For years, Bollywood has glorified toxic behaviour by men. It has forgiven them for bashing up girlfriends, demanding sexual favours of women or breaking the law because — when they are not wreaking havoc — these superstars are only “being human”. But could it be that even in this strikingly unequal film industry, where men call the shots in every aspect of filmmaking, 2018 is a different time and place? When actor Tanushree Dutta, who left the country and the industry 10 years ago, spoke up about how actor Nana Patekar had allegedly sexually harassed her in 2008 on the sets of Horn Ok Please — Patekar has denied the charges — people appeared to be listening.
She had made the accusations a decade ago. At the time, the film industry had responded by calling her unprofessional. The actor’s career was effectively ended. There was no investigation into her charges. This time, several actors, including women like Kangana Ranaut, Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha, Raveena Tandon, have spoken up in her support. Eyewitnesses have backed up her account. But even now, it is unlikely that there will be real consequences for sexual predators in the industry. You can see that from the efficient way in which the omerta has kicked in. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan has trivialised Dutta’s charges, Aamir Khan, an actor who speaks up for many causes, dodged a question about the matter; Salman Khan, the good Samaritan with a reckless record on leaving damsels in distress, swatted away reporters with indignation. There are those who make the self-serving point that these men are under no obligation to speak up for any causes. They are actors, not activists. But their dismissal is reflective of the fact that Indian society — from actors who do not want to upset the status quo to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena which at the time had called for Dutta to be blacklisted — has not even evolved a language to acknowledge the sexual abuse of women. It stems from the basic inability of much of Indian life to consider women as anything but accessory to the needs of men, the item number in the blockbuster film. Women are considered vessels of clan honour, or impure beings not worthy of admission to temples and mosques or objects of pleasure for the use of ageing men.
The defence trotted out for Patekar has essentially been: He is a good man. How could anyone accuse him? There are many good, unimpeachable men in the film industry — and the larger collective society which cinema represents. What is a mere woman’s word against one such man, what is her trauma against the weight of power, authority and licence that centuries of patriarchy have invested in him? While Tanushree Dutta’s courage is admirable, her testimony will not be a lightning rod for a larger, more disruptive storm. Because no institution, let alone actors and film professionals with skin in the game, is prepared to let it become one.