'Why are women are expected to spread their legs to prove their skills?'

By Veena Bakshi

It was the year 2004.

I had just stepped out of advertising film production and decided to try my luck with directing feature films. One attempt in 2002 had gone horribly wrong. But I steeled myself and decided to try again – this time with a very old friend, someone my family treated as a family member, who had recently turned producer.

He agreed to produce it, but said the script needed certain changes because it wasn’t ‘Bollywood enough’. A writer (well-known today) was brought in to do so – and she ruined my story. I felt powerless and helpless. An inner voice kept telling me to run, but I didn’t. I wish now that I had had the guts then to listen to that inner voice. Coming from the fairly protected world of ad films, I wasn’t street smart enough to deal with Bollywood. I went along with whatever was happening.

One by one, the actors I wanted to work with were sidelined. I was told not to worry because this happened all the time. I lost friends. The technicians I wanted to work with were sidelined. Only the cameraman was my choice. He too turned later but that is another story.

I noticed that the producer would make me work late, sometimes alone with him in the office. He would make crude sexual jokes all the time. One day I even noticed him standing by his table gently rubbing himself on the corner of the table while we were discussing casting. I ignored it all, telling myself that all I had to do was concentrate on my film.

Soon, new actors were on board. The lead actor was a man who is soon going to be eulogised in an upcoming film in a few days despite being a gun runner.

The harassment didn't end. Another actor came on board – he was a B-grade actor then and is a nobody today. One day he was visiting the producer's office and was “resting” in another cabin, where I was asked to go and discuss his character with him. I found myself sitting in this room, trying to do just that. Obviously uninterested, he asked me if I was married, to which I said I wasn’t. Laughingly, he asked me if I minded ‘some fun’. I left the room and went back to the producer and found him, his two cronies and a production guy smiling, looking guilty. Did I tell you there were CCTV cameras all over the office with the display in the producer's cabin?

We went to Romania to shoot, even though I wanted to shoot in Pondicherry. It was a nightmare.

The writer and the producer colluded in not giving me scenes on time. They would change scenes at the last minute and interfere in everything that I planned. The choreographer was given more importance than the film! Song picturisation became a priority.

I didn't know, but stories were being printed in trade magazines in India, that I was a bad director who didn’t know direction and was quarreling with everyone in the unit. The only saving grace was that the Romanian crew stuck with me through thick and thin.

One day I was told to leave the film. The reason the producer gave me was that I hadn’t ‘entertained’ the actors, and if I had just done that, nothing of this sort would have happened.

The penny dropped. The character briefing in the cabin; the late night scene briefing meetings; the ‘why don’t you go to the main actor's hotel and discuss the work with him?’ had all been ruses to make me do just that.

I came back to India. They continued shooting. My Chief AD had been coerced into finishing the shoot. My DoP stayed on to shoot. I never felt more cheated in my life.

I lost five years of my life after that as nobody wanted to work with me thanks to all the bad publicity I had gotten. The only good part was that I learned who my true friends were – definitely not some of Bollywood's celebrated directors today! They ran the other way from me as they had their careers to secure.

So when I heard Saroj Khan say that ‘at least Bollywood gives you work after rape’, I thought it was a very sad statement on both the men and women of this industry. It becomes a bloody way of life. And when you refuse to become a part of it you are out! Why is it that women are expected to spread their legs to prove their skills?

I have often thought long and hard, is that what the writer of that film did? Slept her way through? This is the reality of Bollywood.

 

To show your support for what we do, please CONTRIBUTE and/or PRE-ORDER the books here.