Phantom Films, All India Bakchod and #MeToo in India: The rise and fall of the 'edgelords'
Anurag Kashyap and Phanton Films' rise and popularity has been built on deploying women’s bodies in peril to cater to men's fantasies
By Nisha Susan
Sometimes you have to pause at the sheer perfection of a neologism. I saw the word "edgelords" used a couple times to describe a few of the many, many men in media accused of sexual harassment over the last few days. This new deluge of ‘outing’ follows LoSHA, the powerful list compiled by US based law student Raya Sarkar, that outed dozens of harassers in academia in late 2017 and the shorter streak of naming and shaming (also of men in media) in early 2017. The word 'edgelords' in this particular context has been directed at men in comedy and entertainment, who have historically wanted to be cooler-than-thou and now are making crab like motions to also be holier-than-thou.
The word ‘edgelords’ has an excellent way of measuring the delusions of grandeur of these men, as if they are toddlers who put three blocks on top of each other and are now looking around the room for praise. 'See my block didn’t fall, see, even if I poked it, see.' A long HuffPost India investigation that was fortuitously published thick in the middle of this new round of #MeToo has centred on a particular set of edgelords, that of Phantom Films, the most famous founder of which is Anurag Kashyap.
And two days after the publishing of the HuffPost story, came the collapse of another similar establishment of edgelords, that of the comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB). AIB had risen to true national fame when they had cases of obscenity filed against them in 2014 for a celebrity-studded, misogynistic show. Having gained the moral high ground from having their freedom of expression threatened, AIB has more or less continued in their hugely laddish manner for years. When active misogyny on screen ended and the founders stopped tweeting their ‘outrageous’ humour, women comedians and women’s experiences remained sidelined in the AIB universe.
This new round of #MeToo was kicked off on 4 October by Mahima Kukreja accusing former AIB employee Utsav Chakraborty of sexual harassment. On 8 October, two AIB co-founders stepped down, one for his complicity in the accusations against Chakraborty and the other after he too was accused of sexually harassing a former lover.
But the Phantom Films story rewards closer examination, because the rise of these edgelords was clearly built on the bodies of women. Because their current shaming was due to the assault on a woman. And because their attempts to save face also longs to deploy women everywhere as shields.
In the case of Anurag Kashyap, there is a continuity in his gaining of edge points from the adroit deployment of women’s bodies — from his earliest work to Phantom. In this, of course, Kashyap is not alone. All over the world, male filmmakers get edge points for finding creative excuses to take women’s clothes off and then extra points for wreaking violence on women’s bodies. What would Game of Thrones be without its sexposition scenes and rapes? Where would a lot of arty cinema be without being able to signal its edge with casual nudity?
Kashyap can be a witty and warm filmmaker. I wrote about his work admiringly a decade ago. But much of mine and others’ admiration of Kashyap’s work has lain in his ability to slightly round off women characters in a particular way, to give them memorable sexual personae, to bring back flutter and flame back to the interactions between men and women on screen. (Strongly associated with Kashyap’s rise and conquest of global film markets was his powerful woman producer Guneet Monga. Monga now runs Sikhya Entertainment and has been tweeting her support of survivors.)
After a point, I stopped enjoying Kashyap’s films because they were now a familiar soup of adolescent mopey men, their truly random taste for violence and the ‘Cool Girls’ who, in that now famous Gillian Flynn formulation, are the fantasies of men: smoking, drinking, swearing dudes in hot women’s bodies. We didn’t have Gillian Flynn back when DevD first came out but I should have recognised back then that Kashyap’s Chanda was the grown up version of the Male Film Student whose cutting edge student film is somehow always about a sex worker.
Sometime in 2014, Kashyap went on Facebook and expressed his unsolicited opinion that having viewed the meagre CCTV footage in the Tehelka sexual assault case, he didn’t believe the complainant. Many of us bid goodbye to Kashyap mentally after that.
In 2015, everyone in Bollywood heard rumours and questions about where the money in Kashyap’s Rs 120 crore flop Bombay Velvet had actually gone. Then, there were the snippets of Kashyap’s younger and younger romantic partners and, of course, something about his moving to Paris, which seemed to be the nicely documented tradition of filmmakers under a cloud. But alas, Kashyap has remained with us and returned to the edgy edge with Sacred Games on Netflix.
Which brings us to Partner #2. Vikas Bahl, one of Kashyap’s three partners at Phantom films whose claim to national fame is the creation of Queen, which fulfilled the dream that ordinary women may have a small chance of righting injustices at home and in love. In 2014, as soon as I saw Bahl’s ridiculous and violent short film ‘about’ women’s safety starring Alia Bhatt, I guessed that all that we’d loved in Queen could probably be credited to the two other script-writers (one of whom was a woman) and the dialogue writer (a woman).
But apparently Bahl’s taste for misogyny wasn’t contained to fiction. As a Huffington Post investigation reports, a female crew member was assaulted in 2015 by Bahl while Phantom was promoting Bombay Velvet. She reported the assault and Bahl’s subsequent harassment. The three other founders (Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena) did nothing though today, they express contrition and a desire to back the survivor. In the last few days, Bahl has also been accused of varying degrees of sexual harassment by Kangana Ranaut, her Queen co-star Nayani Dixit and another anonymous actor.
What is fascinating is that the Huffington Post investigation (the opening sentence of which uses the word ‘edgy’ to describe the production house — the irony) details the founders’ inaction for three years and also reports that they are now dissolving the production house. Hello, twist.
As HuffPo Bollywood Editor Ankur Pathak writes in his investigation, “three days after our questionnaires were sent, Kashyap tweeted that Phantom Films would be dissolved, and the four partners would go their separate ways.” Was this genius move meant to convince the public that the founders were now in a puddle of remorse and the dissolution of the company had nothing to do with their own reasons? Olivia Pope would definitely think this was a ham-handed attempt at fixing the ‘optics’ – how the incident will be perceived.
All the quotes from Kashyap seems to indicate that he would like us to believe that he only wants the complainant to get justice. "Whatever happened was wrong. We didn't handle it well, we failed. I cannot blame anyone but myself," Kashyap said. "But now we are determined to do better. We believe her completely. She has our undying support. What Bahl has done is horrifying. We are already on our path of course correction and will do everything in our capacity to fix it."
In another intriguing attempt at optics is the continuous invoking of Kashyap’s girlfriend Shubhra Shetty. Observe this sentence. “Kashyap's girlfriend Shetty said Kashyap didn't know the specifics of the incident and from the time that he found out, he did everything to distance himself from Phantom.” Luckily, the reporter maintains a wonderfully sceptical tone wondering why Shubhra Shetty was suddenly sending messages to the survivor conveying her desire for justice and her disappointment with Kashyap in March 2017 when she had known about the assault since May 2016. Shetty’s role in the Kashyap version of this story is to be both an ethical, fierce female goddess and in that ambassadorial capacity provide cover for Kashyap’s posterior. (In Kashyap’s 7 October statement, which blames Phantom Films’ legal experts, he also casts the survivor as wiser than him and kinder than him. She ‘was more perceptive than him’ that he was being poorly advised on the legal front. She did not share the incident with him for a long time because she saw him dealing with depression. And so on.)
Kashyap’s girlfriend is not the only one cast in this role this week of the media #MeToo manthan. In this week, the wives, girlfriends and friends of the accused men marshalled into giving character certificates and with their tears/rage hope to wash their men clean. Cue Tammy Wynette singing 'Stand By Your Man.'
Which brings us to Partner#3 Vikramaditya Motwane, a man whom Olivia Pope would send into exile for his damaging the optics hopelessly. My impression of Motwane, the one time I interviewed him, was that he was pleasant, intelligent but inclined to feel oppressed by stronger personalities such as that of Kashyap. He had no edgelord ambitions, none of the curious, mischievous gleam with which Kashyap surveyed the world back in 2009 as he had his first big hit, DevD.
When Motwane made his first film, I watched it. 'The poetry is squeezed out of us gentle men by violent men but we shall somehow prevail,' seemed to have been the summary of his debut Udaan. The gentleness of Udaan is at odds with the Kashyap template for masculinity. However, the sulkiness, the literal impotence of the ineffective uncle character, the hero’s expulsion from boarding school due after being caught watching Kanti Shah porn was all a perfect match for the BoyWorld of Kashyap. I couldn’t really get into Udaan and was constantly reminded of an old critic grumbling about Stealing Beauty that not even Bertolucci could persuade him to take a 19-year-old’s poetry seriously. As genuinely focussed as Motwane seems to have been in creating his own, warm but moody blue aesthetics (as is evident in Lootera) nothing beats his post-Huff Po, post-Phantom Films creation. On 7 October, a day after the HuffPo piece was published Motwane tweeted: "Yes we burned it down. It was huge and loud and a fucking spectacle. I hope you enjoyed it."
I read this tweet over and over again. Who was this tweet addressed to? Was this a drunk tweet addressed to Vikas Bahl, the man who reportedly masturbated on an employee and left her saying ‘f*** you, b***h’? Who taunted her in the months that followed calling her a dog? Was he addressing his other partners Kashyap and Madhu Mantena for not doing anything to help ‘the girl’ (as he continuously calls the complainant)? Was he talking to himself, a moody young hero staring in the mirror?
But alas no. Somehow in BoyWorld, Motwane has convinced himself that he is the victim. He is complaining that the world first thrust its crude and rude reality on Motwane’s dream depriving him and his Phantom brothers of making art and now the world is enjoying schadenfreude. It’s not so different from Kashyap’s excuse that he did not take action when his employee told him about the assault because he was frequently drunk back then because of the failure of Bombay Velvet. Kashyap has meanwhile posted a gloomy photos of himself in hospital and also marked his sureness that he was ready for ‘a new beginning’ (Photo by Vikram Motwane).
If you had told me back in 2009, when I interviewed Motwane and Kashyap nearly back to back, that in one week in 2018 the mirror images of their equally unbearable masculinity would be revealed in one week, I would have said, "Shut up, ya." But now I know that it is women who have been living on the knife-edge for decades and are now ready to stick it to the lords.
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