The sexism spin

That Bollywood is often branded as misogynistic and sexist raises doubts if showbiz is run by and for men, writes Shilpi Madan

Then he called me and my assistant into his hotel room on the pretext of discussing the requirements of the sets, in keeping with the script, uncorking a bottle of champagne, sipping on, taking to shayari and then taking to sucking my toes, once my assistant split. It was the most nerve-wracking, horrible moment of my life, as I racked my brain for a solution. I panicked, because efforts to fob him off did not have any effect. I made my escape, bolting like a shot deer, leaving my laptop and phone behind in the blind rush, as I skidded down the corridor into the safety of my room and locked myself. The film director, expectedly, made working in the project thereafter extremely rancid, the next day onwards, finally driving me to quit the movie. Despite the hat trick of successes in my earlier movies,” says Anupa Dhara (name changed on request) who has worked as an art director in countless Indian as well as crossover projects.

Whether your ego permits you to face this or not, it has been a man’s world, especially in the film domain, for years, with women making their mark as movie makers, choreographers, camerapersons, editors, costume designers....relatively recently, and calling the shots. But at a very niche level.

Tanushree Dutta
Tanushree Dutta

Balancing act

This is a world where even film heroines are cast as per the cues received from the hero of the film once he signs on the dotted line. It is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained, between sticking to work like a true professional and pretending then that the advances and overtures from your male counterparts do not exist. You choose to simply play the babe-in-the-woods, innocent twit, and pointedly refuse to read the gestures. As you know you will lose out on work if you choose to retaliate.

Tanushree Dutta played the braveheart who received an expected, miserable dictum as a result of fighting out the sexual harassment meted out on the sets of a film she worked on years ago. Followed a mindboggling spiel of breakouts and confessions, especially on social media, laced with sordid details, cutting across professions, by women who had been at the receiving end of male angst. The #metoo movement erupted with a startling burst and gained dizzying momentum, moving across age groups across the length and breadth of the country.

“The action director in the movie Tevar, that I was working on, was a piece of work. He was downright obnoxious and made working in the project extremely difficult. This was the first time I had encountered such a traumatic irritant during my 16 years in the industry,” confesses Aparna Sud, production designer of box office spinners including the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja.

“I did not quit the project as I was determined to stick on. He managed to spin animosity through the crew, made disparaging comments based on me being a woman, through the rest of his team as well. It was very difficult for me to pull along. I somehow did, out of sheer determination, bullish about not caving in to the misbehaviour. I did speak about this on social media later, once the #metoo movement started. I believe every individual needs to stand up for herself, despite the first question that pops into your head — Who is going to believe me? — and I will lose this project. Also, I do feel that the bigger problem arises when the obnoxiousness gains silent support from others, or when the trouble starts with the key decision maker. In my case, I knew the film director and he was extremely supportive of my work. I managed to pull along, sulking, cribbing...I am senior in my line of work and people seek me out to work on films, but I do think the younger girls who are just starting out in the industry need support on how to handle such situations,” she adds.

Sonali Kulkarni
Sonali Kulkarni


Cut to 2019. Sonali Kulkarni, nine years Salman Khan’s junior, played his mommy in Bharat (having played Hrithik Roshan’s mom in Mission Kashmir, before signing on Dil Chahta Hai, as Saif Ali Khan’s girlfriend). Shahid Kapoor’s intense portrayal of Kabir Singh brought alive on screen toxic masculinity, charged with sexual mania. The point is, has sexism waned or increased? “I think it has ebbed quite a bit as after the #metoo movement people are very guarded and scared,” says Pallavi Purohit (name changed on request) who has been working as a costume stylist in blockbusters that are a part of the 100 crore movie club.

“These days leading production houses get all women professionals associated with a movie being produced by them to sign a disclaimer at the culmination of the project, stating clearly that they never experienced any untoward behaviour, signals, attitude...during the making of the movie, and that they enjoyed working on the project,” she shares.

“I have personally never experienced any come-hither looks, or received inviting messages from the directors or any other professional working on the project. But then I ensure that I send out the right signal too. I am here to do my work, and get out. I dress prudently, not prudishly. Honestly, we are all educated, sensible working professionals. The mindset of certain individuals is the problem. Most of these individuals are from smaller places, have begun making good money on the dint of their proficiency and work, they have been brought up in different environments. The reality is that in the film world, you do not need any qualification to be able to make it big. The glamour attracts all kinds of people. Then why cultivate situations — these only tend to lead to an ‘accidental brush’ or an ‘indecent touch’. If one of my assistants nevertheless asks me for help, I ensure that her work allocation streamlines her presence on the sets completely. But if she were to play along, and reciprocate to the advances, then there is nothing I can do about it as each person is a different, independent-thinking individual.”

Prachee Shah Paandya
Prachee Shah Paandya

Says actress Prachee Shah Paandya, who recently essayed Varun Dhawan’s mother’s role in Judwaa 2, “Sexism is going through changing times. For a Shahid Kapur’s Kabir Singh we have an Alia Bhatt’s Safina in Gully Boy. As for Sonali Kulkarni’s choice in playing the roles she has, let us just learn to be equitable and human without dividing situations based on gender alone. I chose to play Varun Dhawan’s mom in Judwaa 2, as I was getting the chance to work with my two favourite persons — Varun and David Dhawan. So no sexism there. I believe sexism is truly dwindling. Equality is being built on a strong foundation today as women have found their voice, everything seems to go viral ,easily making people more aware and conscious about crossing lines. But yes, a forum educating and supporting new entrants would definitely help new entrants in our film industry.”

Intimacy directors

Then there is the growth of the intimacy directors breed to streamline, deconstruct and virtually choreograph every lip lock and movement in a bedroom scene. Rampant in Hollywood, the presence of intimacy directors has caught on tremendously. Whereas leading production houses like YashRaj have always known to be extremely sensitive and tactful in asking men to leave the sets, allowing only women to stay, without cellphones, while an intimate scene is being filmed.

“Everything, right down to whether a kiss between two characters will be a lip lock or tongue movement, is pre-decided, discussed and mentioned clearly in the contract signed by the individuals enacting the scene. There is no ‘happened in the heat of the moment scenario’ here. Even if the actors are hooking up after the shoots, they are very careful not to give any such indicator in the filming of the intimate scene. So much so that a doughnut shaped pillow is used to cushion the private areas to avoid any uncomfortable moments if the scene requires movement between the sheets,” explains Vicky Pai (name changed on request) who excels in choreographing the moves in intimate scenes. Clearly, the golden rule is that there is no golden rule. A personal prerogative is what rules your own decision when it comes to accepting or passing up what could be a sexist remark, attitude, judgement or behaviour.

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