EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was first published on 3 July 2019. In October 2018, hundreds of Indian women said #MeToo, narrating instances of sexual harassment and assault, especially at their workplaces. A year on, we’re revisiting some of the most important stories about the movement.
MUMBAI, Maharashtra — An Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), set up to probe allegations of sexual assault against Bollywood director Vikas Bahl, exonerated him without following established procedures, interviewing all possible witnesses, or assessing all available evidence, HuffPost India has found.
In March 2019, Phantom Films’s ICC inquired into the allegations, the committee’s report says, on Bahl’s request — which is unusual as Indian laws have no provision for inquiries to be established at the behest of a person accused of sexual harassment at the workplace.
The composition of the committee, the fact that it was set up just prior to the release of Bahl’s latest movie, Super 30, and the haste with which Bahl was absolved of all charges, has prompted concerns that the investigation was conducted with a view to rehabilitating Bahl and protecting his investors, rather than protecting the women employees of Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd, the production company Bahl set up with partners Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, and Madhu Mantena.
The panel was headed by Phantom Films’ Dipa Motwane, Vikramaditya Motwane’s mother, and the committee members did not ask two other women to depose, despite knowing that their testimonies against Bahl had been submitted in a sealed envelope in a separate defamation case filed by him in a Mumbai court.
Bahl’s case was one of the most high-profile ones to emerge from the wave of #MeToo allegations that swept India’s media and entertainment industries in October 2018.
In October 2018, HuffPost India reported that Bahl had allegedly sexually assaulted a young woman at a pre-release party of Bombay Velvet in Goa in May 2015. Bahl has denied these allegations, and has filed a defamation case seeking Rs 10 crore in damages against HuffPost India, and his business partners Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Mantena.
Bahl’s request for an ICC thus comes at a time when the defamation case, and the allegations against him, are still sub judice.
Legal experts say the treatment of the case highlights the lack of clarity around the implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 — colloquially known as the PoSH Act.
“The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) act didn’t envisage many of the scenarios that #MeToo has thrown up, so a lot of the investigations and inquiries being done as a result of #MeToo are outside the framework of PoSH,” said Mihira Sood, a Supreme Court advocate who has written extensively on the matter.
In Bahl’s case, Phantom Films did not set up an ICC when they first learned of the allegations against Bahl four years ago, in October 2015, nor did they form one in October 2018, when HuffPost India published a detailed investigation into the allegations against Bahl.
“The manner in which they were handling the situation, and that too after four years, was something that left me unsettled,” said the complainant, whose testimony had formed the basis of HuffPost India’s article. “So I was not surprised by the outcome. However, that doesn’t change my truth. He knows what he did and he will have to live with it.”
Phantom Films, which is set to cease operations in 2020, is owned jointly by the four partners and Reliance Entertainment.
Shibashish Sarkar, Group CEO of Reliance Entertainment, which has a 50% stake in Phantom Films,, Bahl, and Persis Hodiwala, a lawyer on Phantom’s ICC, did not respond to repeated emailed requests for comment.
A Skewed Committee
The most unusual thing about Phantom Films’s inquiry into the allegations against Bahl was the manner in which it was conducted. Documents analysed by HuffPost India suggest the company rammed through the inquiry without sharing all possible information with the survivor.
On March 12 2019, according to documents seen by HuffPost India, Bahl wrote to Phantom Films asking them to conduct an inquiry into the allegations against him, to give him an opportunity to clear his name.
On March 18 2019, the company informed him that the PoSH Act has no provision for a company to initiate an inquiry on their own initiative, without a formal complaint. At this point, the complainant was neither an employee at Phantom Films (she had resigned in January 2017), nor had she asked for an ICC to be set up.
“The Act doesn’t permit the ICC of a company to take suo moto notice,” said Sood, the lawyer. “They can’t force the woman to complain. They have to respect her autonomy and not pursue the case if she doesn’t wish for them to.”
However, Bahl notes in his submission, “I was informed that in light of the peculiar circumstances, the ICC would reach out to the complainant to find out if she is desirous of filing a written complaint.”
The very next day, on March 19, 2018, the woman who had accused Bahl of allegedly assaulting her, received an email from Persis Hodiwala, a lawyer at Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd, asking her if she would like to file a formal complaint against Bahl.
Hodiwala’s email did not state that the inquiry was being set up at Bahl’s request. Its tone suggested that the inquiry was being set up after various news reports carried reports of allegations against Bahl.
The woman replied on April 2 2019, stating that her email and the HuffPost India article should be treated as her formal complaint and that she’d prefer not to be present at the meetings.
“I stand by the statement made by me in the Huffington Post article and I request that this email, in conjunction with the allegations made in the article, be treated by a formal written complaint as required by you,” the woman wrote.
The woman also said she would not like to attend any ICC meetings in person, and would not like to participate in any further proceedings as everything she wanted to say had been set out in the HuffPost India article.
In her reply dated 12 April 2019, Hodiwala accepted HuffPost India’s article on Bahl as a formal written complaint, but asked the woman for supporting documents, names of witnesses, their addresses and phone numbers.
“In the event, you fail to attend three consecutive ICC meetings, the ICC will not be left with any other option but to terminate the process of enquiry and close the complaint,” Hodiwala wrote.
On the same day, Bahl states in his submission to the ICC, “the ICC wrote another letter to me informing me that the Complainant had filed her official complaint vide a letter/email dated 2 April 2019.”
This trail of correspondence suggests Hodiwala and Phantom decided to treat the woman’s emailed reply as grounds to begin the inquiry that would ultimately absolve Bahl, despite knowing — from the beginning — that they were on shaky legal ground regarding the setting up of this committee, and knowing that the woman would not participate in the inquiry.
Hodiwala reached out to the woman over the phone as well, much to the woman’s discomfort. “When I asked her who’d be present at these meetings and whether I might have to face Bahl, she (Hodiwala) told me that wasn’t for me to know,” the woman told HuffPost India.
The woman wrote to Hodiwala on 2 May 2019, making clear her discomfort with the timing of the ICC probe and its insistence on her presence, and that the panel was proceeding with its inquiry without her consent or cooperation.
“It is Phantom Films that has, of its own accord, set up this Internal Complaints Committee and sought to insist that I file a formal complaint.” the woman wrote. “Whilst your new-found enthusiasm to get the ball rolling is commendable, it is a case of too little being done far too late.
“Perhaps those at Phantom Films believe that setting up this committee will rehabilitate the public image of its partners and how they have conducted themselves.”
In its final report dismissing the woman’s allegations, the committee said that it had been set up on Bahl’s request “so as to formally close the matter which, though not pursued by the Complainant, the pendency of which continues to affect his mental, professional career and reputation”.
Twisting the law
Hodiwala’s emails and the ICC report, which HuffPost India has reviewed, make it clear that Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd, rather than Reliance Entertainment — the parent company with a 50% stake in Phantom — was conducting the inquiry.
A June 1 2019 report in the Mumbai Mirror incorrectly reported that the committee had been set up by Reliance Entertainment, and even quoted the CEO, Shibashish Sarkar, as saying, “Yes, it is true that the internal complaints committee report has exonerated Vikas Bahl. With the committee clearing Vikas Bahl, we don’t have a choice but to reinstate his credit as director.”
The Mirror report gave the impression that Bahl had been absolved by a panel constituted independently of the Phantom Films hierarchy. Documents reviewed by HuffPost India show this is not the case.
The composition of the panel is significant, legal experts say, because it is hard to expect that an inquiry against the part-owner of a company shall be completely fair and unbiased.
“The law doesn’t specify a procedure for when the accused is the senior most person in the organisation, but ethically it should be forwarded to the Local Complaints’ Committee for an unbiased investigation,” Sood, the lawyer said. A Local Complaints Committee is a neutral body formed by the city collector, as envisaged in the PoSH Act.
According to the PoSH Act, Chapter 3, Section 6 (1), Every District Officer shall constitute in the district concerned, a committee to be known as the “Local Complaints Committee” to receive complaints of sexual harassment: from establishments where the Internal Complaints Committee has not been constituted due to having less than ten workers or if the complaint is against the employer himself.”
Bahl himself appears aware that the matter should have been probed by a neutral local complaints committee, rather than Phantom Films.
In paragraph 35 of his defamation suit filed in a Mumbai court in 2018, Bahl said, “the alleged victim failed to file any complaint against the plaintiff before the Local Complaints Committee under the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.”
Under the act, Bahl noted, once a complaint is filed no Phantom employee — including his business partners, Kashyap, Motwane and Mantena — could have spoken about the complaint to the press, or even mentioned that an inquiry was underway against him.
In his defamation case, Bahl said Kashyap, Motwane and Mantena had taken advantage of the fact that no complaint was filed at a Local Complaints Committee, to speak out against him.
Now, months later, Bahl himself had asked Phantom Films to set up an inquiry, while knowing that Phantom Films did not have the appropriate mandate for this inquiry.
Phantom Films, for their part, set up an inquiry while knowing that, under the law, they weren’t empowered to initiate such an inquiry by themselves.
The committee was headed by Dipa Motwane — the mother of Bahl’s business partner Motwane, and included Persis Hodiwala, who was an employee of Phantom.
The composition of the committee, and the manner in which it was set up, the complainant told HuffPost India, led her to believe that Phantom was not interested in actually investigating Bahl.
“Right from the outset, I didn’t quite trust the ICC to be wholly independent,” the woman told HuffPost India. Her fears, she said, were justified, when the committee began its investigation.
According to the documents analysed by HuffPost India, the ICC didn’t interview witnesses who could have corroborated the woman’s testimony.
Had it so chosen, the ICC could have called upon a number of people to depose.
In October 2018, for instance, Bahl’s business partner Kashyap submitted two sealed-envelope testimonies in a Mumbai court as part of the defamation case Bahl had filed. These envelopes, according to an affidavit by Kashyap, contained the testimonies which carried accounts of two other women who were harassed by Bahl. Kashyap had been summoned to the Mumbai court as part of the defamation case filed against him by Bahl.
Kashyap’s affidavit is part of an annexure to the ICC report — meaning that the ICC had access to this document.
Had it so chosen, the committee could have made efforts to ask those two women to depose, but it didn’t. Further, in his deposition to the ICC, Kashyap was not even asked about these two women.
HuffPost India reached out to Kashyap, who declined to comment.
The ICC transcripts show the committee appears not to have asked Kashyap about his assertion — made in his deposition before the Mumbai court — that he had confronted Bahl in March 2017 about his alleged misbehaviour with women employees at Phantom.
At that meeting, Kashyap deposed before the court, Bahl “apologised for his behaviour with both the victim and other ladies. He confessed that he needed assistance in dealing with his behaviour and committed to undergoing treatment in a rehab facility.”
Bahl, Kashyap said in his affidavit, said he “does not remember specifics of what he does when he is under the influence of alcohol.”
Bahl has denied all these allegations in his affidavits.
The affidavit, which Kashyap filed under the penalty of perjury, portrays a worrying picture of Bahl’s interactions with women at Phantom Films.
Kashyap’s affidavit notes that in January 2017, his girlfriend Shubhra Shetty was at a wedding in Coimbatore where “a discussion began between several ladies who were part of the Phantom team about their having experienced varying degrees of sexual misconduct and/or harassment from the Plaintiff.” The Plaintiff, in this case, refers to Bahl.
In an interview with HuffPost India, Shetty had confirmed that she did attend this wedding in Coimbatore and was privy to the discussions described in Kashyap’s affidavit.
However, Shetty confirmed to HuffPost India, the ICC did not ask her to depose.
The Committee report also does not record any attempts to reach out to Bollywood actors Kangana Ranaut, Nayani Dixit, or Imran Khan, all of whom had given public statements about Bahl’s problematic behaviour.
“Everyone is talking about Vikas Bahl,” Khan told the Indian Express in an interview on October 10 2018. “I have heard his stories from three other actresses, ranging from inappropriate touching to straight up saying that if you were cast in the film, what will I get in return.”
Instead, the witnesses the ICC chose to interview included Chaitali Parmar, Bahl’s partner of many years, Madhu Mantena, and Aniruddha Nag, who worked at Fox while Bombay Velvet was being filmed.
Divya Taneja, Vishakha Kinjawadekar and Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap were the other people interviewed.
Given the conduct of the ICC, the complaint told HuffPost India, the clean chit to Bahl felt like a foregone conclusion.
On May 31st, the Committee concluded, “On careful consideration of all the facts and the circumstances of the present case, the Internal Committee has come to the conclusion that the complainant had failed to substantiate her allegations levelled against the respondent in the news article published in the Huffington Post and accordingly complaint is disposed off completely. Under the circumstances, the complaint is disposed of without any further recommendations.”
“It all boils down to the intent of the committee. Whether they want to actually address the problem, or give this person a clean chit so his film can release without any hassle and more people from the industry can work with him on the basis of this so-called enquiry,” said an industry insider who works for a major studio.
Sood, the lawyer agreed.
“It appears that the ICC was set up mainly to restore the social credibility of Vikas Bahl and not to follow the law or help the woman in any way, considering the woman didn’t seek an inquiry in the first place,” Sood said.
Responding to a detailed questionnaire sent by HuffPost India, Dipa Motwane who headed the ICC said, “Unfortunately I am not in a position to provide responses to any of these questions, given the sensitivity of the matter itself and that as a member of the ICC , I have an obligation to maintain confidentiality in respect of any and all aspects of the proceedings conducted by us.”