The other side of the sordid Indian casting couch story
South Indian actress Varalaxmi Sarathkumar’s post on Facebook headlined “Needs to be said”, written after a famous Malayalam actress was molested in a car by a gang of men, has opened a can of worms in the entertainment industry in India.
Varalaxmi in her post said the programming head of a leading TV channel had asked her when he could meet her outside after they were done with a meeting. Varalaxmi had asked him if it had to do with some other work, to which he very clearly said no, not work, but “other things”.
Varalaxmi’s post has brought into focus the issue of sexual harassment in the country’s film industry, be it in the south Indian, Hindi or Bengali industry. If one had already known that the casting couch existed for women, now confessions from stars like Ranveer Singh and Ayushman Khurana, who say they have had to deal with dirty proposals, make it clear that it’s a reality for men too.
Actress Tisca Chopra, who is best known for her role in the landmark film Taare Zaamen Par, in her book Acting Smart talked about how she had to face the casting couch. Then she added: “Much to my relief there is an equal number of gay directors, so now it’s an even playing field. Guys get accosted as much as women.”
What men face
A Bengali actor said: “Earlier to keep the director or the producer happy, a struggling actor had to do the grocery shopping or even buy vegetables from the bazaar in the morning. But now there are plenty of men who wear their sexuality on their sleeves and ask you to be with them. Also, in the television and film industry, there are women who are coming up in power positions. They are often no less demanding.”
Sexual harassment in the entertainment industry got a new perspective when famous singer Sonu Nigam in a letter to The Times of India in 2007 said that since he did not respond to the advances of entertainment writer Subhash K Jha, the latter kept bashing him and criticizing him in all his columns. Sonu said he had saved all the mushy messages that Subhash had sent him, and he ended the letter by saying: “If someone can do this to me, I wonder what the struggling newcomers, models and actors have to go through in this industry.
“My heart goes out to them. Please let them know we are not living in a jungle where someone’s silence is taken as a sign of weakness by a beast!”
National Award-winning filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar has touched upon this aspect of the film industry in his films Page 3 and Fashion. While in the first one he actually shows that a man compromises to get a role, in the second one, there is a scene where a struggling actor is told that if he compromised, life would become easier.
The mindset of newcomers
As an entertainment journalist in national newspapers in India, I have also seen to what extent newcomers, or for that matter their parents, are willing to go to get their pictures published in the papers.
One incident that especially comes to my mind happened almost a decade back. A young girl who was trying to get a foothold in the modeling industry came to meet the editor of my newspaper with her parents and her portfolio. The editor thought the pictures were too shoddy to be published and asked her to come back with better-quality photos.
In an open office where the entire conversation could be heard by all, to the sheer embarrassment of the editor, the father of the girl asked with concern, “So you want her to wear less clothes in the photos?”
The editor politely said that he wanted the pictures to be of better quality and that had nothing to do with clothes.
“But do you think she would stand a better chance of getting published if she was in a swimsuit?”
The editor, now visibly embarrassed because we were all listening in to the conversation, said a firm “no”.
Then finally the father said, “Can we meet outside the office some time?”
I remember the exasperated expression on the editor’s face, but I don’t remember what he said finally.
It is not uncommon to see mothers gate-crashing filmi parties with their skimpily clad teenage daughters, trying hard to push their luck with actors and directors present at the party.
In fact, recently at the birthday bash of a star in Kolkata, a Bangladeshi actress, in a drunken state, started getting so embarrassingly physical with him that his secretary had to rush to his rescue.
Actor Suniel Shetty, who runs a digital casting agency in Mumbai, very rightly pointed out in an interview in The Times of India recently: “We first have to educate the newcomers about the stream of work they plan to jump into. We have to stop them from shooting wrong or suggestive portfolios that give a wrong impression. If we can successfully do that, stories of casting couches will automatically reduce.”
Director Vikram Bhatt told the same publication: “I have heard of good-looking youngsters who have used their charm card to make their way ahead. What do you do about that?”
Playing by the rules
Most young people who want a foothold in the industry take the plunge with the attitude that they would do anything to get that “one role”. And sometimes this attitude is wrongly promoted as a must-have accessory in a fiercely competitive industry.
A Bengali actress said: “There are the kinds who would do anything to get a role and can’t care less and there are some who would do it if they see it’s a big director or producer where work could really happen.”
Some newcomers get caught in this dubious web and there are plenty of men who have zero clout in the industry but pose as agents and take these gullible people for a ride.
Rupa, a Bengali actress who is struggling in Mumbai, said: “After a couple of years of struggle you know that a phone call after 11pm is not usually about work. You get to know proper auditions take place in studios and meetings in offices and not in hotel rooms. And from the tone and drift of the conversation you immediately know where it is heading to. Nobody forces anybody, it’s all about choice. But sadly, I feel in this rigmarole of compromise and vital stats, real talent is often not noticed.”
A well-known actress in Kolkata who is also the daughter of a star father got a meaty role in a film in Bollywood, directed by one of the best-known directors in the industry. She was super happy about this break and the news was splashed all over the newspapers before she took off for Mumbai to shoot. A few days later I came to know she had come back quietly and wasn’t doing the film anymore. When contacted, she said the script had changed so she didn’t have a role anymore, but industry insiders said she was out of the film because she refused to compromise with the director.
Some directors and producers have a reputation that precedes them, and there are some who manage a clean and professional image.
A Bengali serial producer had the habit of ushering an actress to the backroom of his office and measuring her vital stats with a measuring tape. It was a perverted quirk that most women knew they had to put up with if they wanted to work in his serials, and apparently most did. But once he got a tight slap from an established actress for trying this, and apparently after that he stopped this practice, since the actress told everyone about it and it became a talking point in the entire industry.
As actress Richa Chaddha points out, the star kids are insulated from sexual harassment because of their family connections. “Otherwise there are very few who have not got an indecent proposal some time in their life,” she said.