Cutty Snark: #BelieveWomen

While watching American supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh spew fire and brimstone during the Senate hearing last week, it struck me that if Bollywood wants to make a film of this, we have a great candidate for a desi Kavanaugh in actor Nana Patekar.

Patekar wouldn’t even have to tap into his formidable acting talent to get into character. After all, he knows what it’s like to have a woman come out of obscurity with allegations of sexual harassment that expose him to public scrutiny. Plus, he can weave in things he’s said in the past, like: “I know I get abusive, very abusive, when I’m angry. This isn’t the first time it has happened. I’ve tried repeatedly to curb my temper. But kya karoon? Main aisa hi hoon (what to do? This is how I am).” The actor said this in a 2009 interview, after he’d thrown a temper tantrum on the sets of Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti. Yes, that’s his idea of an apology.

Maybe the desi version of Kavanaugh’s hearing could be called Pink 2, with cameos from Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan. These three actors found inventive ways to not comment on Tanushree Dutta's allegation that Patekar had sexually harassed and intimidated her in 2008, when the two of them were shooting a song sequence for the film Horn Ok Please. When the topic came up during a press conference, Bachchan informed us his name is neither Nana Patekar or Tanushree, which is breaking news for all those who have been confused about what exactly is the name of the bearded gent who sells us everything from basmati rice to televisions, and is currently appearing in Thugs of Hindostan promos looking like a cut-price Geoffrey Rush from Pirates of the Caribbean.

The two Khans claimed, at separate events, that they are unaware of the Patekar-Dutta controversy and can't comment without knowing the veracity of Dutta's allegations. This is surprising because not knowing has never stopped Salman from saying things. Aside from the creative wonder that is the actor’s Twitter feed, in the past he's blithely talked about war, compared himself to a raped woman, and described depression as a luxury when he clearly knows nothing about any of these subjects. Also, while his refusal to comment may pass for diplomatic on paper, his body language on video was exactly the opposite: Salman rolled his eyes and enacted the facepalm emoji the moment a (woman) journalist uttered Dutta’s name. Fans can take heart from the fact that this is more expression than the actor has been able to convey in Race 3 and Tubelight combined. Meanwhile, Aamir's attempt at being simultaneously politically correct and non-committal was like watching someone get into a particularly complicated yoga asana, and then not be able to disentangle themselves.

Is this better or worse than Bollywood’s big hitters maintaining a studious silence on the subject of sexual harassment in the film industry? Whither Karan Johar of the snarky asides, Ranveer Singh with his devil-may-care swagger, Kangana Ranaut’s blunt honesty, Deepika Padukone’s articulate candour, Shah Rukh Khan’s commitment to gender equality etc etc etc? Maybe they’re all just deeply committed to the memory of that uncle or aunty from their childhood who said, “If you can’t say something good about someone, say nothing at all.”

Fortunately, there is finally one contingent that isn’t opting for silence. Bollywood’s woke generation – Farhan Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Priyanka Chopra, Parineeti Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar, Konkona Sen Sharma and others – have tweeted in support of Dutta. However, there is a tiny, uncomfortable detail here. Every single Bollywood celebrity who has backed Dutta has emphasised that they have done so because of journalist Janice Sequeira, who detailed in a Twitter thread what she had seen as a young reporter on set the day Patekar unleashed his 'charm' offensive on Dutta. They're believing Dutta because they trust Sequeira; not because they believe the victim.

The unwillingness to believe victims like Dutta is to effectively silence them. Subjecting a victim to doubt, demanding the abuser be considered innocent and the victim guilty of dishonesty, questioning whether she ‘asked for it’ — these are not fair play or ‘seeing both sides’ of the story. These are gags, designed to give the abuser the benefit of doubt and discredit the victim, to ensure she remains victimised and doesn’t transition into shedding the skin of victimhood and becoming a survivor

Sequeira deserves all the applause she's getting for standing up for Dutta because she has almost single-handedly ensured Dutta's story isn't buried. Dutta’s case was shoddily reported in 2008 and extensively covered in television news this time around, but that wasn’t what got the industry insiders to perk up. What would have happened if Sequeira hadn’t tweeted that thread, and if that thread hadn’t gone viral? For the public that sees the film industry from the outside, Sequeira’s tweets were critical reportage — much like this excellent article in Buzzfeed — which gave Dutta the necessary credibility in a patriarchal society that cuts women victims no slack.

However, industry insiders cannot claim they needed Sequeira to alert them to the sexism that riddles the work space in cinema or Patekar’s particular brand of chauvinism. In fact, if you were a Bollywood fan in the 1990s and early 2000s, then you know about Patekar’s abusive behaviour towards his romantic partners (remember his relationships with Manisha Koirala and Ayesha Jhulka?) because they were written up as blind items. You’ve also heard of him abandoning but not divorcing his wife, as well as flirting with women reporters who were trying to interview him. As Dutta pointed out, everyone in the industry knows Patekar is abusive and yet it took Sequeira standing by Dutta for anyone to acknowledge this publicly. Patekar’s violence has usually been downplayed as eccentricity that should be tolerated because he’s a fine actor. That’s male privilege at work. When abusers claim innocence, they’re believed. When their victims speak up, they’re asked for proof. 

Imagine a married woman having affairs with her co-stars, throwing temper tantrums, abusing directors and harassing co-actors. Replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ and you have Patekar. Imagine a woman with multiple criminal cases against her, a reputation of unpunctuality and a history of violence against her partner and disrupting film shoots (her own and her partner’s). That is the edited profile of what would be a female Salman Khan. Except we can’t imagine any woman being allowed any of these liberties.

Patekar is protected by the industry’s silence because his behaviour is the norm rather than the exception. While even the limited support extended to Dutta is welcome, take a moment to appreciate just how low the standards are by which we judge our celebrities. We’re patting people on the back for saying they believe Dutta after Sequeira corroborated Dutta’s account. This is the bare minimum we should be doing for Dutta and others whose lives and self-esteem have been mangled by the Bollywood machine. No one has refused to work with Patekar or said they will boycott Patekar’s next film Housefull 4 (I wouldn’t have watched it anyway, so my act of resistance and support is this column). Not a single person has suggested there be a conversation about sexual harassment in the Hindi film industry that develops independent and internal redressal mechanisms that won’t depend on the slow and overburdened Indian judiciary. People haven’t even spoken about their own experiences of sexism and misogyny in Bollywood. It’s almost as though Dutta’s encounter with Patekar is an anomaly.

The silence from Bollywood’s most powerful is damning — it suggests they don’t want the industry to become safer for women, that they’re complicit in the victimisation. Perhaps their silence comes from the fear that their own misdeeds will be exposed. Or perhaps – and this is infinitely more worrying – they don’t think there’s anything wrong with the status quo.