The casting director had one hand pressed to the phone at his ear; the other, according to a police complaint, he rested on Reena Saini’s thigh.
“He was casting for TV serials,” Saini, 26, recalls. “One day he called me for an audition. And when I reached the place he said, come into my car and talk, I’m in a hurry.”
While the car idled in Mumbai traffic, and his young nephew sat in the backseat, Saini says the casting director, Sohan Thakur, started to grope her. “It made me so embarrassed,” the Bollywood hopeful says. “I didn’t know if it was intentional, or by mistake. I was numb, I was freaked out.”
After she squirmed from the vehicle, she says Thakur called her with a warning not to share the incident. “He told me, if you say this to anyone, it will be your minus in the industry,” she says. “People won’t see you as a good girl.”
Thakur denies the allegations, and has said in a detailed response on Facebook that CCTV evidence supports his account of events and that he will be suing for defamation.
Swara Bhasker is now an established, award-winning actor in Bollywood, the Mumbai film industry. But she was fairly new to the business when one director started incessantly texting her on set.
It soon escalated to requests for “intense” one-on-one meetings. “He started saying he needed to fall in love with my character,” she says. “He would always call me on the pretext of discussing this lovemaking scene – and I’d go and he’d always be drinking.”
Late one evening he knocked on her door while drunk, she says, and demanded she hug him. To endure the project, Bhasker was forced to enlist another crew member as her chaperone.
“Now I understand why in the olden days the actresses used to take their mothers on shoots,” she says.
Stories of sexual assault and harassment are among several shared with the Guardian by women in Indian film industries. All of those interviewed said the mass unmasking of abusers in the media and entertainment worlds of the US, UK and elsewhere was long overdue in India – but were doubtful such a reckoning would occur any time soon in the world’s largest producer of films.
None could identify an offender accused of crimes on the scale of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has now been accused of rape by multiple women – allegations Weinstein denies.
But what is endemic, they say, is a deeply entrenched culture of actors – mostly women, but some men – being pressured to exchange sexual favours for roles and the promise of fame.
“The casting couch is one of Indian cinema’s most open secrets,” says Anna MM Vetticad, a journalist and author on the film industry.
“It is always very subtle,” says Bhasker. “People try to insinuate that there are 10,000 girls for one role – so what can you do?”
“They make situations uncomfortable and load choices in a way where if women want to get ahead, you have to do certain things,” another prominent actor, Tisca Chopra, says.
Both women say they have resisted the “casting couch” even when it cost them work. “I have lost roles,” Bhasker says. “I know the directors who won’t answer my calls because I made it clear I would not get into that relationship situation.”
Criticism of this culture is usually expressed as accusations that women are “sleeping their way to the top”, says Vetticad, “instead of pointing to the excruciating pressures women are subjected to in India’s heavily male-dominated industries”.
She adds: “Male producers, directors and actors have the power to make and break these women’s careers, and so routinely and aggressively proposition them, or at the very least let it be known that a willingness to grant sexual favours would help a woman professionally.”
“It definitely is a problem,” agrees Amit Behl, the senior joint secretary of the Cine and TV Artists Association in Mumbai.
Tens of thousands of young actors arrive in film hubs such as Mumbai each year hoping to emulate superstars such as Deepika Padukone or Aamir Khan.
“Mentally, in terms of awareness of the laws, they’ve just come from small towns with big dreams – they face maximum exploitation,” Behl says.
As in other countries, sexual harassment is likely rampant across the Indian workforce, he adds, but is especially acute in industries such as cinema, where a huge pool of workers, poor regulations and artistic discretion vest enormous power in employers. “It’s an insecure industry in which people take advantage of each other because of this insecurity,” he says.
This year, a shocking allegation roused the women of one Indian film industry into action.
In February in Kerala state, centre of Mollywood, the Malayalam film world, a prominent female actor was bundled into a car and sexually assaulted for several hours before being dumped on the street.
In a bombshell move in July, police arrested a major Mollywood star, an actor known as Dileep, for allegedly orchestrating the kidnapping and assault. He denies the charges.
Padmapriya, a National Film Award-winning Mollywood actor, was aghast by the crime – but also by the way the industry reacted to Dileep’s arrest. “All the big actors went and met with him, said everything would be fine,” she says.
Some industry figures attacked the victim, suggesting she was lying or might have staged the crime for publicity. “We were very frustrated,” says Padmapriya, who like many Indians goes by one name.
What started as a series of Facebook posts in support of the woman snowballed into something unprecedented: the formation of a women’s film collective aimed at quashing sexism and sexual harassment in the Malayalam film world.
“It was inspired by our colleague, but the first time we met we didn’t even speak about her – we just talked about our own experiences,” Padmapriya says. “If one woman was talking about the casting couch, I was talking about how I was being sidelined because I was a female actor.
“We realised this was much bigger than what had happened to our colleague,” she says.
In November, the Women in Cinema Collective was officially registered. It aims to advocate for women, but also provide counselling, legal advice and a formal redressal mechanism for when accusations of sexual harassment or assault arise.
Awareness and reporting of crimes against women has grown across Indian society in the past five years, and the film industry has not been immune. “People are becoming more open about it, complaining, expressing their ire on social media, going to the cops,” says Behl.
His organisation has received nearly 50 formal complaints of sexual harassment in the past two years, he says, compared with 12 in the three years before.
The same whisper networks that trafficked warnings about Weinstein in the US also exist in India. Off-the-record, Bhasker reeled off a dozen household names in Bollywood who are regarded as “serial harassers”.
They are unlikely to be unmasked any time soon, she says. Bollywood and other Indian film industries have no appetite for controversy. “This is a not an industry that has typically stood for causes,” Bhasker says.
She raises the recent furore around Padmavati, a film about a legendary Hindu queen whose release was indefinitely postponed after protests and death threats against the cast. “Producers don’t go to court. They don’t fight. It is a non-confrontational industry.
“Why, in a context like this, would people with tens of millions of rupees to lose align themselves with some powerless struggling girl? They’ll say, sorry babe – just go home. It is not a context that breeds solidarity.”
Actors who call out their harassers must also contend with a culture that still shames victims, and which eyes female stars with awe and reverence, but suspicion too.
“It is an industry where actors have to wear any kind of dress or do intimate scenes,” Padmapriya says. “And people assume, if you’re up for doing that, then what’s the big deal?”
Credit: The Guardian