Daisy Irani's outing of men who brutalised her childhood should serve as wake-up call to entertainment industry
Daisy Irani's story affirms there should be zero tolerance of any kind of violence or coercion of child artistes who cannot even stand up for themselves
Editor's note: This following column is a follow-up to an article written by the same writer that highlighted the dark side of being in the limelight four child prodigies, such as Daisy Irani, Sridevi and Shakuntala Devi. Read it here.
Daisy Irani, mega child star of the 1950s, with her curly hair with sparkling eyes full of mischief, was the quintessential carefree, innocent kid who stole the heart of moviegoers across the Indian sub-continent. In her later years she often spoke of her lost childhood, of her ambitious mother who deprived her and her sisters of schooling and a carefree childhood by pushing them into films. She also spoke of their parents taking away the money they earned. But until March 2018, she had never spoken about the sexual assault followed by a beating with a belt which she endured as a six-year-old child and the several subsequent incidents of sexual, physical and emotional violence she endured over the years.
Sixty years had to pass before she could come out in the open about her first rape. But once she said it, it became easier for her to speak to journalist Khalid Mohamed about the other assaults as well. The passage of time had taken the edge off the memories of those traumatic incidents. She said she could still remember the searing pain of the beating and the image of the man assaulting her but the rest of the memory was hazy. In fact she spoke of other traumatic and disgusting incidents which she was subjected to with a kind of wry humor: Like when she described how her mother dressed her in a sari when she was 15, stuffed some sponge cones into her blouse and left her alone with a producer. When he sat beside her on the sofa and began to touch her inappropriately, Daisy said she just removed the sponge cones and handed these to him — an act which made him quite furious!
Daisy was raped and beaten at the age of six by the man who was supposed to be her guardian. Like her, there are other child stars — both male and female — who have been abused by the very mentors who are supposed to guide them in their film careers. These powerless little beings often have no one to turn to because they would have been pushed into the situation by their own ambitious parents and often beaten or threatened into submission by their tormentors as well as their so-called guardians.
Almost all of them have left their worst experiences unsaid for various personal reasons. As a result, except for a few hints here and there we rarely get to see this sordid side of the entertainment industry. J Jayalalithaa, for instance, was a brilliant and very talented student whose ambition was to become a doctor or pursue an academic career. Her mother Sandhya pushed her into acting even before she left school. Sandhya herself was probably a survivor of the casting couch.
Jayalalithaa never spoke of what exactly happened between her and her mentor/hero MGR who was a couple of decades older than her. But the whispers in the film journalists, circles hinted at a relationship which began as a coercive one and became complicated as the years rolled by. Was she beaten or sexually assaulted by him or any of her other seniors in the industry? We will never know now for sure.
The tiny tots are helpless as well as mute. And in a way so are pubescent teenagers, who are the most victimised. They are also rendered voiceless because the very guardians who are supposed to protect them often feed them to the wolves. Some are forced by circumstances to exchange their bodies for roles or money.
Rakhi Sawant has often spoken about her terrible childhood and the double standards in her family. They would not allow her to go out and play or dance during the festivals she said, but they sent her out to serve food at weddings dressed in skimpy clothes. When she was hardly 11, she had to do “”something terrible” to get money for her mother’s operation. Rakhi left home, went on to become a dancer and earned plenty of money on her own. She once said in an interview: “I still try to find my childhood somewhere… like a kid I love to eat popcorn, and watch films... which is so sad. All these little things I missed doing earlier. Even if someone gives me diamonds to go back to my childhood, I won’t!”
The story of young dancers, extras and child artistes on TV is even worse than those who make it big because all their sacrifices often go in vain and they slip into oblivion very soon. Ambitious parents start grooming them from an early age to tolerate a certain amount of offensive behaviour which they hope may lead them to the path of success. The children get used to moving about with alcoholic or lecherous adults and hardly have any life outside the studios. And before they know it, their most precious years of childhood would have been brutalised, leaving them scarred for life. Their careers built on such shaky foundations may also crash.
More often than not, the parents forget to equip the children with an education or any other coping skill because there is “no time”. Sarika, for instance, says she did not know how to read or write till she was 11 and then she taught herself to read because she desperately wanted to. She was brutalised more by her own mother than anyone else. Her mother, according to her would beat her mercilessly for the smallest mistake. Also she would never be told how much money she earned or where it went. She knew no life outside the studio. She finally walked out when she was 21 and never looked back. But she could also never get back her childhood which was snatched from her by her own mother.
Will Daisy’s #MeToo moment open up a floodgate of accusations? Will former child artistes who have suppressed their memories of a traumatic past now feel emboldened to come forward and speak out about what happened to them? It is shattering even to imagine how a tender child of six would have got up and gone on to the sets again the next day after being raped and brutalised by the man who was supposed to have been her guardian. To even imagine how she donned her mask again and became the carefree innocent she was supposed to be on screen…
Hopefully Daisy’s outing of the men who brutalised her childhood will also serve as a wake-up call to the entertainment industry. There should be zero tolerance of any kind of violence or coercion of these children who cannot even stand up for themselves. Their guardians should be made to sign an undertaking that they would educate and protect their wards. This should be an essential clause in the contract they sign on behalf of their wards.
But who will frame these guidelines and who will enforce them? The entertainment industry is not a cohesive unit like a factory or a corporate house. It is an amorphous entity with no permanent employees or a uniform set of rules. Child artistes, though they are so essential to any story, come at the bottom end of the pecking order. Their safety and nurturing can only be taken care of by their adult guardians.
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