Over the past three weeks, the #MeToo movement has gained momentum in Bollywood, with women coming forth with accounts of abuse and harassment by their male colleagues. With the majority of these accounts being published on Twitter, Meghna Gulzar, Swara Bhasker and Parvathy discuss how credible anonymous claims are, how to safeguard against the movement being derailed by false accusations and why collateral damage is to be expected:
Anupama Chopra (AC): Meghna, you were part of a group of women directors who put out a statement saying that you will not work with any proven offenders. Can you tell us how you guys came to that place?
Meghna Gulzar (MG): Actually it was very organic. It happened over a WhatsApp group being created.
MG: Yeah, it was that organic. It was just that instinctive kick inside that we need to do something. A few of the girls met. I couldn’t make it for that meeting, we’re scheduling another meeting. I think more than anything else, it was two things – one of solidarity and the second was about taking a stand. I’ll speak for myself here and I think most of them would also agree – it’s not only about protecting the women. It’s about making sure that the working atmosphere is a congenial and equal one on my watch. I’m the director of that film. On that set, on my watch, it is a congenial and equal atmosphere for everybody involved and that could be the spot boy, it could be an assistant in the production team. We work odd hours and it’s just practical things – I make sure that the women in my team are never left to go home unescorted. I make sure where they all are on outdoors. It’s very cohesive. These are little steps. I have to say that the fear of oppression or exploitation can happen both ways. It’s not only women.
AC: Of course not.
MG: And we need to take cognisance of that as well. Plus it is already quite gray and murky where allegations are made on Twitter, people are called out, the person doing the calling out is often anonymous, often unsubstantiated but the person who’s been called out will be living with these consequences for the rest of his life, whether he’s guilty or not. Varun Grover’s case in point. Right now it’s so dangerous. You have to use the best of your faculties to decide whether this is a genuine callout or is it one of a retrospective grudge. It’s all over the place right now.
AC: How do we deal with that? See, the truth is that, for a lot of women, it is too uncomfortable to come out there and speak so they understandably want to be anonymous and yet, it cannot become a witch hunt. From what I know of Varun, he’s a man of absolute integrity and we cannot imagine what toll this has taken on him. And then does the whole thing derail a little? I don’t know what the answers are. How do we deal with this?
MG: We will be finding those answers as we go along. Because there is no precedent to something like that. And as a dynamic and evolving society, the answers will come with trial and error, is what I believe.
AC: So there will be collateral damage?
MG: Of course. You cannot ever have a system put in place without making mistakes and having collateral damage.
Parvathy: And it’s very harming, what’s happening on Twitter. This is harming the movement, when women take on a vengeance mode. ‘I want to call that guy out.’ Even for us in the Women in Cinema Collective, we keep each other in check. We get angry a lot and we want to call out (people) but we have people saying, ‘Okay what are the legal ramifications of this?’ Even the journalists who are supporting the anonymous accounts, they’re going to be slapped with defamation cases at this point. And that’s a big risk to take because the minute they get a defamation case, the journalist has all the right to reveal the (person’s) identity and then the whole point is lost.
Swara Bhaskar (SB): I completely agree with Meghna but I also have to say that one of the ways to lessen that trial and error is – and I got a lot of flak for saying this on Twitter – that anonymous accounts have to be discouraged. I’m sorry. And I’m saying this from a place of great empathy. I understand that victims and survivors find it difficult to name themselves. It’s not easy. We’re not a society, largely speaking, that listens with empathy.
AC: It’s always about your character.
SB: But if not at this moment then when? The only way you can shake off that shame that is put on you is by not accepting it, by claiming your story…I’m saying this in a humble way with empathy and as a request – please do not put out anonymous accounts, please put your names. And to journalists, if you come across an account that wants to be anonymous, work extra hard. Find somebody else who is willing to put their name. Do that groundwork. The fact of the matter is that the #MeToo movement in Hollywood is based on very thorough investigative journalism. They worked on it for months. They didn’t go with anonymous accounts.
This is an excerpt from a longer conversation. Watch the full video here: