One of the dirtiest secrets of India’s film industry is the casting couch phenomenon. It is well known that many actresses, and even some actors, who do not have the right connections, often have to give in to demands of sexual favours for a bit role in a film. Over the decades, the Indian film industry in general, and Bollywood in particular, has become more technologically driven and even “professional” in its approach to film-making or in its treatment of its less-privileged artistes and technicians. But one of its biggest failures has been its inability to stop the exploitation of women within its own ranks. It has done nothing to protect newcomers and outsiders to the industry—those artistes who have had no option but to give in for reasons of livelihood and/or lack of professional choices. Worse, Bollywood now seems to be normalising such exploitation, leading choreographer Saroj Khan’s bizarre, insensitive and cruel comment being a case in point: so what women are raped, at least they get work in return, she said.
Soon after the Hollywood-inspired #MeToo movement started getting global attention about how women are harassed in their daily lives, a few Hindi film actresses spoke out about how they too faced sexual harassment when they first started working. However, in a conspiracy of silence, these very same actresses went quiet when a row erupted over the sexual exploitation of women by the industry they are a part of. The casting couch phenomenon cannot be normalised by citing it as an instance of adults indulging in consensual sex, or by saying that such things take place in every industry.
Compulsion is not consent, the reason why the issue cannot be separated from the larger problem of sexual harassment at the workplace.
It was courageous of the Telugu film actress Sri Reddy to at least speak about the problem, that work was not available even after sexual exploitation. Her starrier counterparts in Bollywood, both male and female, continue to pretend that the problem does not exist. But then the latter can afford to be dismissive, or even flippant, from their positions of privilege. Most of the top stars in Bollywood belong to well established film families, and their way to fame has not been strewn with casting couches. However, ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Brushing it under the carpet will not make Bollywood or its regional counterparts less misogynistic. It is all very fine being India’s conscience-keepers and hold up placards to condemn a few specific incidents of rape and the politicians allegedly protecting the accused, as some of these stars have been doing. It should be done. But outrage cannot be selective, for then it comes to be seen as politically motivated, if not a drive towards self-publicity.
The need of the hour is for these icons—and they are considered as icons by a swathe of star-struck population over whom they have immense hold—to do some house-cleaning, bring about some much-needed reforms in their own industry. An industry which does not pay its female stars the same as its male stars, which basks in objectifying women, which has made stalking of women a part of the courtship process, which believes titillation is the easy way to the audience’s heart, is crying out to be reformed. If there is some rise in sexual violence in society, can Bollywood and its regional counterparts deny that they may have played some role in it? For instance, a few years ago, in a multi-lingual blockbuster, the initially-reluctant heroine was shown to be succumbing to the rather aggressive overtures of the hero, amid much song and dance. Some feeble voices were raised against the “rape” of the heroine, but were not heard in the din surrounding the success of the film.
Hollywood, at least, is more honest. The stars there are speaking out against the problems in their own industry, be it about pay disparity or sexual harassment. Actions are being taken against some of the biggest names in the industry. Accountability is being brought in. Isn’t that the need of the hour for the Indian film industry too?