Sometime in the late 90s, in a three-page-long article in a magazine my parents subscribed to, a male journalist ranted how a popular Bollywood actress's 'alcoholism' also made her 'promiscuous'. With no hint of irony, the article alleged that the men, all married male actors, were routinely 'seduced' by the woman. One of these men, I remember reading as a 12-year-old, was Nana Patekar. As a fan of the actress, I pored over every word that ever surfaced about her in tabloids and papers that landed at my house. This particular article went on to claim: "Patekar too was not unfamiliar with the map of her body."
When I asked my mother what this sentence could possibly mean, she rolled her eyes in shock and vowed she would discontinue the subscription. Before she finally did, the same magazine also published 'cover stories' on how stars such as Madhuri Dixit and Kajol was promoting indecency by wearing 'revealing' clothes, and declared their yearning for the Bollywood of yore, where there was a clear distinction between the wardrobes of the leading lady and the vamp.
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"The same magazine also published 'cover stories' on how stars such as Madhuri Dixit and Kajol was promoting indecency by wearing 'revealing' clothes."
When Tanushree Dutta's allegations against Nana Patekar surfaced on Wednesday and news headlines scrambled to compliment her on her bravery, I couldn't help but think about how the same media had, for years, actively contributed to preserving a culture of silence around sexual harassment in the film industry. Along with sugarcoating abuse and harassment through words like 'casting couch', thus minimising the denial of agency and respect that an act of violence involves.
And for those questioning, "why now, nine years after the alleged incident of harassment", I'd urge them to dig up Bollywood tabloids and consider how much empathy they bothered to show to women in the industry.
In fact, as recently as 2013, a 'gossip column' written by a respected and powerful film journalist and published in a popular magazine had a a 200-word 'anecdote' on how an "A-lister" actress enlisted the services of a salon lady and didn't pay her a tip. The section goes into great detail about the body parts she got waxed and what she called her boyfriend. Overtly sexualised and thinly veiled as gossip, narratives like these around women in Bollywood have been a staple in the media for years, furthering the Bollywood cinematic trope of presenting women as sex objects with little else to offer. Yes, there have been sensible portrayals of women as well, but often the gossip and the interviews appear in the same channels and magazines, making the latter seem hollow.
In the course of my work in the media industry, I've heard Bollywood journalists sharing horror stories of boorish men, with great power in the industry, treating everyone from female co-actors and journalists terribly. Yet, I haven't ever seen these stories make their way into any mainstream publication. The silence is somewhat understandable, as the threat of libel often hangs heavy on both the survivors of sexual harassment and the people who want to report them.
We aspired to be the beautiful, virtuous, smiling goddesses we watched on screen and hoped we'd never be the real-life women, extensively vilified by the tabloids
That said, for years, the way actresses have been written about in tabloids have reflected the shoddy treatment they received on screen. Home-breakers, alcoholics, desperate has-beens, lonely lunatics, attention-seeking 'starlets', 'item queens'—tabloids have actively built and publicised regressive stereotypes about women actors for decades. As for men of the industry, they're just charming rakes.
Growing up as a teen through the late '90s, this relentless, vicious stereotyping deeply influenced how we saw ourselves as young girls and women. We aspired to be the beautiful, virtuous, smiling goddesses we watched on screen and hoped we'd never be the real-life women, extensively vilified by the tabloids.
It took ages for us and the media to call the abuse and harassment women face in the industry for what it is. From calling it 'casting couch' to 'compromise', we have continuously used language that dehumanises victims and discouraged them from coming out and speaking about harassment. In fact, labelling sexual harassment as 'casting couch' all these years has actively promoted the idea that women are complicit in the abuse they face. It nearly obliterates the idea that seeking sex in exchange of work is a punishable offence in the country and should be no different for the film industry. If a woman is compelled to offer sex for work, then the men who have created these circumstances should be held to account.
A majority of the men she met while looking for opportunities demanded what 'extra' she could do for the job.
Years ago, while reporting on the struggles of outsiders in Bollywood for another publication, I spoke to a young woman who recounted how every other day, she would return home from an audition, shut her door and weep. A majority of the men she met while looking for opportunities demanded what 'extra' she could do for the job. "After a while, I got used to it and would just calmly walk away," she said. It helped, she added, that every woman she met during the auditions had multiple stories of harassment to narrate.
Dealing with harassment, for these women, was as 'normal' as dealing with the potholes on Mumbai's roads.
As soon as Dutta told her story, men flocked to Twitter to comment that actresses "compromise" and hence men shouldn't be hauled up. It's shocking how these comments come with zero sense of how the 'compromise' is usually forced—by a man making criminal demands.
Bollywood, including 'woke' actors and actresses who often condemn sexual harassment and assault on social media, has been predictably quiet. It doesn't take a genius to figure why. What if speaking in support of Dutta opens a Pandora's box that won't be easy to close?
Until we wait for Bollywood to grow a spine, let's stop using shoddy terms like 'casting couch', please?