Aitraaz, Inkaar, Sheesha: Bollywood needs more stories, themes around sexual harassment at workplace

Diptakirti Chaudhuri

October 24, 2018 14:00:02 IST

1986: Poonam, a temporary telephone operator at PC Drugs Company, accuses the firm’s chief executive, Dinesh Prakash, of rape attempt but the court rules against her.

2004: Raj Malhotra, a director on the board of telecom firm Voice Mobile, takes company’s managing director Sonia Roy to court for sexually harassing him and wins the case.

2013: Maya Luthra, the national creative director of an advertising agency, KK & Doyle, accuses CEO Rahul Verma of sexual harassment. A committee is set up to probe the allegations but Verma resigns before the panel can submit its recommendations.

The three incidents sound like real-life cases but these are plots of Hindi films themed around sexual harassment at the workplace.

Given that the corporate world is not a preferred setting for popular Hindi cinema, the issue of sexual harassment is also under-represented. Bollywood has preferred to focus on exploitation of women, using the standard trope of ‘titillatory rape’ before letting the hero come in and save the day.

Films like Inkaar and Aitraaz have had a somewhat problematic take on sexual harassment at the workplace. (Images from Youtube)

Basu Chatterjee’s Sheesha (1986) was based on a Bengali novel and was surprisingly ahead of its time. In the mid-1980s, corporate governance wasn’t exhaustively codified in India and sexual harassment wasn’t even a standard phrase. The film revolves around a hotshot executive (Mithun Chakraborty) who assaults his company’s telephone operator (Mallika Sarabhai) and is arrested for ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’. The subplots of the union’s involvement and toxic office gossip are interesting but the dramatic conflict never really builds up. The protagonist – aided by his wife and a top lawyer – uses the plaintiff’s “disreputable” past to get off scot-free while the woman is left without a case, job and her reputation in tatters.

Abbas-Mustan’s Aitraaz (2004) is a “loose copy” of Disclosure, the Michael Douglas-Demi Moore starrer on sexual harassment. To expand duration and drama, the romantic history of the two leads (Akshay Kumar and Priyanka Chopra) is shown in detail to give the woman traits that Bollywood considers unworthy of a “good woman” – non-maternal, career-focused and lustful. And if that isn’t enough, the man is represented in court by his wife (Kareena Kapoor), an erstwhile successful career woman who turns homemaker. And so it is no longer a case of sexual harassment. It is the defence of an honourable man who is being framed by a shrew.

Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar (2013) is probably the most realistic depiction of sexual harassment in Hindi cinema and also a fine portrayal of life in the advertising industry.
The accused (Arjun Rampal) starts his defence on the line between flirting and harassment, as members of the committee formed to probe the allegations look on with indulgence. The allegations come under scrutiny as they seem to have originated from a mix of the souring of a romantic relationship and professional jealousy. The he-said-she-said drama builds up quite well but, ultimately, the resolution is not provided by the committee but by the two professional rivals, who decide to revive their personal relationship.

In a sense, the women in all three films are lost. Maya (Chitrangada Singh) of Inkaar lists out several instances that would qualify as harassment, though not always sexual. However, it is never clear if she was harassed by those advances or just using them to get ahead of her ex-lover. Sonia of Aitraaz is an out-and-out villainous character and the allegations of rape were false. Poonam of Sheesha is a victim but her accusations get lost in a maze of legalese, which was probably realistic but depressingly so. The realism is also reflected in the slipshod manner that sexual harassment is addressed in India – often coloured by the victims’ pasts (which shouldn’t matter) and the accused’s positions of power (which is a given).

As the #MeToo movement has shown, there is a lot of drama in the accounts of sexual harassment. It is up to the greatest storytellers to pick them up and transform them into stories of power, courage and hope.

(Diptakirti Chaudhuri is a salesman by day, writer by night. He has written four books on Bollywood)

Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 14:05 PM