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Bollywood’s Meesha Shafi moment is coming soon

Sooner rather than later, a woman will come along and play the role of Rose McGowan to her Harvey Weinstein equivalent

The tidal wave that is the #MeToo movement will reach our part of the world eventually, though men here look at it differently.
The tidal wave that is the #MeToo movement will reach our part of the world eventually, though men here look at it differently.

When Meesha Shafi accused her colleague, popular singer and songwriter Ali Zafar, of sexual harassment earlier this month, the reaction from Pakistani Twitter was predictable. What’s the proof, people wanted to know.

He is more famous than her. She has just done this for publicity. I know him, they said. I have no idea who she is.

He struggled to reach where he is, some people theorized. I don’t believe he would jeopardize his success for this.

One successful entrepreneur said, “A person who refuses to kiss on screen in India just to be loyal to his wife and repute of nation can do this? Never!" Even though kissing has absolutely no correlation with sexual harassment, this gent didn’t seem to know that the Pakistani actor locked lips in a cross-border kiss with Alia Bhatt in 2016’s Dear Zindagi.

Many people posted a picture of Shafi and Zafar, their bodies making contact as they smiled and posed for the camera, as irrevocable proof that Zafar did not abuse Shafi.

Also, please note, he is a father of a daughter and a husband. How could he?

He is more attractive than she is. Why would he?

He hugged me and I never felt anything, one woman said. Of course, if Zafar didn’t abuse her, there’s no way he could have abused anyone else.

After she accused Zafar, Shafi’s follower count spiked. That must be why she did it, one learned man surmised.

If it happened to her multiple times, why was she so quiet? This is a question that has been asked of women across the world. Speaking up is such a recent phenomenon that Time magazine’s Person Of The Year 2017 award went to The Silence Breakers, or women who raised their voices against sexual harassment.

The tidal wave that is the #MeToo movement will reach our part of the world eventually, though men here look at it differently. “With this entire #MeToo global epidemic on the rise, I am beginning to realise that ISLAM was right all along when it ordains gap between the 2 genders. So called modernism has brought us to a point where the line between flirting & harassment is insanely blurred," Pakistani actor Hamza Ali Abbasi tweeted in response to Shafi’s allegations.

Imagine if Shafi and Zafar had been working in the Hindi film industry, I couldn’t help thinking. The responses would have been largely the same, except multiplied 50 times over. And Shafi’s career would have been over.

Apart from an incident last year, when Mumbai Mirror reported that a female employee of Phantom Films had alleged she was molested by director Vikas Bahl (who made Queen, a film feminists loved), Bollywood has largely kept its mouth shut about the big-ticket offenders in its midst. In fact, choreographer Saroj Khan recently said that “taking advantage of a girl is done with her consent. Women are not sexually abused and dumped. They are given livelihood." She apologized shortly after.

If you know anyone who tracks this industry, they will tell you innumerable stories of A-list actors, producers and directors blithely using their power to exploit women. When the UK-based The Guardian decided to do a piece on sexual harassment in Bollywood titled “Actors Speak Out On Indian Cinema’s Open Secret", the newspaper only quoted one established actor from the industry, Swara Bhasker, who confirmed she had lost roles because she was not willing to play by the industry’s rules. Bhasker shared a dozen household names who are regarded as “serial harassers" with The Guardian reporter, but only off the record. “The same whisper networks that trafficked warnings about (Harvey) Weinstein in the US also exist in India," the newspaper concluded (A BBC World News Report, Bollywood’s Dark Secret, due to be aired this weekend, won’t name any names either).

In the south, the film industry hasn’t managed to hide its dirty innards so effectively (Telugu actor Sri Reddy recently stripped in front of the Movie Artistes Association office in Hyderabad to protest sexual harassment in that industry). Last year, a leading Malayalam actress was abducted and assaulted. The assaulters recorded the crime on their cellphones. A few months later, a chargesheet was filed against a dozen people, including superstar Dileep—the police said he had masterminded the attack. After this incident, the women in Malayalam cinema came together to set up a Women in Cinema Collective.

South Indian actresses have spoken publicly about the misogyny in their midst and been trolled viciously for spilling the dirt.

Forget sexual assault, Bollywood doesn’t speak up to record history. Even Nasreen Munni Kabir, author of those famous Hindi film personality conversation books, wasn’t able to get Waheeda Rehman to spill about her rumoured love affair with Guru Dutt. When I reviewed I Want To Live: The Story Of Madhubala a few years ago, I noted author Khatija Akbar’s clarification that she uncovered “no dark secrets, no skeletons in cupboards, no horror tales of drunkenness or mean habits. Only human failings".

But Bollywood can’t hide behind its testosterone-fuelled secret code for much longer. Sooner rather than later, a woman will come along and play the role of Rose McGowan to her Weinstein equivalent. She won’t care if Bollywood blacklists her because she had the courage to talk about her rape by a famous man. She will empower more successful women to speak up too. Before you know it, everyone will be talking, without worrying about how the television channels are going to spin the story or what the Twitter trolls are going to say. She’ll shrug off the victim blaming. This woman who started it all, she’ll even get a book deal where she will record all the gory details of her harassment. She’ll be the hero of a new generation.

Meanwhile, according to Pakistan’s Geo News, Zafar has sent a legal notice to his accuser seeking an apology. But the allegations against him are piling up, never mind that, as one smart Twitter user put it, “Mahira Khan’s smoking is more outrageous for most Pakistani men on Twitter than Ali Zafar sexually harassing women."

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