SWARA BHASKAR: LOSE THE PART BUT DO NOT GET ON THE COUCH

globalmovie     08 Nov,2017         No Comment

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The rapid unravelling of media mogul and Hollywood’s leading producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein, followed by House of Cards-star Kevin Spacey accused of molesting a minor, has shaken up the entertainment world in the West and prompted many victims to speak up against other power players.

Over the last two weeks, multiple allegations have been reported against actor-comedian Andy Dick, producer David Guillod, Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman, songwriter Ethan Kath, TV star Jeremy Piven, filmmaker Brett Ratner, writer-animator Chris Savino, screenwriter-director James Toback, to name a few.

While Hollywood has sprung into a much-needed clean-up operation at the workplace, Bollywood has remained tightlipped on the issue. Finally, actress Swara Bhaskar speaks up about being harassed by a drunk filmmaker and why it’s important to break the code of silence.

The casting couch is not new to Bollywood. So why isn’t our film frat ready for a spring cleaning of sorts, a la Hollywood?

Sexual harassment is a universal phenomenon because fundamentally it is about power or rather the misuse of power. No relationship, even the most intimate, is devoid of power dynamics. Power operates most brazenly in an unregulated workplace and that is what Bollywood is. The way a film set operates is often feudal and always hierarchal, where some people give instructions and others execute them. It is an uncertain place ruled by fortune, the cruel seductress, populated with a crowd of forever anxious ambitious dreamers and hustling freelancers. If you succeed, money, glory and power is yours. If you fail, the world falls apart. Conditions at the workplace are ripe for sexual harassment, more so because victims can be easily silenced.
The shaming movement in the West is so effective because actors are naming offenders.

Actors are vulnerable because they are perennially either looking for or out of work and much too ambitious to risk their careers for a cause. Also, the backlash on the social media is scary. See how Mallika Dua was trolled on Twitter by random people. (The comedienne wrote an open letter, after Akshay Kumar, judge of reality show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, commented at her, “Aap bell bajao, main aapko bajaata hoon…”) Bollywood is not conducive to an honest conversation about sexual misconduct.

Over 300 women have spoken up in Hollywood and 31 official complaints have been registered so far.

I would like to make a distinction between sexual misconduct, inappropriate remarks and rape. Kevin Spacey has been accussed of attempting to rape a minor. Whenever Bollywood faced a similar situation — the case of Shiney Ahuja comes to mind. The reaction was to quietly allow the law to take its own course. In other cases too, celebs have chosen not to comment, which in some ways is better than slut-shaming the victim or accuser. Ours is a small industry where everyone is friends with or related to someone which makes the task harder. We need to follow the example set by the Malayalam film industry which has instituted an antisexual harassment committee after the rape of an actress to create a safer working environment and to get justice.

Have you personally faced harassment on a film set?

Of course. I’ve been propositioned by men who were in a position to cast me. I lost a few roles because I didn’t give in. It made me vulnerable, nervous. Some people even stopped responding to my messages because they knew I would not give in. Being an articulate, educated girl they sensed that I would not take things lying down.

There have been catcalls during shoots and eve-teasing on one of my sets. I’ve been groped by a mob during promotions and during a 56-day outdoor at a remote location, when I was still fairly new, the director harassed me with texts and dinner invites. He stalked me during the day and called me through the night. I was asked to go to his hotel room on the pretext of discussing the scene and would find him drinking. During the first week itself, he started talking about love and sex and one night, arrived in my room, drunk, and asked to be hugged. It was scary!

I was young and alone. I would switch off the lights after pack-up and remove my make up in the dark so he would think I was asleep and stop calling me.

Did the harassment stop?

Yeah, after I told him that he was scaring me and making me uncomfortable. I told him I wouldn’t be able to act if this continued. He acted hurt and said I had misunderstood him. He stayed away for two weeks, then he was back to his tricks. I finally confided in the executive producer and made sure that I was escorted everywhere.

What is the best way for an actress to deal with harassment on a film set?

Lose the part but don’t get on the couch. It’s not a feminist choice and it’s certainly not a liberating choice. It’s like giving a bribe and that is succumbing to a wrong.

In Anaarkali Of Aarah, your character sleeps her way to the top. How did you feel playing this role?

Anaarkali Of Aarah is a pathbreaking film. Anaarkali is a promiscuous, ambitious girl who sleeps with the manager of her troupe to become the lead singer. She’s a grey character, difficult to sympathise with and yet, by the end, you do empathise with her.

There is a dialogue in the film with Anaarkali saying, “I am a whore/slut according to your morals and definition but it is still not okay to molest or harass a girl.” That took the debate away from the girl’s lack of virtues to put the blame squarely on the aggressor. That is what has to happen in real life too. It doesn’t matter what a woman does, she does not want to be touched or propositioned without consent. Period.

Earlier this year, TVF founder-CEO Arunabh Kumar, was forced to step down after several complaints. Bollywood remained a silent spectator through the controversy.

The TVF controversy started a conversation that was long overdue. But the first allegation was an anonymous letter and it is difficult to say anything about an anonymous allegation. What was interesting was that many other girls came forward subsequently, spoke up, giving up their identities. That created a public discourse.

We need to stop silencing and start sharing. We need to stop slut-shaming and ask for a collective platform to deal with this issue. We are all guilty of being in the know and remaining silent. And that is complicity.

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