“Finally, India’s women are pushing back against the corrosive abuse of male power. It is nothing short of a revolution.”
The waves of #MeToo, a movement that has been sweeping the world since Harvey Weinstein was publicly exposed as a sexual predator in October 2017, have finally reached the shores of India. For the past year, though allegations against powerful men in Hollywood and North American media have been tumbling out in a near-steady drip, Bollywood had by and large seemed inoculated from this infectious—and desperately needed—new strain of truth-telling. But like with all great movements, all it needed was a catalyst.
It started with a story that, ironically, had been told before. Former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta had spoken out 10 years ago about an incident on a film set that involved a veteran actor, Nana Patekar, touching her inappropriately while filming a dance routine. She complained to the choreographer on set but her concerns were dismissed and reportedly more lewd dance steps added to the routine. “It was really creepy because he had to put his hands all over me,” Dutta told Radio 1 Newsbeat. Emotionally traumatized, she tried to leave the set but her vehicle was attacked by an angry mob believed to have been hired by Patekar.
“This happened ten years ago, and even ten years ago all the steps were taken: I filed a police complaint, gave a complaint to CINTA, produced written records, everything,” Dutta said at a We The Women summit earlier this month. “The media covered it extensively, although the media was extremely hostile at that time. There was some outright derogatory, scandalous, salacious gossipy reporting at that time. It erupted like a story and it died down like a story, and the film industry was completely silent. I saw that these guys, Nana Patekar, the producer, the choreographer were all party to my harassment, and went about their lives as though nothing happened.”
Scarred by the experience, Dutta left the Hindi film industry but re-entered the public sphere just two weeks ago with her retelling of this story. Although she has seen an outpouring of support, she has just as equally been dismissed by people on social media and by members of the film community, even though a journalist who was present at the time has corroborated her story.
Dutta has since re-filed her complaint with the police but what that will achieve legally is yet to be seen. But perhaps that doesn’t quite matter. Just like with Dr Christine Blasey Ford, whose courageous coming forward may not have changed the outcome of the situation at hand but did galvanize a nation, Dutta’s recounting of her experience unleashed a flood of similar stories on Twitter and finally brought about a long-overdue reckoning. Unlike the #MeToo movement in the US, which was driven largely by investigative reporting by outlets like the New Yorker and the New York Times, India’s moment of reckoning has largely been wrought on Twitter. “Women are making it clear that they have had enough and they are ready to call out their abusers in public, as is evident from the multiple threads on Twitter of them naming and shaming harassers, and finding support from others who have had similar experiences,” wrote journalist Rituparna Chatterjee in a recent op-ed. “A WhatsApp group I am a part of lit up with incidents of sexual violations in the media industry, and women journalists have spoken about all the times they were made to feel uncomfortable by fellow journalists for just trying to their do their jobs. Within the safety of the closed group, they spoke about the whisper networks that have known men notorious for their transgressions.”
In the aftermath of Dutta’s retelling, women took to Twitter to out men that had violated, harassed or assaulted them in the past. Within days, a slew of Indian men—prominent journalists, comedians, directors and politicians—had been accused of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. “Finally, India’s women are pushing back against the corrosive abuse of male power,” wrote journalist Barkha Dutt in an op-ed for the Washington Post. “It is nothing short of a revolution.”
There’s the woke comedy group, All India Bakchod, whose members have been the target of several allegations in recent days.
One of its recurring collaborators, Utsav Chakraborty has been accused by multiple women of requesting and sending nude photographs over Snapchat and text, and a member of its regular ensemble, Gursimran Khamba, has been accused of sexual harassment. The ensemble’s co-founder Tanmay Bhatt has voluntarily stepped down in light of the fact that he had been informed of the allegations against Chakraborty but failed to act on them.
Vikas Bahl, a co-founder of one of the country’s most progressive production companies, Phantom Films, has been accused of sexual assault by a former employee, who says he masturbated on her without her consent after pretending to pass out in her room following a post-production party. The company, which is behind Netflix India’s acclaimed original series, Sacred Games, has since been dissolved. The news of the assault first broke on Huffington Post India last week, and has since unleashed a flood of responses and apologies on social media from the other partners of the production company, one of whom was allegedly informed about the assault at the time.
Several prominent journalists have been named in allegations of assault and misconduct, including MJ Akbar who was once an editor at Asian Age and is now a junior minister in India’s Foreign Ministry. Journalist Priya Ramani, who has worked under Akbar in the past, wrote an open letter to her abusive former boss—without naming him—in the October 2017 issue of Vogue India, and has now come forward to reveal his identity. Since then, several other women have come forward to reveal they were harassed or violated by Akbar, including Ghazala Wahab, who wrote a harrowing account of her experience working with him in a piece for digital news outlet The Wire. “Once, in autumn of 1997, while I was half-squatting over the dictionary, he sneaked up behind me and held me by my waist,” she wrote. “I stumbled in sheer fright while struggling to get to my feet. He ran his hands from my breast to my hips. I tried pushing his hands away, but they were plastered on my waist, his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts. Not only was the door shut, his back blocked it. In those few moments of terror, all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind. Finally, he released me. All this while, the wily smile never left his face.”
Other journalists who have been named in recent days include Prashant Jha, political editor and bureau chief of the Hindustan Times; Mayank Jain, principal correspondent of Business Standard; and KR Sreenivas, resident editor of the Hyderabad edition of The Times of India newspaper.
The dam has broken and the floodwaters of #MeToo in India show no sign of letting up. Lets hope the cavalcade of credible allegations continues, and that some measure of justice is finally served.