producer Siddharth P Malhotra. “There’s certainly an understanding of the gravity of the situation.”

Actor Nakuul Mehta, the star of hit shows like Ishqbaaaz, agrees. He recounts how, in late 2017 (a little after the Harvey Weinstein case was reported in the US and women began voicing their #MeToo stories), he attempted to speak of the need for accountability in the Hindi TV industry at an awards ceremony and was cut off.

“[At a television awards show, during my acceptance speech], I was talking about taking ownership for our own conduct and for creating safe working spaces women, only to be heckled by the host for going on too long. We’ve made very little progress since then,” Mehta told Firstpost. “Yes, there is dialogue and conversation around the subject, which is definitely the need of the hour. There is increased awareness. But has there been real change? Have perpetrators acknowledged their acts? Do women feel safer? All of these are questions we need to ask.”

Mehta says that one positive step has been “an increased awareness about our individual moral conduct”. “Jokes which felt funny earlier, may not be anymore,” he mused. “‘Woke’ means nothing if it doesn't reflect in our conduct. I feel as ‘men’ who have the good fortune of working in this industry, which is led by women, it’s time we take complete responsibility for our act.”

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Updated Date: Nov 09, 2019 10:49:41 IST