Thursday Oct 11, 2018
It was about 14 years ago that Tanushree Dutta succeeded over Gal Gadot at the Miss Universe contest. While Dutta did not go on to win the crown, she started getting approached for films in Bollywood. Meanwhile Gadot, as probably only hermits won’t know, went on to portray Wonder Woman in DC Comic’s first female-lead superhero movie in 2017, which became the highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time.
An Amazonian princess, Wonder Woman doesn’t even have the concept of needing a man to help fight her battles, support her as she pursues the seemingly impossible mission of defeating the god of war, or care about what people think of the way she dresses.
Then again, Wonder Woman is not from this world.
In this world, we have Gal Gadot, who shot the action movie while pregnant. Gadot and her female director Patty Jenkins managed to revive DC’s weak film brand after two consecutive Superman movies failed to ‘steal’ the box office.
It was a woman who climbed the charts for DC.
And then we have Tanushree Dutta who has spent the better half of the last decade trying to get someone to care about how women were treated in Bollywood. Dutta accused a veteran Bollywood actor Nana Patekar of harassment and director Vivek Agnihotri of ordering an assault on her in 2008.
Her complaints fell on deaf ears. Even a police complaint failed to instigate a proper investigation into the matter, despite the alleged series of events taking place publicly on the sets of a film.
After the #MeToo movement and then #TimesUp swept Hollywood, finally catching up with predators some of whom had allegations against them dating as far back as six decades, it appears Indian women believe they too will finally be heard.
It can be argued, without much debate, that Dutta is spearheading Bollywood’s #MeToo movement. She reiterated her allegations; witnesses, including assistant director for the film Shyni Shetty, corroborate her version of events and a reporter, Janice Sequeira, who was present on set at the time, wrote about it recently supporting Dutta.
Patekar and Agnihotri filed defamation cases against Dutta and she has also lodged an official complaint of harassment and assault. In the latest development, she has filed an FIR against Patekar, director for the movie ‘Horn Ok Please’, Rakesh Sarang, producer Samee Siddiqui and choreographer Ganesh Acharya.
Among some prominent names in Bollywood who spoke in support of Dutta or at least acknowledged a culture of harassment and exploitation in the industry are Kajol, Farhan Akhtar, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor-Ahuja, Varun Dhawan, Kalki Koechin, Frieda Pinto and Ayushman Khurrana.
There were others who spoke up as well but they were careful to stay politically correct, saying harassment was wrong and avoiding directly commenting on Dutta’s allegation such as Amitabh Bachchan and Twinkle Khanna.
And that’s not a knock on them. One can choose to remain neutral till more evidence is brought forth instead of getting ‘swept up in emotion’. However, is it okay to remain quiet despite knowing the truth to be otherwise? That is not just a disservice to the accuser but to all who have silently suffered abuse and violence because they feared no one would either believe or support them.
I personally know at least 12 individuals who suffered abuse, were harassed or assaulted, and it took them years to speak up. Years of living with ‘shame’ that perhaps they were to blame, that maybe if they had done things differently they wouldn’t have had to experience what they did.
Imagine second-guessing yourself every day for weeks, months and years about what you could have done differently, believing you are alone and left to suffer in silence. Pin. Drop. Silence.
It was Tanushree who got the momentum going again, and others followed from within the TV and film industry accusing household names such as Alok Nath. It was as if a dam had broken and women who had suppressed their anguish were finally free to publicly share their experience.
India has often spoken about women empowerment, and proudly displayed its history of achievements including a woman of Indian origin leading a multi-national beverage company, Indra Nooyi, a female former president, Pratibha Patel, current foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. There are many others in politics, sports and business who have made a name for themselves.
Among the latest wave of allegations are women accusing MJ Akbar. Minister of State for External Affairs, who reports to Sushma Swaraj. She has remained silent on the allegations thus far.
The point is not to downplay anyone’s achievements but to call a spade what it is: a spade.
And the spade is that many, many men in South Asia are misogynistic and many women are unwilling to speak up. There is a history of baby girls being killed at birth or buried alive simply for being the wrong gender. Widows being burned alive with the bodies of their husband, because after their husband dies they no longer should have the right to live. If you argue that these are all practices of the past, think again. And the argument is not merely about the practice but the mindset.
Delhi was once popularly criticised as the ‘rape capital’ of the world. The brutal Delhi gang-rape case in 2012 triggered massive country-wide protests. Activists and officials worked round-the-clock to propose new laws, create awareness, giving women a sense of security. Did rape cases decline? Not really. But at least women started reporting it.
Coming back to the mindset, many men believe women are there merely to serve them, for them to do and behave with them as they wish. It is no wonder then that some powerful men in Bollywood would exploit their position and prey on women or at least attempt to. Not all men are bad. Please, do not miss the point here.
And Tanushree knows her truth. What I know is that it is not easy for a woman to speak up, knowing that she may not be believed and could easily end up making her situation worse. Her private suffering would now be open for public debate, where she faces nonchalance at best and character assassination at worst. Despite knowing all that awaits them, women in India are taking Dutta’s lead and speaking up.
For Tanushree Dutta to speak up 10 years ago took remarkable courage and to stand her ground today with the support of the #MeToo wave, while, easier remains challenging.
Wonder Woman is a fictitious Justice League superhero. But if she were real and Indian, she might’ve looked a lot like Tanushree Dutta.