MUMBAI/ABUJA: Two major Bollywood rape-revenge dramas released in 2017 had beefy heroes take on men or gangs who had sexually assaulted their wives or daughters. But off-screen, predators in the world’s most prolific film industry are protected by victims’ silence.
From India’s Bollywood to Nigeria’s Nollywood, which both produce more films than Hollywood, actors told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that sexual abuse and harassment was rife, but victims almost never spoke out.
A deluge of claims against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein has sparked countless stories of sexual harassment in the social media #MeToo campaign, with women using Twitter and Facebook to recount experiences of being abused, groped, molested and raped by bosses, teachers and family.
Weinstein has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting numerous women, including A-list actresses, over the past three decades. The film producer has denied having non-consensual sex.
While actresses in Nigeria said poverty forced many women in Nollywood to keep quiet about harassment for fear of losing roles, their Indian counterparts said Bollywood’s ‘boys club’ and pervasive victim shaming stopped them going public.
“It is the culture of victim shaming, the culture of silence that is present everywhere, not just Bollywood,” said Richa Chadda, an Indian actress who has blogged about #MeToo.
“It is glamorous to talk about Bollywood, but the problem is that girls (everywhere) are not treated equally and don’t feel safe,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “When you speak up, you risk losing your position, your career.”
Thousands of young boys and girls flock to the Bollywood capital Mumbai every year seeking film parts and are often exploited by agents who promise roles in exchange for favours.
While some big Bollywood names have been charged with rape and harassment, they have rarely lost the support of their peers.
“Like in the outside world, there exists a bro code in the industry. I’ve not seen anyone take a stand against allegations of sexual harassment made by female actors,” said Radha Rajadhyaksha, an Indian journalist who writes on films.
“In fact, when a few years ago an actor was tried for rape, one or two filmmakers came out in support of him and (helped) to resurrect his career.”
When a big name actor was arrested earlier this year following the abduction and rape of a popular actress in Kerala, industry figures soon tweeted their support. The actor is still awaiting trial.
Actresses in Kerala have since set up a Women in Cinema Collective to make it easier to report sexual harassment.
In another widely reported case last month, a leading Bollywood producer was arrested on charges of raping a 25-year-old aspiring actress and taking pictures of her naked.
But not everyone is convinced there is a problem.
Bipendra Nath Tiwari, president of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, an umbrella organization of 22 unions, said they had recently created a ‘health and safety’ committee that will also look at sexual harassment cases.
But he said the federation, which numbers 250,000 members including performers, sound technicians and make-up artists, had never received any harassment complaints.
“Bollywood is a clean industry,” he added.