Daisy Irani sets an example by speaking out against injustice, abuse in showbiz; will other women follow suit?
Daisy Irani has shown a path ahead; hopefully, some women will bravely follow her lead.
As a rookie reporter covering glitzy Bollywood and cinema in Mumbai, I recall a dazzling premiere for a much anticipated, star-studded film. Taking me aside, a couple of veteran film producers asked me to question three veteran superstars about their dalliances with a beautiful yesteryears’ leading lady who was suffering from debilitating illness. Given her health, skepticism had set in. But these producers spotted a young reporter and thought of ‘getting back’ at those accused of wrongdoing. Stunned but wise enough, I didn’t pose any such questions. But a daunting realisation sunk in — in the film industry, this woman had cannon fodder in a system that routinely chews up the young and vulnerable and spits them out when their utility has been optimised. The poor suffering lady’s illness had become gossip and a source of vindictiveness. Harassment and routine abuse that she was supposed to have faced was of no concern at all.
Daisy Irani, the adorable child star from the 50s, has made a shocking revelation — of having suffered rape at the tender age of 6. Rather than join voices with the #MeToo movement, she has spoken out to highlight the vulnerabilities of young actors and children in showbiz. She had also highlighted consequences of having over-ambitious parents, focused on making their children into stars at all costs.
This elderly lady has shown tremendous courage and immaculate grace in speaking out now. She has set an example on speaking out against injustice and abuse prevalent in Indian cinema and TV.
While the #MeToo movement is a worldwide effort by zealous and dedicated women to change such acceptance and general mindset, here in India, I believe, change will take at least another 5-6 decades to happen. For silence is golden, and speaking out might lead to dire consequences.
Recently, Ileana D’Cruz pointed out that while it might be viewed as cowardly, but speaking out against the casting couch might end your career. Richa Chadda, a frank and opinionated person, also echoed this sentiment. More than 50 years since Daisy Irani suffered in silence, little has changed for women and young people in the film industry. From what the grapevine says, things are worse in TV.
Abuse is not just sexual and physical; harassment can also be mental. Being a female assistant director is a difficult and demanding job for women, especially when one doesn’t get paid for it. I recall a lissome young assistant director sobbing quietly in the elevator that led to a bombastic young filmmaker’s office. When I asked her why was she crying, she said that while her male colleagues had been paid their wages partially, the director hadn’t paid her at all. This was over 8 months’ work. It incensed me to think that he had just very unsubtly flaunted keys to his new imported SUV. But the girl begged me to not say anything; it was a boys’ club through and through and no one would fight her corner. Instead, she might lose getting paid altogether if he found out she had spoken to a journalist.
Similar stories of non-payment and delayed compensation proliferate amongst female assistant directors, technicians and stylists. They face routine prejudice just because they are women; they have to deal with innuendo-filled conversations and approaches from men from all quarters. Addressing these might mean isolation and could lead to termination in the middle of a project. So just ‘dealing with it’ by being silent is norm.
In a scenario where women behind the camera can face such abuse and humiliation, one can well imagine the levels of exposure for female actors. They still get replaced over a hero’s whims or preference; and complaining about the male lead getting preferential treatment can mean retaliation. With careers that have minimal shelf lives, speaking out is just not an option in Hindi cinema.
A leading lady had once disclosed details about a senior star's regular habit on the set of a high budget comedy. He would get drunk, knock on her door and doors of female crew members at all hours of the night. In the morning, he would apologise saying he was drunk. Everyone would have a hearty laugh and business would continue as usual. Similarly, an aggressive female star, whose boyfriend was openly cheating on a film set, threw stuff at her female assistant directors and routinely abused them. The director would advise them to take it all silently as she was just ‘letting off steam’. It’s not always a male-female power spectrum. It’s just about having power and therefore, throwing one’s weight around. Abuse becomes gratification in such cases.
What makes the situation worse, is the reality of posing for pictures and smiling blandly at high-visibility social gatherings with those who were instrumental to, or have committed abuse. The code of silence covers all, and anyone stepping out of line even with the slightest show of rebellion, might suffer professionally.
This piece doesn’t name anyone. I don't view it as my right to name anyone: not the people who shared their stories, or those accused of having committed acts of abuse. The point that it makes is that suffering sexual humiliation, abuse and routine bad behaviour can have grave consequences psychologically and on a person’s self image, and therefore must be addressed.
It is wrong, plain and simple. Men must change, as must women who are part of the problem when they advise others to stay silent or ignore such incidents.
Daisy Irani has shown a path ahead; hopefully, some women will bravely follow her lead. For a reckoning against routine bad behavior and abuse against the vulnerable must come to a halt.
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