Tanushree Dutta is brave — Let's not muzzle her by giving in to Bollywood’s inherent patriarchy
This process, of suspecting a woman in showbiz when she speaks up, perpetrates the poisoned culture of staying silent and sucking it up just to survive in a profession; thus creating an unbroken cycle of abuse.
As the dust settles around the storm that Tanushree Dutta has thrown up with her allegations against Nana Patekar, choreographer Ganesh Acharya, producer Sami Siddiqui and director Rakesh Narang all pointing fingers towards her has gotten a frantic pace. Patekar has threatened he will look for legal action. I won’t reproduce tweets and posts on social media that shame her for speaking up but vitriol and skepticism mark people’s reactions, also of women. This process, of suspecting a woman in showbiz when she speaks up, perpetrates the poisoned culture of staying silent and sucking it up just to survive in a profession; thus creating an unbroken cycle of abuse.
It’s worthwhile to consider the circumstances of Dutta’s experience.
That she was visibly upset with the treatment that she received from a senior actor and the three other men complicit during this day of shoot was evident to a posse of media persons covering this on location. In those days, media would be called on set to cover a lavish song sequence for publicity. Dutta stalled shooting when she refused to shoot. She returned on set, Patekar joined her and then she left again. Janice Sequeira, a colleague was reporting here and recounts the incident in a Facebook post.
Sequeira remains the rare witness who has shared her version of events. In a set that had over 50 back up dancers, multiple crewmembers and other media persons, silence prevailed. This can be put down to the fact that a young, relatively new female actor facing harassment is an accepted norm of the film industry. Maybe the others simply didn’t take notice. “It has been and I think for a while longer, it will be very difficult for female actors to stand up and tell the truth about their abuse; purely because we don’t tend to believe them. Our first reaction is to label them or to wonder if this is some sort of publicity and then of course, to name and shame them. This never happens when male actor speaks up. Everyone takes him seriously. There’s a hue and cry in national media. When a female actor speaks up and unfortunately, if she happens to be not a successful female actor, then no one takes it seriously. It gets limited attention where only tabloids, only entertainment portals carry the story. Eventually the same portals and tabloids begin to question the veracity of the story and it dies a natural death. The only way stories like Tanushree’s can have an impact if relevant voices on social media and in the real world were to speak up about it and say, can we start by believing the victims? Can we start by investigating their stories and can we ask the relevant questions? If the mainstream media starts taking these stories seriously, and follows up on such stories then we can build on that impact. So that one can’t just get away with actions like this,” Sequeira explains when asked about her decision to document the incident on her social media handle.
Tanushree Dutta’s experience resonates with Padma Lakshmi’s experiences of abuse and harassment. Having suffered abuse as a young girl, the celebrity chef got sent away to stay with relatives by her parents. The perpetrator was a close relative. The shame was all hers to deal with. As a teenager, she faced date rape. She chose to stay silent and spoke up now, after 30 long years. The fear of judgment that runs deep in a global celebrity can only be explained by deep-rooted patriarchy that rules showbiz.
Incidents where female actors or female crew-members just shrugged off abuse are numerous. I recall a leading female star who was shocked when a senior actor, three times her age, wanted to get ‘close’ after shoot. Having expressed her fears, the other star of the film simply told her that to survive in the film industry, she must either comply or simply ignore his overtures. Speaking up might mean getting ostracised. A young female star was thrown out of a major multi-starrer after being finalised, with auditions and look tests, because the male superstar wanted to give the role to his current lover. She chose not to say anything. Patriarchy runs so deep within the film industry that at a success party of a female led film in 2016, I lost my appetite when I saw two young female actors cavorting for attention of a creepy casting director. That the casting director held minimal influence on the final call of actors in a film, made scant difference to them. Pleasing men is core to their understanding of moving up in Hindi cinema. Needless to say, their overtures didn’t pay off. In fact, a leading female playback singer, a star in her own right, has confided in me that refusing repeated advances from a leading music director in the nineties nearly made her lose out on her career. Men call the shots in Bollywood and women become complicit in firming up their structural power.
Hypnotherapist and counselor Kamal Rukh Khan, who regularly treats celebrity clients, says the shame involved in speaking up influences most to stay silent. “While treating celebrity clients where rape or molestation are involved, a couple of reasons stand out. The fear of being judged and getting her reputation tainted has kept one such patient away from disclosing her suffering. She believed that if she spoke up, another producer or director might feel free to sexually abuse her again. If she complained again, then the film fraternity will think she is just a sucker for publicity. Victims worry about bringing disrepute to their families as well. Sometimes, the abuser is a close member of the family. Revealing what he did creates tensions within the family. A patient was sent off to live with her aunt when an uncle abused her. She was 14 years old. She felt that had she not spoken out about the incident, then she would still get to live with her mother. Somewhere, she began to consider this her own fault. There is also the fear of being blamed as to what one was doing or wearing to bring the rape on to themselves.”
In an industry that is a fraternity rather than an industry, patriarchal mindsets define all that matters. A heroine is deemed beautiful by men, as she is meant to please male audiences. Men reject a female actor, as she is deemed too old to fit in to the paradigm of male desires. Men decide to hold back a female actor on set and prolong her shooting hours, because the hero’s time needs to be prioritised.
This is why Kangana Ranaut is considered a loose cannon because she dared to speak up about a bully of a lover who has had a reputation of dalliances.
Dutta’s revelations were sidestepped by cinema heavy weights Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan at an event. Their reactions reiterate the film industry’s tendency to protect its own and to avoid controversies that won’t benefit a film. Similarly, Ranbir Kapoor’s flippant remark about not facing the casting couch, ties in with this inherent ironclad fraternal culture.
Which is why, Tanushree Dutta’s stand is brave. Like the name of Rose McGowan’s book Brave, the original girl that stirred the #MeToo hornet’s nest, Dutta has shown courage under fire. She spoke up in 2008 too and no one listened. In fact, in an interview that DNA has reproduced online, she had also made a similar allegation against director Vivek Agnihotri and then pointed out the gallant protection that she got from Suneil Shetty and Irrfan Khan. To judge her before giving her a hearing is to perpetrate a medieval mind set. It’s about time this changes.
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