India’s actresses are starting their own #MeToo moment in Bollywood, where criticising a male star can end a woman’s career

Mona Mathews, 48, is one of a handful of women breaking the silence in Bollywood, one of the world’s most prolific moviemaking centres

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 2:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 6:37am

On her regular rounds of Bollywood casting studios, Mona Mathews says she will occasionally be asked: “Are you willing to compromise?”  

She says no, although if she were more ambitious, the 48-year-old belly dancer and aspiring actress says, she would have to say yes. 

For newcomers like her, with no sure fire connections, the route to stardom has long involved submitting to expectations of sex. 

As allegations against powerful men pour out of Hollywood, Mathews is one of a handful of women breaking the silence in Bollywood, one of the world’s most prolific moviemaking centres. 

Rape and sexual abuse are as common in Bollywood as anywhere, industry insiders say, but Indian women who speak out face an unusually high risk of losing their jobs and reputations, given the tendency to blame victims that extends even to the legal system.

“People want to talk, but they are scared,” Mathews said. “They don’t want to be in the limelight for the wrong reasons. If women talk, other women will say: ‘This is a normal thing. Why is she making such a big fuss?’”  

One of the few established celebrities to break ranks is Daisy Irani, a former child star from the 1950s and ‘60s who last month alleged that she was raped at age six by a male guardian she called Uncle Nazar – a man who accompanied her to film shoots in other cities.

“It happened only once,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I don’t remember anything, just pain and fear. I remember him saying, ‘If you tell anybody . . .’ ” she trailed off, wagging her finger.  

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Irani’s story, splashed on the front page of the Mumbai Mirror newspaper, caused a sensation in India, where many people still recall the young actress on-screen, often playing a curly-haired boy.  

Irani, 68, said she was abused by many men throughout her career as a child star but did not tell anyone at the time because she did not realise how serious it was and did not think she would be believed.

“Whoever felt they wanted to, would touch me,” she said. “Even if I had told the director, would he have cared?” 

She said she told her story to a journalist friend, Khalid Mohamed, last month when they were discussing the rape and sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement they triggered. 

“What’s the big deal?” she recalled telling him. “It happens a lot. It happened to me.” 

Mohamed’s astonished reaction, she said, made her realise that few people knew the gritty details of the sexual abuse that has long pervaded India’s movie industry, known worldwide for its sparkling costumes, colourful song-and-dance sequences and dramatic fight scenes. 

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She said she often watched child performers on television song-and-dance competitions and wanted to warn parents about the dangers of early fame. 

As allegations trickle out from India’s image-conscious movie business, a few Bollywood women have shared the #MeToo hashtag on social media. 

According to Mahesh Bhatt, a prominent movie director, the charges against Weinstein have shaken the industry. 

But no one of Weinstein’s stature has been publicly accused of abuse.

“I’m told by people that there are innumerable such characters here,” Bhatt said. “But here in India, there is a lot of victim blaming. If you have been propositioned, people will say you had it coming.”  

Former Bollywood actress and talk-show host Simi Garewal said it is unlikely that Bollywood’s influential men will ever undergo the same scrutiny as Hollywood’s.

“In America, you have checks and balances,” she said. “Here, if you criticise a male star, you’re not going to get any roles.” 

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India’s other movie industries – including Kollywood, Mollywood and Tollywood, which produce films in the Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu languages, respectively – are also starting to open up about the treatment of women in the business. 

In Chennai in February, actress Amala Paul lodged a police complaint against a businessman for harassing her during a dance rehearsal. 

Mathews, the newcomer Bollywood actress, said she is often invited to directors’ homes for private dinners – and turns them down knowing they usually come with the expectation of sexual favours. 

Once, she said, a movie director told her she would get a role in his movie in exchange for sex. 

Another time, she recalled, a casting director called and asked for pictures of her wearing a bikini and when she refused said, “Okay, can you send it with your head cut off?”  

India’s regressive attitudes toward women became the focus of international attention after the horrific gang rape of a physiotherapy student in New Delhi in 2012.

The incident galvanised a feminist movement across the country.  

Rape and sexual misconduct are rampant in India, Irani said, and are part of a wider problem of women being seen as inferior to men.

“In our country, a mother tells a girl that she won’t get to eat until her brother eats,” she said. “We put men on a pedestal. They don’t want to come down.”