An aspiring actress accusing director Madhur Bhandarkar (left) of rape has aroused people's prurient curiosity.
At the best of times, film people are perceived as amoral and debauched, an incident such as this again throws up the casting couch question.
The complaint of the actress seems frivolous. You can be intimidated and raped once, not 16 times over five years. And on the basis of this one case, splashed over the media, it is unfair to paint an entire industry with the same tar brush.
There are a lot of serious filmmakers who are in the industry because they want to make films, not because they get an unlimited supply of sex from desperate starlets. And there are women in the industry who have made it without the casting couch.
Having said that, it cannot be denied that the opportunities for hitting on women (or men, as it is happening increasingly with gays coming out of the closet) are much more in the film industry.
The women who come in to struggle here, especially those without industry connections, want the fastest way to the top. But there is the element of 'willingness' here. Today's girls are not stupid or innocent. If a producer is inviting an aspirant to a hotel room at odd hours, it is obvious he is not going to discuss work.
Any girl who takes up the offer knows what she is going there for. If she had an iota of sense, she would also know that there is lot of money involved in filmmaking and no producer is foolish enough to sign a girl only because she went to bed with him. If she still does so, she is doing it in the hope that she will get cast, but there are no guarantees. If she thinks she is beautiful and talented enough, she can say no. There are other producers to tap.
If she is cast after a roll on the couch, well then, it's not exploitation; it's quid pro quo. She was fully aware of her side of the bargain.
Film producers, directors and others in positions of power can, and do, take advantage of an aspiring actresses' willingness to offer sex in return for work in a film, which could be her ticket to fame. But there is really nothing they can do if she refuses, except not cast her, or, maybe malign her in front of their drinking cronies.
In that sense, a female struggler, if cautious, is safer than, say a clerk in a government office, whose boss paws her and threatens to give her a bad report or hold up her promotion. If she needs the job badly, she has to comply.
This is exploitation and misuse of power. It happens a lot more outside the industry, because these guys have the power to destroy. A woman who complains seldom gets sympathy or support from her colleagues. Such cases in court can be soul-destroying and ultimately futile.
There are sleazeballs who believe all women are up for grabs if they have entered the film industry. The kind of cheap and loose talk that goes on about women (specially those that do not give in) is awful.
The current lot of actresses have short-circuited that by their open lifestyles and willingness to strip. You can't shame a woman if she is not wearing a mask. Yesterday's actresses were forced to keep up their virginal images. Today's actresses happily change partners, do soft porn films and are called 'bold.'
The kind of clout, say a Mallika Sherawat (right) has today with distributors and audiences, does she need to sleep around to get work?
An actress once confessed with great amusement, that the Indian male's mindset is such, that he actually respects a woman who ignores a pass.
A beauty queen and aspiring actress recently went around boasting that a top filmmaker had invited her to his distant bungalow and propositioned her. She turned him down and there were no serious repercussions on her career.
What is worrisome, however, is that if a woman is genuinely harassed or exploited and she chooses to go public, the male-dominated industry quickly closes ranks against her. The girl's career is finished. We have seen it happen to Sabiha and Mamta Kulkarni (left, below).
While males accused of sexual harassment get away without a scratch. Does N Chandra go about with his head bowed because he was once accused of it? The industry's argument in favour of Madhur Bhandarkar is not that he didn't con the actress, but that he doesn't need to do it. 'Madhur doesn't need to rape, he has no shortage of women,' they say.
The fact is that there are enough ambitious women throwing themselves at industry men. Just as there are enough women who do not compromise on their principles.
The film industry is no better or worse than any other line of work. People in power, everywhere, will try to exploit the vulnerable. In this industry, women are not all that helpless and have an equal right to decline. They have nothing to lose but a role. If a girl does sleep with a producer to get that coveted role and succeeds, she is labelled plain lucky.
The short-term fallout in the small-time actress and Madhur Bhandarkar's case is that industry men are scared of having the whistle blown on them. At least for some time, the midnight hotel room invitations will recede.