Five years ago, reports of sexual harassment and assault in Bollywood sent shock waves through the industry. But numerous women have told DW that little has actually changed since then.
Mona Das is a struggling actor in Bollywood. She came to Mumbai five years ago to try her hand at acting, roughly at the same time as the Hindi film industry — as Bollywood is officially called — was rocked by a series of #MeToo scandals.
Not much has changed since then, according to Das, who recalls being asked for sexual favors in exchange for work. "They very clearly ask for 'compro,'" Das told DW, referring to certain men in positions of power."'Compro' is a very short, simple, sweet term for a one-night stand... you sleep with me, and you will get work. They called me so many times for dinner and said we will just have a 'good time.' They say, until you compromise, or you open up, or do bold scenes, it won't work," she said.
Power dynamics remain unchanged
Living in India's city of dreams is expensive, and work is unsteady for Das and her flatmates who live in a shabby old apartment complex in Mumbai's Andheri suburbs. They try to pick up small roles until their big break and regularly face predators at their workplace. "While returning after a shoot, a production coordinator was dropping off all of the female actors.
What is happening on the planet and in each particular city
right now and any future day, you can find out here:
Paste the desired city into this link!
I was the one he was dropping off last. I still have no words to describe what happened next. He started touching himself and me. I just froze," Das said, visibly shaking while recalling the traumatic incident. The situation experienced by Das, and many before her, reveals just how little power dynamics have changed in the industry in the five years since #MeToo hit Bollywood.
#MeToo in Bollywood
The multimillion-dollar enterprise was rocked by allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior against several prominent producers, directors, actors and celebrities. Tanushree Dutta, an actress and former Miss India Universe in 2004, accused her co-actor Nana Patekar of sexually molesting her during the filming of a song for a movie. Janice Sequeira, a journalist at the time, said she was an eyewitness to the alleged harassment.
Sequeira took the story to Twitter, now known as X, where it spread like wildfire. "I remember in less than a few minutes only it started getting retweeted like crazy," Sequeira said, recalling what happened after she first posted about what she had seen. "Then the #MeToo movement took a life of its own. For a few days that was all, it was like every day there was either a film personality or someone from a different industry, comedians, actors, everyone was being called out."
The industry produces more than 1,000 films annually which are watched by around 3 billion people worldwide. The fallout seemed to be pushing the industry in a positive direction. Production houses like Phantom Films and All India Bakchod were dissolved, streaming giants demanded better compliance and the wave of allegations sparked a debate about consent and complicity.
But was anyone punished?
Yet, to date, there have been zero convictions. Only a handful of cases reached court, only to be dismissed later due to lack of evidence. The accused eventually returned to work, some more powerful than before. Sona Mohapatra is a prominent singer in Bollywood, and she called out some big names in the music industry. However, she wasn't ready for what came after. "The fact that I spoke up was troublesome for them. It created some kind of tectonic wave within the sets, there are so many other men, no one knows what will happen," Mohapatra told DW. She lost out on projects and became a pariah in the industry.
"All the men have been rehabilitated. And you don't know whether you talk to each other and feel gutted like we did, or you go out and speak on social media and say India are you watching?" Mohapatra said. "One after the other, everybody has been rehabilitated. They are being celebrated, it's like there is no memory of all the accusations, almost like our voices didn't matter."
What has changed?
#MeToo inspired the work of Alankrita Shrivastava, one of the 11 female filmmakers who pledged not to work with proven sexual offender. She directed a popular show on Netflix based on the theme, which was released in 2021. "I made a show called 'Bombay Begums,' a story of sexual harassment at the workplace and when this one young girl who is new or junior in the bank, she comes out with her story, and no one wants to believe her but it's a trigger for the older character, who is the CEO of the bank, played by Pooja Bhatt. The character eventually calls out her perpetrator after many years," said Shrivastava.
The unprecedented growth of streaming in India has helped lesser-told stories find their audience. Their success also means complex storylines covering difficult issues like abuse have been discussed, while also depicting women in a nuanced way. Another new role has appeared in the industry post #MeToo: intimacy coordinators. Aastha Khanna runs The Intimacy Lab, a collective of intimacy professionals who are working on setting ground rules on Bollywood film sets and are focused on making a safe space for consent during intimate scenes.
Scenes depicting sexual encounters have often left actors feeling like they had been violated. "There is resistance to new things, but our role is growing. International studios that have experienced usage of intimacy coordinators internationally and are open to the idea of bringing about that change, in India as well, for their own safety," said Khanna. However, according to Sequeira, known serial perpetrators remain in the public eye and nobody can touch them. "Can you really go after a superstar who is carrying crores of rupees [roughly equivalent to hundreds of thousands of euros or US dollars] on him for a film? No, you can't," Sequeira said. "There is no poster boy here like Harvey Weinstein. We are far from it."
Author Akanksha Saxena
Edited by: Alex Berry
Permalink - https://p.dw.com/p/4ZerB