Actor Nana Patekar (second from left) presenting the Silver Peacock award for Best Actor (Female) at the 45th International Film Festival of India, 2014. Wikicommons/ Ministry of information and Broadcasting. Some rights reserved.
Women are a force to be reckoned with. That is the take-away from the #MeTooIndia juggernaut convulsing the subcontinent of late. ‘The List’ of perpetrators or casualties, depending on your take, encompasses a veritable who’s who of the male elite.
The Indian edition of the global #MeToo phenomenon blossomed with the formidable beauty of a Venus flytrap early this October of 2018, with a decade-old case of sexual abuse that occurred in the Indian film industry of Bollywood. This alleged incident was freshly recounted in harrowing detail by actor Tanushree Dutta in an interview with the entertainment portal Zoom TV. Dutta alleged that she was inappropriately touched and groped by her famous co-actor Nana Patekar on the film set of a Bollywood production entitled Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss back in 2008. After she repulsed his advances, Dutta claims that Patekar called goons belonging to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a regional political outfit, who in turn trashed her car. Indeed video footage exists depicting this vandalism. Not unlike the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the west, this incident served as the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in India.
Now, Pandora’s box has been ripped wide open, and women from all walks of life have taken to social media with aplomb to name and shame their abusers. Not surprisingly, a whole slate of male directors and actors have joined Nana Patekar in the proverbial hall of shame. Meanwhile the burgeoning #MeToo movement has spilled forth beyond the confines of the film and entertainment industry. The list of accused now includes journalists, writers, artists, executives, musicians, politicians and so on… in fact it appears to be growing daily with a frequency that is both alarming and yet intriguing.
All those salacious details and jaw-dropping disclosures; no wonder I haven’t been able to keep up with my weekly Netflix queue these days. As the adage goes, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, and in the case of the enfolding #MeToo allegations, it is all the more compelling. The nature and gravity of abuse run the gamut from the occasional grope and let go to persistent molestation and rape. Indeed the success story of #MeToo is seemingly no small victory for the feminist movement in India. The sexual abuse and harassment of women is an issue that has never received this kind of national attention in India save for the Nirbhaya incident in 2012 where a young medical student was brutally gangraped on a moving bus in the capital of New Delhi. The #MeTooIndia movement has certainly been a watershed moment in the discourse of women’s rights in the workplace.
Outing Indian politician and eminent journalist MJ Akbar as a predator has been key to this. No less than 16 women have reported multiple incidents of harassment mainly within the context of the workplace involving Akbar. There is a consistent motif at play: MJ Akbar repeatedly misused his power as an authority figure in several news outlets during his venerated career as an editor to molest women that were junior to him and, not surprisingly, dazzled by his celebrity. A privileged and powerful misogynist, MJ Akbar is the quintessential target of #MeToo. He is India’s parallel to Bill Cosby and his fall has been no less disgraceful.
Journalist Priya Ramani was the first woman to open the floodgates against MJ Akbar by calling Akbar, ‘as talented a predator as you were a writer.’ Ramani’s tweet resulted in quite the twitter storm as more and more women survivors came out into the open with their own stories of abuse at the hands of MJ Akbar. Wielding the ‘Me-Too’ hash tag these women shone like modern day Joan of Arcs and captured headlines across India with the inexorability of the perfect storm; revenge is sweet. MJ Akbar, who, was until recently Minister of State for External Affairs in the Narendra Modi-led cabinet, filed a defamation suit against Priya Ramani, but was forced to resign nonetheless.
Smash the patriarchy! Yes, #MeToo has captured the imagination of India. The future is female. Or is it really? Talking this through with a female colleague who, like me, works on the more tasteful side of the Indian film industry – I couldn’t help saying, India is no Beverly Hills and while #MeToo social media grandstanding is the new cool; the reality on the ground remains as bleak as it ever was. Women are brutalized and raped, tortured and murdered every single day in India; the statistics can’t even be kept up-to-date. The majority of these women live in secluded rural areas that are way beyond the ambit of #MeToo. We almost never hear these stories.
Will that change with #MeToo? I expressed these doubts and fears to my colleague who nodded before saying, “I feel empowered because of #MeToo and, yes, it’s currently restricted to urban women but it will trickle down.” I refrained from pointing out that trickle down theories had been criticized as ineffective by just about every credible source in economics; was feminism really that different? In a recent poll by the National Health Survey of India, 52% of women said it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife as opposed to the 42% of men that thought so too. Patriarchy is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Will the urban-centered India edition of #MeToo succeed in crossing over to the rural majority?
I have my doubts and as this movement gathers momentum and steals the limelight, I am left to wonder to myself: is this the revolution or is it the counter-revolution?