Step up, Saroj Khan: stop defending Bollywood?s dirty dancing

By Poulomi Das

Three-time National Award-winner and arguably Bollywood’s most respected choreographer, Saroj Khan defended the casting couch today. In doing so, she singlehandedly put the film industry light years behind in ensuring that it can also be a safe workplace for actresses.

In this month alone, we’ve been witness to two polarising retaliations to one plaguing virus in the film industry: the dreaded C-word. Casting couch.

Two weeks ago, actress Sri Reddy staged a semi-nude protest in front of the Movie Artistes Association (MAA) office in Hyderabad, alleging that young actresses were sexually exploited routinely by the casting couch prevalent in the Telugu film industry.  Reddy claimed that she was denied a MAA membership because of how vocal she had been about this malpractice. Reddy acknowledged the controversial point that she had actually “compromised” with directors, producers, and male actors in the industry – and she had still been denied roles.

In typical fashion, everyone criticised Reddy – her unconventional method, as well as the fact that she had tried to play it the way the industry expected of her. And in the din, the overriding point about Indian cinema’s problematic, predatory work culture was swiftly forgotten.

Until this morning, that is.

Three-time National Award-winner and arguably Bollywood’s most respected choreographer, Saroj Khan, addressed a press conference defending the casting couch. In her own words, Khan claimed that the casting couch is “age-old.” She went as far as saying that “casting couch provides livelihood. Taking advantage of a girl is done with her consent.” What a magical, helpful couch! She further alleged that the practice wasn’t in the least exploitative, because at least it provides actors with work, instead of “raping and abandoning.” Ironically, Khan’s tone-deaf statements were a response to a question about Sri Reddy’s strip-protest.

Even though Khan soon apologised for her chest-beating glorification of the casting couch that is powerful enough to dictate the careers of innumerable actresses, the damage was done. Her remarks came as an insult at a time when more and more actresses are choosing to openly talk about the systematic harassment meted out to them in their workplace, and challenging its acceptance as a rite of passage.

Saroj Khan’s argument that artists have a choice not to work with people who’ve asked for “sexual favours”, is as misplaced as it is distasteful.

Just last month, veteran actress Daisy Irani’s horrific revelation about being raped at the age of six, threw a light on the dark side of the industry. Around the same time, Radhika Apte – who in the past has admitted to being propositioned for roles – spoke about an unpleasant experience on the sets of a Tamil film on a chat show. Recounting the incident, Apte revealed how she slapped a famous actor who deemed it perfectly acceptable to tickle her feet on the first day of the shoot.

Swara Bhaskar, Kalki Koechlin, and Richa Chadda have gone on record umpteen times emphasising the reasons actresses refrain from naming and shaming perpetrators despite being victims of casting-couch culture. In the past, we’ve written about why Bollywood will never have its #MeToo moment: Because speaking out against rampant sexual harassment in the industry is to risk film offers drying up and being slut-shamed. Just take a look at the responses from within the industry. Spoiler alert: There were none.

In defending the casting couch then, Khan’s comments (“Tumhare paas art hai toh tum kyun bechoge apne aap ko?”) do a disservice to their courage by squarely resting the blame with victims. Her argument that artists have a choice not to work with people who’ve asked for “sexual favours”, is as misplaced as it is distasteful. Besides gloriously missing the point, Khan’s statements also singlehandedly puts the film industry light years behind in ensuring that it can also be a safe workplace for actresses.

But most importantly, her comments are also emblematic of a reality where the veteran stakeholders of the film industry (Khan herself has been in the industry for over 40 years, choreographing a whopping 2,000 songs) are clueless about what constitutes “harassment” and “consent”. In embracing the casting couch as the messiah of the film industry and disguising coercion as consent, Khan normalises the conditioning that pits abuse as a necessary exchange for a successful career. Moreover, by promptly blaming actresses for giving in to the perils of the casting couch, Khan also disregards layers of twisted power dynamics that guarantee that these actresses can never be on the same footing as their predators.

The most damning and disheartening part of the exchange is how little support there is for actresses who take the casting couch head-on. The very people who ought to be the guardians the industry – people like Khan – are only interested in burying their heads in the sand.

Here’s a song you can choreograph, Saroj Khan: “Ek do teen, I defend the casting couch like a queen.”

This article has been previously published on Arré.