Bollywood actresses are finally speaking out against sexual harassment

Bollywood actresses are finally speaking out against sexual harassment

It's safe to say that the #MeToo campaign has been one of the most significant movements within the entertainment industry. Ever since news of numerous sex scandals broke out, such as the alleged sexual abuse committed by powerful figures like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, there has been a huge push for victims to speak out and for the habitual exploitation of actors to cease.

Since then, a number of actresses, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Anna Paquin, Molly Ringwald and Uma Thurman, have taken to Twitter to candidly share stories about how they were coerced and bullied into non-consensual acts. Weinstein's alleged crimes have toppled many other abusers and now Actress Alyssa Milano, in collaboration with 300 other women in the film industry, has formed the initiative Time's Up, which aims to combat sexual violence and harassment in the workplace through lobbying. Revolution is in the air it seems, and not a moment too soon either.

That's all well and good, but let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. After all, Hollywood is just one tiny corner of California, and we have the rest of the world to think about. Moviemaking doesn't just happen in LA and you can bet that other parts of the world have equally misogynistic film industries. Have foreign countries been touched by the Weinstein effect? Or is it just business as usual for sexist cinema?

Unfortunately, it appears that the situation is little better in India. In Bollywood, the hub of India's thriving film industry, actresses are just beginning to report the routine harassment they face at the hands of men in the industry in a way that mirror's the Western world's #MeToo movement. Even in contemporary Indian society, which has made great strides over the last decade in terms of liberalisation, it's clear that these women face a significant challenge when it comes to stamping out sexism.

According to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, India ranked 108th out of 144 countries in terms of gender equality according to four specific factors: educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment. Women in India are estimated to earn less than 25 per cent of the average man's annual income and are paid only 60 per cent of what their male counterparts get for the same work.

Despite all of the above, a discourse on women's issues has opened up and is slowly but surely changing things, particularly when it comes to making movies. Recently, Bollywood actress Reena Saini revealed the sexual molestation she experienced at the hands of one particularly odious television casting director. In an interview with TellyChakkar, Saini stated: "It all happened on 28 September when Sohan Thakur called and expressed his desire to meet me ...We met somewhere in Oshiwara where he tried to get intimate with me in the car."

She continued: "I put up a long post on Facebook to bring my predicament forth in front of all and sundry. I was shocked to see Sohan’s reply ... After reading his response I filed [a] police complaint against him for physical abuse and for threatening me as well.” Thakur has denied the allegations, claiming in a Facebook post that he intends to sue Saini for defamation.

Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin. Credit: Getty

Award-winning actress Swara Bhasker has also been candid about the dangers of harassment and the casting couch in Indian cinema, where many young women are pressured into performing sexual acts in exchange for roles. "It is always very subtle,” Bhasker claimed in a recent interview, "People try to insinuate that there are 10,000 girls for one role – so what can you do? ... I have lost roles. I know the directors who won’t answer my calls because I made it clear I would not get into that relationship situation." She also confirmed that, in Bollywood, it was common for the older mothers of aspiring young actresses to accompany them to film shoots in order to protect them from unwanted advances.

French-Indian actress Kalki Koechlin is a prominent feminist who has campaigned heavily for gender equality and wrote an article on the pay gap in India for Forbes. In addition, she has presented several monologues aimed at spreading public awareness, has used YouTube as a platform to discuss combating sexism, and has also appeared in Puma's "Do You?" advertisement campaign to encourage women to "find their best self."

As a result of these women's efforts, and the efforts of many others in the industry, the government has been spurned into taking legislative action.  Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister for women, has written to 25 prominent Bollywood movie makers, including producer Karan Johar and actors Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, urging them to "provide a safe, secure and inclusive work environment for women."

Why has it taken so long for women to publicly accuse their abusers? It seems that their unwillingness to speak comes from the lack of job opportunities available for those who choose to name and shame. Actress Richa Chadda claims that, by speaking out: "Several people will lose their lives’ work, their legacies. I think that’s what people will attack - they can’t attack them monetarily so they will go after the legacies ... If you give me pension for life, take care of my safety, my family, ensure I’ll continue to get work in films and TV or whatever I want to do, my career will grow unabated as it is right now after I name and shame somebody, sure I will. Not just me, million others will do that. But who will give that guarantee?"

This anxiety seems to underline Bollywood, where desperation and need for financial stability drives many women to endure unacceptable behaviour. It's clear that, much like the western world, the treatment of women is objectifying and abhorrent and sweeping reforms are necessary in order to preserve the dignity and autonomy of working women around the world. The important thing to remember is that the same struggle is occurring all around the world, not just in US, and that solidarity is key when it comes to safeguarding women's rights.