Recently, in a BBC documentary, “Bollywood’s Dark Secret”, actors Radhika Apte and Usha Jadhav spoke out against sexual harassment in Bollywood and revealed that the casting couch is still indeed a sickening reality for aspiring actors who move to the city of dreams and seek a future in the Hindi film industry.
You would expect these disclosures to be Bollywood’s “Harvey Weinstein” moment, with names, skeletons and dirty secrets tumbling out and sending social media in a tizzy, but all that’s not likely to happen. Not in Bollywood.
These lone voices are most likely to remain just that – lone voices. They can scream themselves hoarse because the big names (and therefore most of mainstream media) are sure to look the other way, like they have for several decades.
It’s a well-known fact that despite their internal rivalries, the Bollywood fraternity protects its own, mafia-style (Don’t mess with the family). It comes out in full support of something that’s valuable to its existence but is strangely quiet on matters that might ruffle feathers or disrupt box office collections.
When Bollywood superstar, Salman Khan was convicted in the blackbuck poaching case, celebrities who often get “outraged” at injustice, came out in unabashed support of one of the most powerful men in the industry.
Rahul Dev tweeted:
I respect the law but must confess the verdict saddens me. My heart goes out to @BeingSalmanKhan & his family members. 5 yrs is too harsh! I hope they review the decision, in lieu of his great humanitarian work & grant him bail tom ?#WeSupportSalmanKhan #BlackbuckPoachingCase
— Rahul Dev Official (@RahulDevRising) April 5, 2018
Nafisa Ali Sodhi tweeted:
Salman Khan after 20 years convicted of killing a Black Buck that he never killed !He was man enough to take the entire blame and only his name registered in the FIR . This the reason why all the other were acquitted . Salman we know the truth. Hope justice will be done tomorrow.
— Nafisa Ali Sodhi (@nafisaaliindia) April 5, 2018
Shatrughan Sinha, politician and former actor said: “…I feel Salman has suffered enough in this case. What is his crime?”
Jaya Bachan, actor and politician said what every film producer was thinking: “The film industry has invested so much on him, they will suffer loss”. Bhai has “Race 3”, “Bharat”, “Dabangg 3” riding on him. Why let two endangered animals come in the way?!
Similar sympathetic reactions did the rounds when Salman Khan was charged with culpable homicide in the drunk-driving case (2002).
I’m not basing my argument on specific statements or isolated incidents but on a historical record of selective outrage, silence and favouritism.
Bollywood is no stranger to abuse, nepotism and cover-up. Actor Aishwarya Rai’s account of Salman Khan’s abuse is well documented. He’s reportedly abused his ex-girlfriends, Katrina Kaif and Somy Ali too and on one occasion allegedly pulled Somy Ali by the hair and poured a beverage on the table because he disapproved of her drinking. Bollywood’s erstwhile superstars Rishi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna have had abusive histories. Sanjay Dutt has had a history of drug abuse and underworld links. The list goes on. However, these stars must be revered to keep the well-oiled Bollywood machine running. They call the shots, are lovingly called Bhai and Baba and even have biopics made about them by close friends and family.
Amitabh Bachchan, who wrote empowering “open letters” to his granddaughters, perfectly timed with the release of his film “Pink” was strangely silent when right-wing trolls attacked Priyanka Chopra for wearing a knee-length dress in PM Modi’s presence. “I’m not the PM or Priyanka Chopra. How can I comment?” was all that the superstar could say despite telling his granddaughters (rightly so) that the length of a skirt isn’t a measure of character. He chose not to comment on rape-threats issued to student activist Gurmehar Kaur, by Hindutva supporters, despite breathing fire on Twitter every time an incident of rape occurs.
When the Karni Sena threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose, very few actors condemned the group directly. Most actors ranted about “law & order” and hoped for “peace” but like the government in power, were very careful not to offend the sentiments of the powerful Rajput community.
Despite paying occasional lip service to women’s empowerment for the sake of sounding progressive, the formulaic masala films that rake in Bollywood’s millions are anything but. Understandably, no celebrity has spoken out against the patriarchal, regressive tripe that Bollywood churns out year after year, comparing women to firecrackers, meat and everything in between.
In the documentary, Radhika Apte says, “Some people are regarded as Gods. They are so powerful…… people think that if I speak, probably my career is going to get ruined.”
It is positive that actors like Apte and Jadhav are speaking out, but it’s unlikely that the “Gods” will throw their weight behind them and come together to end this. Despite their posing with sanitary pads and other forms of tokenistic feminism, the fraternity is unlikely to name names or come out strongly against sexual harassment. It’s not good for business.
It is indeed disappointing that despite having enormous power to spark conversations and influence change, most Bollywood stars favour career longevity and political correctness instead.
It may be their prerogative to not take a stand on sexual exploitation, but it’s time Bollywood’s elite stopped pretending to care about gender equality. They just don’t have the moral standing to do so.