She calls it her destiny. When Tanushree Dutta returned to Mumbai from the US in September after two years, she had in no way imagined that she would become a catalyst for a “movement”. Yet, the 34-year-old was not unprepared to take on the fight against her sexual harassers.
Born in Jamshedpur and brought up in Mumbai, she had barely graduated from Pune’s Fergusson College when Dutta bagged the Miss India crown in 2004. The win led to a career in Bollywood, where she worked in several films, including Aashiq Banaya Aapne (2005) and Priyadarshan’s Dhol (2007).
After she quit films following the 2008-harassment on the sets of Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss, it was her spiritual journey that sustained her. In this interview, Dutta talks about how she always knew life held a greater purpose for her and the battle against sexual harassment may just be that.
You became the catalyst to what is being called Bollywood’s #MeToo movement. How do you view the ‘movement’ now?
Whatever has happened over the last one month has indeed shaken things up. This was long overdue — I merely became an instrument. The strength of this movement is in numbers — it has helped take away the stigma attached to being a survivor. But more people need to come forward with their stories and more people need to corroborate those survivor accounts. This way, each survivor will have to endure less and less. Not everyone will be served with legal notices in response to their speaking up. This is also a good time to speak up because the attention has helped get cops, human rights organisations and the National Commission for Women, among others, on our side.
You first spoke up about the sexual harassment in 2008. But no one paid heed then. What has changed since?
The change is slow but visible. There is a new thought process, which is shaping the content in the film industry and also empowering women. Back in 2008, I was alienated when I chose to speak up. Today, people have come out in support. But the larger change is that they have come out to oppose sexual harassment. People are no more functioning from the space of self-preservation. They are breaking the culture of silence because there is a whole new generation of men and women who are aware of their rights and willing to fight (for them).
It was difficult then and it’s not been easy now either. How has your family been coping?
In 2008, my parents were with me when the goons attacked the car as I attempted to leave the sets of Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss. It was a scary experience. They stood by me when I spoke up against Nana Patekar and became the target of a smear campaign. This time, too, they are supportive. Recently, two strangers tried to enter our house. They were apprehended but the incident shook us. These instances and the legal notices have become triggers for my parents who fear for our safety.
What inspired you to compete in a beauty pageant and take up a film career before you gave it all up?
Growing up, I wasn’t very sure of what I wanted to do. I always felt that there is a higher purpose to my life but I didn’t know what that could be. A child’s mind always associates these things with worldly achievements. I would watch the television show I Dream of Jeannie and want to be an astronaut. Then, I decided to become a neurosurgeon because I was interested in the human mind and its psyche, and a cousin told me that that is what can get you close to understanding the human brain. But a few years later, I realised not neurosurgeons but psychiatrists are the ones who explore the human mind.
The Miss India pageant just happened. I had watched one on TV when I was seven years old and that stayed with me. When I came back from the Miss Universe pageant that I didn’t win, I was offered movies. I took that as a sign from god as to what I should do next. I didn’t have any goals — I enjoyed acting, dancing and the perks that came with the job — the fame, the financial independence. My goal became to do better work. Not all my experiences were bad… I had a fairly good life as an actor for those five years. But when the 2008 incident happened, it altered the course of my life. And, in 2016, I became sure that I wanted to move to the US. I applied for a resident visa, which came through. Now, I live and freelance in New Jersey but the centre of my existence remains my journey as a seeker.
How did you deal with the situation back in 2008?
The aspect of my life I don’t really talk about is the deep churning I went through in these past eight years. In 2009, I knew in my heart that I should put a stop to my active film career, take a step back and reevaluate my life. I disconnected from the world and began to explore various religions. I realised this came to me more naturally than acting. At some point, I travelled to the US for a holiday and decided to move there. But people told me that my career lay here. I relented but when I came back, I realised my heart was no more in it. I started to find excuses to not take up more films. I started by reading the Bhagvad Gita, then went on to live the life of a Buddhist monk. The Bible and ancillary texts came after that. I was curious about spirituality from an early age and would read books on the subject. But earlier, I was ashamed of talking about god because it became associated with religion and how that is often misused. I believe that religions have a lot to offer, but practising a specific religion can become confining.
You have been served with notices by Nana Patekar as well as Vivek Agnihotri. Have members of the film industry come forward in support or do you view their words as mere lip service?
Any support is welcome. People are being forced to speak up against sexual harassment — never mind if it’s their conscience or a carefully thought-out strategy to look good — and that is creating an environment that is conducive for others to come forward. The stand that film associations are taking today, they should have done much before. But better late than never. I am not a cynic — if people are trying to make things right today, I would rather encourage them.