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Justice, For All

The ‘#MeToo’ wildfire continues to blaze through the film industry – among other vocations – with shocking and sordid revelations popping up on social media virtually each time one refreshes one’s feed. In its wake, a purge is currently underway with films seeing a change in their personnel or scheduled release dates, banners being disbanded and executives tendering their resignations or being asked to do so.

Disgusting and demoralising as these exposes may be, it is important that all the pent-up angst and trauma of the victims find a vent, that all the misdeeds brushed under the carpet are exposed for what they are, and that long overdue justice is delivered by holding to account those proven guilty of abuse.

For this publication, this is not a freshly minted stance to belatedly align with the justifiable outrage that’s been trending on social media lately. Almost a year back, in the aftermath of la affaire Harvey Weinstein, we had put on record our stand in unequivocal terms on these very pages (A Cautionary Tale, issue dated October 28, 2017). Excerpts from that editorial note are reprinted below.

The environment that allowed Weinstein to get away with so many abusive transgressions over such a sustained period of time isn’t exactly alien to us.

An industry that is almost impossible to break into but one in which the pay-off, in terms of glamour, fame and fortune, is massive if you do succeed. A high-profile, aspirational industry in which the obsessive adulation of fans can sometimes distort one’s awareness of what is appropriate and acceptable. An industry that attracts beautiful people and one with working conditions that are often at odds with conventional norms of employment – erratic hours, outstation schedules et al. An industry that may peddle tales of selflessness and nobility on screen but one that is highly transactional when it comes to anything that anyone does for anyone. An industry where a few men (and they are, with virtually no exception, men) wield massive power on which films get made and who works on these projects. All these descriptions are as true of the Indian film industry as they are of Hollywood.

If anything, given the unfortunate Indian tendency of viewing victims of sex crimes with derision, and our widely shared inclination to avoid getting involved in protracted legal proceedings to seek justice – unlike the US which is a highly litigious nation – one would argue that our industry offers even more leeway to those inclined to misuse their power than Hollywood does.

That being so, it is indeed fortunate that our industry hasn’t been ravaged by a scandal of such wide-ranging and damaging proportions as is playing out in Hollywood now. However, before we start patting ourselves too hard on our backs, let us concede that our track record on this count isn’t exactly spotless. Let us not pretend that we have never heard of work assignments being offered as quid pro quo for wanton favours in our part of the world either.

When someone’s activities go beyond consensual behaviour between consenting adults and enter the realm of exploitation and harassment, it ceases to be a private matter. Instead, it becomes an unfair – and illegal – trade practice that brings disrepute to the profession and can bring down powerful empires, just as it has for The Weinstein Company.

While no tears are going to be shed for Harvey Weinstein, who could well end up in prison once investigations conclude, it is unfortunate that so many others – employees, crews and suppliers of the many projects that have been shelved in the wake of this scandal – shall be collateral damage to one man’s depravity.

One hopes that the Weinstein case will serve as a wake-up call for some amongst us to clean up their act.

So that is where we stand – and have stood – on this momentous debate now underway.

That said, as one watches this story unfold, one cannot help but wonder whether the core issue i.e. sexual harassment, especially by those in a position of power, is getting hijacked somewhat by all sorts of claims and allegations that are being hurled into the cauldron that has been on the boil in the last few days.

While quite a few of the victims’ accounts have proved to be true, there are many lurid accusations out there that seem to be motivated by the desire to attract some attention on the basis of the alleged culprit’s fame. Conversely, many a damning though unsupported charge has been made in the garb of anonymity, leaving the accused with no clear idea about what and who they are supposed to be defending themselves against – while leaving them saddled with the ignominy of having their reputations besmirched.

What has also got somewhat distorted in the heat and fury of the moment is the definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. A consensual relationship – even if it ends poorly, even if it is adulterous – doesn’t by itself qualify as sexual harassment. Nor does an expression of romantic interest unless it is accompanied by an expressed/implied reward for reciprocation or a penalty for rejection; or the party expressing such interest refuses to immediately back off when he/she is told to.

Make no mistake. It takes tremendous courage for a woman, especially in our society, to go public with the trauma she has faced at the hands of a sexual harasser. One recognises that in many cases, there may be compelling reasons for the victim to do so only anonymously. What we are concerned about is the misuse of that anonymity to defame and embarrass those who are not guilty of this heinous act.

That is unfair, not only to the targets of these malicious attacks but even more so to the genuine victims of sexual harassment whose courage has led to this watershed moment. Moreover, each fake claim and outlandish charge dilutes the intensity and integrity of the movement and provides wriggle room for those truly guilty to claim that they too have been wrongly implicated. 

In other words, one hopes that the momentum behind the much needed #MeToo campaign remains focused on calling out the true wolves and not undermined by those who cry wolf.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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