Sorry, Tanushree Dutta. This is Bollywood and it lives in denial

By Poulomi Das

Exactly a week ago, 34-year-old Tanushree Dutta, a former beauty pageant winner and Bollywood outsider whose presence would otherwise be confined to fitful mentions in tabloids, did the unthinkable: She revolted. Against the yawning abyss of Bollywood that drowns out any voices of dissent. She compelled them to listen to every word she uttered on national television.

In her controlled, but moving account, Dutta eschewed conventional industry decorum, making direct and public accusations against actor Nana Patekar, who sexually harassed her with impunity on the sets of Horn Ok Pleasss. She called out the hypocrisy of A-list actors who continued working with Patekar – a man whose abusive behaviour is an open secret – and the archaic mechanisms of a supposedly modern industry that continues to protect predators. In reminding the country about the intimidation, violence, and harassment she single-handedly endured back in 2008, Dutta exposed the apathy of the Hindi film industry, that passionately fosters a culture of denial.

The humiliation of Dutta, who demanded justice for the incident back in 2008, did not happen behind closed doors. Instead it unfolded in full public view of thousands of people, people with the power to control and change things… people who chose to look the other way. People who now accuse her of not saying anything earlier.

Ten years ago, Dutta, who was about to shoot a solo item song for Rakesh Sarang’s Horn Ok Pleasss, was informed about a last-minute change that she was expected to silently comply with. It involved matching steps with Patekar, the film’s male lead and doing an “intimate sequence” with him – an idea nurtured in Patekar’s head and supported by the film’s choreographer and director. During rehearsals, Patekar allegedly manhandled Dutta and insisted on teaching her the “vulgar steps” he choreographed. It left the actress reeling; her protests were promptly shut down by the choreographer and the director.

And then, Bollywood ganged up on her.

When I asked Fox Star Studios their stance on working with men accused of harassment, a spokesperson reiterated that they take no responsibility for it

They slapped her with a legal suit. Before that, they called in goons from the MNS (a political party Patekar is close to) to vandalise her car. The video footage of the attack, doing the rounds now – like it had 10 years ago – paints an even horrendous picture: As the crowd furiously knocked on the windows and broke the windshield, one man jumped on the roof of the car while she was in it. While recounting the incident in her interview last week, Dutta claimed that what happened with her was nothing short of a “mob lynching”.

They followed it up with utter silence over the incident. Dutta’s last film released in 2010, she was labelled “unprofessional”, and eventually became persona non grata – the price you have to pay for taking on a sausage fest of an industry. Bollywood, after all, brooks no complaints against one of their own, by which I mean only men. This is a place where the accusation of harassment is more incriminating than the act itself.

Because no matter how hard you scream, Bollywood does not want to know. This is a machinery oiled by collective denial.

Denial is what makes A-listers like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan respond with anger when asked to take a stand against a male oppressor. It’s a studied, expected feigning of ignorance of Bollywood’s toxic networks. Denial is what explains the flourishing careers of Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt, despite allegations of abuse and mistreatment of women. Denial enables Bollywood’s machinery to ignore their misdemeanours – denial ensures this abusive behaviour becomes the norm.

Forget A-listers, denial safeguards the career of a Shakti Kapoor, who recently proclaimed that he had no idea about the Tanushree Dutta case because he was “a kid” in 2008, even though various reports have detailed his predatory behaviour. This includes the time he judged an “Item Bomb” hunt for Zee Music and inquired about a small-town girl’s virginity, compared waistlines to a “two-bedroom apartment, and revealed “A bomb must ooze sex. I’m looking for tits and ass.” Denial guarantees why Anurag Kashyap can speak up for the actress on social media but turn a blind eye to the man accused of harassment in his own production house.

In this industry-wide frat house, perpetrators are put on a pedestal. It’s why Nana Patekar commanded the industry’s sympathy 10 years ago and continues signing film offers even now. Barely two days after Dutta’s accusations against him, Patekar jetted off to Jaisalmer for the shoot of Housefull 4, a big-budget affair headlined by Akshay Kumar and produced by Fox Star Studios and Nadiadwala Grandson. When I asked Fox Star Studios their stance on working with men accused of harassment, a spokesperson reiterated that they take no responsibility for it, as “Fox Star Studios is not in any way connected with the production of the film Housefull 4. It has merely acquired the rights to distribute the film.” The spokesperson for Nadiadwala Grandson, on the other hand, declined to comment. (The latter is also producing Super 30, directed by Vikas Bahl who was accused of sexual harassment just last year).

There is no better evidence of the embedded understanding in the industry that men will be there for men than the apology rendered by the Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA) yesterday. In his statement, actor Sushant Singh, who’s also the General Secretary of the organisation, admitted that they had wronged the actress when she approached them for justice in 2008 and apologised to her. At the time, her sexual harassment complaint was overlooked although CINTAA had settled the monetary dispute. In a way, CINTAA’s handling of Dutta’s 2008 complaint reveals the reason behind rampant sexual harassment in the industry: a collective denial to believe women or hold men accountable. Why else would women like Dutta, be penalised for demanding a safe work environment?

There are several parallels between Dutta’s case and that of the Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh who is facing charges of sexual assault by a bunch of women. At the very least, the timing of it all is uncanny. As historian Rebecca Solnit writes in an article on LitHub, “They don’t want to know. They don’t want to know what these women or any women have experienced and what they have to say. They don’t want to add up the pieces of what all the people who knew Brett Kavanaugh as an incoherent hardcore drunk in his youth have told us about him… He is from a culture of the suppression of knowledge, and he has told us so directly. He joked in a 2015 speech ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep,’ a familiar phrase that in its various versions has justified a tribalism that protects its own against the larger society by hiding facts.”

Bollywood displays this tribalism in its most primal form. It’s structures ensure that no male actor has or ever will, face repercussions for their actions. According to Shyni Shetty, who was an Assistant Director on Horn Ok Pleasss and an eyewitness to Dutta’s assault, the dance steps that the actress had objected to remained unchanged, when Rakhi Sawant took over.

In the end, the only person who got to have his way was Nana Patekar. The women, as usual, remain Bollywood’s biggest losers.