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Posted at: May 13, 2018, 12:06 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 12:06 AM (IST)

Cast away the casting couch

Nonika Singh in Chandigarh

SUDDENLY in Bollywood anyone and everyone has a take on casting couch. Voluble actor-turned politician Shatrughan Sinha agrees it exists, both in the world of entertainment and politics. Choreographer Saroj Khan asks: what’s the big deal if it does for it is a part of every walk of life. And it finds a supporter in a woman parliamentarian. Then a host of actors, OK actresses, go on record in a BBC film Bollywood’s Dark Secret. 

Call it the cascading effect of MeToo movement or the weight of Bollywood’s inherent dynamics or simply headline grabbing gimmick, suddenly casting couch is no longer talked about in a hushed manner. It’s out there in public domain. To be seen, gawked at and talked about in incessant debates. Who is sleeping with whom, who the sexual predators are — no one is telling. There are no answers (or faces) to the most ticklish query. Big ticket producers insist casting couch exists only at low and mid levels and that the rot doesn’t go all the way up. 

In Hollywood, the most powerful heads — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey — have rolled in the wake of the MeToo campaign. The Indian film industry continues to maintain guarded silence when it comes to names. Richa Chaddha, one of the leading members of the bold and fearless brigade, lists out reasons why no one would speak up. According to her if an actress came out in the open that would be the end of her career. “Who will take the responsibility of protecting them? Slowly we have to shift to a culture where it is from ‘Me too’ to ‘Him too’, where people will have the strength to complain about others.”

Indeed, the fear of retribution runs strong in the industry which is essentially male-dominated and where cliques and nepotism are no strangers to its working. Yet, strangely enough even when men proclaim to be victims of harassment, they would not call out. Ranveer Singh admits how he was propositioned, and so does television actor Karan Tacker. Both hint at a casting director but would not name him. 

So what’s the big deal about the current noise? Gifted actor Rishi Kapoor wonders too. He says: “It’s not specific to film industry alone.” That casting couch exists has, anyway, never been in doubt. Rumor mills have always added fuel to what current crop of heroines, and veteran actress Arun Irani, have now openly declared. “But yes, all kinds of exploitation would happen and nobody spoke about it,” says Irani who has recently confessed that she did not make it real big for she would not compromise. 

Closer home, MeToo stories abound, but in the garb of anonymity. The accused and the real victims remain shrouded in secrecy. But then we are a country where victim-blaming is a part of our collective DNA. In glamour industries such as films, sexual intimacy is perceived as an occupational hazard. Many continue to see casting couch as a two-way exploitation in which consent is given and taken; hence they do not view it as sexual harassment any which way. 

Bollywood may have found its MeToo moment, if not movement. But for it to transform into a TimesUp, bigwigs from the industry will have to step out. Merely paying lip service as stars like Sonam Kapoor have done and admitting that it indeed is a huge problem won’t help. Established stars, especially those from well-connected families, need to build a support system for aspirants. 

Even well-meaning Farhan Akhtar supporting the cause, seem to be finding comfort in the overused refrain that sexual harassment is rampant everywhere. This however is no excuse to let it continue in the most visible and alluring profession that sets the pace on many fronts.

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