I am 16. And Asha Rani, 15.
I have slipped Starry Nights inside my floppy geography textbook and set myself two days to finish Shobhaa De’s second novel before I return it to the roadside library from where I borrowed it from for twenty rupees.
In the page open before me, Asha Rani, De’s protagonist in Starry Nights, is about to have sex.
The man is a married, middle-aged, balding Bollywood agent called Kishenbhai, who neatly folds his pants and shirt before he has sex with the teenager. Asha Rani, as Kishenbhai describes her to the reader, is his “new chidiya”, “a fifteen-year-old with a 40 inch bust”.
Unlike the breathless, sappy sex of the Mills & Boons I smuggle from friends, Asha Rani’s strange, transactional sexual encounter feels almost eerie.
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I feel revulsion, a fair amount of it directed at Asha. In De’s novel, she is a willing, if apathetic participant in the sexual encounter. Her behaviour seems to confirm the notion, bandied about by aunts, friends and family that girls who work in films are ‘kharap’ (lacking in morals).
Yet, something feels wrong about the anger I feel towards her, I cannot put a finger on what.
As the novel races along, Asha Rani goes from starlet, to bonafide star to ageing has-been. But all that stays with me are the crude, loveless, sexual encounters she endures for work.
For 16-year-old me, Asha Rani doesn’t exist in isolation. She isn’t just a protagonist of De’s novel — she is a point of reference for the sort of girls Bengali magazines describe as drunken heroines, homebreakers, participants of the casting couch. Women I am not supposed to become like or be there for.
Over the past year, I’ve often thought about Asha Rani and Starry Nights, a book I read almost two decades ago. As women who call out men for harassing and abusing them have faced a barrage of “Are You Sure She Said No”s, I have thought about how long it took me to recognise abuse as something more insidious than a stranger grabbing you.
I thought about how long it took me to understand that a survivor could often seem like what I accused Asha Rani of being in Starry Nights — complicit; to recognise and condemn the people who created and guarded a structure, like the film industry, that allows abuse, rather than blaming women who did not walk away from it or did not have the luxury to call them out.
Last week, I picked up Starry Nights again and acquainted myself once more with Asha Rani and her world, where the women snugly fit every regressive stereotype known to my 16-year-old self.
And then I wrote to Shobhaa De and asked her what she thought about Starry Nights in light of all the conversations around #MeToo.
I was 10 when I visited Asansol, then a barren, dusty, coal mining town, with my parents. The couple in the room next to ours at the hotel, who turned out to be small-time producers with stakes in Bengali films and teleserials, suggested my father send my photograph to a casting agent in Kolkata.
My father was appalled, “Ki shahosh (the nerve),” he declared, taking a swig of his whiskey as he narrated the conversation to a room full of his colleagues and their families, with more than a fair bit of indignation.
The room broke out in laughter and incoherent chatter, till I asked why it was a bad idea to be in a film. One woman, I suspect, slightly giddy by then, started to narrate “what all the producers demand to see”. My horrified parents and a few others, shouted and loudly shushed her, but she had said enough for me and the other children to feel that being in films for a woman must involve horrible, shameful deeds. The popular narrative—propagated and used by film magazines and newspapers—spoke to that bias. Abuse remained sanitised by the usage of expressions like ‘favours’, and the ‘casting couch’ which implied that the woman was an eager participant in this exchange.
Starry Nights, as I recall, reinforced this bias that, years later, I began to consciously unlearn.
‘Corny, porny, horny’
Starry Nights, De’s second novel, was published in 1991 and immediately caused a sensation. In the book, Asha Rani is a 15 -year-old girl who comes from Madras to Mumbaito act in films. The story takes us through the several men Asha Rani has to sexually engage with for her career, the men she falls in love with, and the men she sexually fancies.
The arcs of many of the characters in the book, Rachel Dwyer notes in her essay “Starry Nights”: The Novels of Shobhaa De, are drawn from the lives of Bollywood’s biggest stars. Asha Rani’s origin story, for instance, was quite similar to that of Rekha, Bombay cinema’s most enigmatic star.
In a review for India Today, Madhu Jain described the book as “corny, porny, horny”.
“It’s all the stuff that chatpata film gossip magazines are made of and far, far more explicit,” Jain wrote.“This could have been a nice picaresque novel about the trials and tribulations of the star-crossed heroine, and an insightful look at the biggest dream machine in the world.
“De, with her penchant for the right words, could have done much better. But then, perhaps, both she and her publishers just wanted another best-seller with all the hot stuff possible.”
There is nothing wrong with a book with “all the hot stuff possible”, but the “hot stuff” in this case was basically child rape and sexual abuse.
In her replies to my emailed questions, De told me she wrote Starry Nights because she was “done with the fake, highly romanticised version of Bollywood that made up the popular narrative”.
“The truth is far from pretty. I am surprised so many young girls and boys are ready to suspend logic and jump into showbiz, knowing fully what that entails,” she wrote. “Boys are equally exploited, but rarely go public with their stories and trauma.”
Asha Rani, I realised while re-reading Starry Nights in the past weeks, is a far more disruptive character than I credited her to be when I first encountered her.
Asha, and her mother who she calls her first ‘pimp’, repeatedly rail against the men who had ‘used’ them. Even as Asha grudges her mother for pushing her into what she calls a ‘hell’, she also recognises that her mother was simply trying to survive.
As Asha navigates the pitfalls and demands of her career, she emerges as a woman in control of her destiny. Her closure comes with her owning a studio which she dreams of running without having to depend on men.
While Asha’s quiet fortitude shines through over the three decades since the book was written, the sexual violence appears far more jarring than it once seemed.
De kept the descriptions of sex somewhat revolting; Asha’s first few sexual encounters qualify as rape. She is 15, the men are much older and the sex seems deeply exploitative and in some cases, even violent. One man, a producer, even uses a string of expletives before having sex with her. Asha Rani talks about the men, mostly with a sense of bemusement, rather than revulsion. De’s gaze, to me, felt less exasperated with the violence of these men than it should have been, it did not seem entirely angry.
I asked De about Kishenbhai, the man who flits in and out of Asha Rani’s life, the man she has sex with for the first time when she is 15. Kishenbhai remains in the narrative as a sorry caricature, an unsuccessful, often jealous man who thinks he is in ‘love’ with Asha Rani. He is also the one who sends a young Asha Rani to sleep with various producers. Kishenbhai seems pathetic, but not exactly villainous—though having sex with a minor and pimping her out to other men makes him exactly that.
As an editor of Stardust at the time, De said she had access to privileged information that helped her shape Starry Nights.
“Bollywood is crawling with Kishenbhais - slimy, slithery creatures from the gutters. The only ‘power’ they possess is over needy, hungry young girls, who are willing to play sex-objects to such men, in the hope of bagging a role,” De told me, adding she wrote Kishenbhai’s character as a criminal.
“Yes, Kishenbhai is a criminal - that was the intention,” she said.
As an editor of Stardust at the time, De said she had access to privileged information that helped her shape Starry Nights. In our correspondence, she recognised the patriarchal structure created for exploitation, but also suggested that, at times, women are ‘willing’ participants in it.
This sentiment lies at the heart of my problem with Starry Nights.
Considering Starry Nights was written in the 1990s, where the language and vocabulary of speaking about abuse had not evolved as much, would De have written it any differently now?
De agreed it was “depressing”, but her answer was a vehement “No!”.
“There are token protests and token men and women taking a stand against sexual exploitation. But the vast majority is happy to play footsie with the same rotten system that has been legitimised over decades,” she said. She added that she knew top Bollywood actresses who have “opted for ‘protection’ from one or two male superstars in order to spare themselves the ignominy of blatant and widespread sexual exploitation”.
“Only the star kids are spared,” she said.
A character I felt was most representative of Starry Nights’ problematic stance on sexual exploitation was that of Sheth Amirchand. A man in his 60s, Amirchand summons Asha Rani to have sex with her. He then proceeds to drug her and have anal sex with her, clearly without her consent. The book describes Asha Rani waking up heavy-headed and in pain.
Yet, through the course of the book, Amirchand is shown to be benevolent man, someone who looks out for Asha Rani when she is down and comes to her rescue when everyone else in her life fails her. Asha Rani too is shown to be feeling none of the bitterness she expresses towards the other men she’d had to engage sexually with. Yet, it does not change the fact that Amirchand did rape her the first time they met.
When Asha Rani woke up the next day, De writes ‘her biody ached and felt sore’. “What had happened? Generally she remembered all her sexual encounters vividly, this was was blank. Her head felt heavy and her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool,” De wrote in the book.
I asked De what Amirchand and Asha Rani’s relationship represents, it’s text-book harassment to me. De concluded her answer with “I don’t know…”, though first she called him a ‘sex fiend’.
“Sheth Amirchand represents the old school of exploiters — the ‘benevolent’ sex fiends, preying on starlets they fancy.
“Sheth Amirchand represents the old school of exploiters — the ‘benevolent’ sex fiends, preying on starlets they fancy. Some of them get emotionally attached to their ‘finds’ and eventually help them find their feet in this dark, awful industry. Perhaps Asha Raani finds a father figure in him,” she said.
She added that “it is tacitly accepted that women who join the film industry are aware of the ‘rules’. If they refuse to play ball, they are discarded by the wayside, or black listed for being ‘difficult’. The currency is linked directly to sexual favours’.”
The primary implication of Starry Nights — that women in most parts are willing parties in keeping this cycle of abuse alive—is a conversation we hope would shift to recognising the primary abusers?
If a system that forces a 15-year-old to have sex with a 45-year-old man in order to get a job did not exist, would she have done that anyway? The answer, as we understand it now, is possibly ‘no’. Bollywood’s infamous ‘silence’, abusers getting back to work like nothing ever happened, and the accounts of women who dare speak up amounting to nothing are perhaps based on this idea that this is Bollywood, and here, ‘sab chalta hai’. It’s safe to say that this #MeToo wave failed to disrupt that for Bollywood watchers even, though they were quick to recognise and condemn transgressions in other sectors.
“The tragedy of Bollywood is how it’s biggest players live a lie. They are NOT in denial. Everyone knows the ghastly truth. And yet, the illusion of a ‘Dream Factory’ stays intact. There is collusion involved. But hey - everyone’s okay with it,” De said.