A year ago, the Harvey Weinstein scandal sent shock waves through Hollywood, with the subsequent Time’s Up and #MeToo movements reverberating across the worlds of media and sport, politics, business and beyond.
Until recently, Bollywood, the largest film industry on the planet, had remained unaffected. Mumbai’s powerful movie moguls, aided by politicians, closed ranks and actresses kept silent. The dark side of the industry, euphemistically labelled the “casting couch”, continued to lead to the sexual harassment and assault of young, aspirational women.
The silence was shattered, however, when Tanushree Dutta, a 34-year-old actress and former Miss India winner, revived an allegation from 10 years ago that she had been sexually harassed by Nana Patekar, an award-winning 67-year-old actor on the set of the film Horn OK Pleassss.
Ten years ago, her claims were briefly reported but then disappeared, with the actress left discredited. This time the allegations have gained traction, with some of India’s biggest stars such as Sonam Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, a close friend of the Duchess of Sussex, coming out to back her.
“There’s not just one Weinstein in Bollywood, the entire industry is full of them — and they protect each other. It’s a totally closed shop,” a successful Bollywood actress, who did not want to be named, said.
“Of course we are all terrified to speak out about it — and that’s why it perpetuates. We know that we may never work again if we rock the boat. Look at what’s happening to Tanushree — she’s getting death threats and slut-shamed — who’s going to cast her now?”
She explained that hundreds if not thousands of vulnerable women arrive in Mumbai each week dreaming big. “The casting couch for many producers basically means they can do what they want with a girl and no questions are ever asked,” she said.
“If they don’t acquiesce, they don’t get the role. What’s needed now is for some huge stars to talk about the abuse they have suffered themselves to get to the top, perhaps a list of the main abusers to be circulated — and for someone to be taken down, like Weinstein was.”
The reaction to Dutta’s claims has rocked India. Her supporters laud her bravery for being one of the first people in Bollywood — man or woman — to raise the fact the industry is riddled with abuse, giving hope that change may finally come.
Dutta said harassment cases had, for years, been “discussed only behind closed doors and not openly, as is being done now”.
“Woah, looks like the code of omerta in Bollywood is finally cracking,” wrote Radha Rajadhyaksha, a film writer, using the Italian Mafia’s word for the code of silence.
Dutta’s detractors, on the other hand, paint her as an opportunist, who has revived the allegations against Patekar and others in the industry to breathe life into her stalled career — with some adding that she was regularly drunk on set.
In interviews, Dutta says Patekar insisted on being in a scene with her, then grabbed her by the arms, pushed her around and suggested an intimate sequence that ended with him on top of her.
She said she was so uncomfortable she had to leave the set.
A video went viral this week of her in her car after the incident being surrounded by dozens of thugs, allegedly linked to Patekar and far-Right Hindu nationalists, smashing the windscreen and letting down the tyres.
The actress says she remains traumatised by the episode and has barely worked in the industry since.
Patekar said the allegations were “lies” and has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer has reportedly sent a legal notice to Dutta accusing her of defamation. His lawyer claimed she made up the allegations “to attract publicity” and “wreak [a] personal vendetta”.
It remains to be seen whether the full “Weinstein effect” will hit Bollywood and shine a light on endemic sexual harassment.
However, if nothing else, the Dutta case has reinforced the struggle faced by women across India of having injustices heard, taken seriously and investigated.