MUMBAI/CHENNAI, India — The first time Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused her co-star of sexually harassing her on set a decade ago, she was threatened with violence – and then ignored.
When she repeated the accusation in an interview last week – a year after reports of sexual misconduct engulfed Hollywood – it unleashed a wave of sympathy that some are predicting could launch India’s own #MeToo moment.
“Woah, looks like the code of omerta in Bollywood is finally cracking,” film writer Radha Rajadhyaksha said on Facebook, using the Italian word for the Mafia’s code of silence.
Veteran actor Nana Patekar has denied harassing Dutta on the set of the film “Horn OK Please”. Patekar’s lawyer was not immediately available for comment, but has previously said he would take legal action over what he called “false allegations”.
Among those who have backed the actress are Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, daughter of one of Bollywood’s best known actors and a top star in her own right.
Ahuja urged others to come forward, saying many of her colleagues had been harassed and bullied.
“If we don’t encourage their voices and instead vilify and question them, how will victims ever become survivors? Let them speak up! Stand up with them!” she tweeted.
Meanwhile Amitabh Bachchan’s refusal to respond to a question about the issue – he testily responded to a journalist with the words “neither is my name Tanushree Dutta nor Nana Patekar” – sparked rare criticism of Bollywood’s biggest star.
Indian film expert Meenakshi Shedde said awareness was growing and younger people in the industry – particularly women – were now more willing to speak out against sexual misconduct.
But she said the tight-knit nature of the lucrative industry, much of which is controlled by a handful of powerful families, worked against transparency as big players could close ranks against accusers.
“Bollywood is extremely clannish and these issues are too close to the bone,” said Shedde, a film critic, writer and consultant.
“People are more aware and articulate, but the entire system is geared to protect the perpetrators,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
‘A man’s world’
In a television interview last week Dutta said harassment cases had for years been “discussed in hushed tones, behind closed doors” in Bollywood.
India’s Cine and TV Artistes Association said on Tuesday it was “highly regrettable” that a complaint filed by Dutta at the time had not been properly investigated and urged members who had suffered similar experiences to come forward.
“No apologies can suffice, hence we must resolve today to never allow such lapses to occur again,” said a statement from the association published by Indian media.
One of the few Indian actresses to have spoken out on harassment in the past year is Sri Reddy, a star of films in the Tamil and Telugu languages of southern India.
While less well known in the West than Mumbai-based Bollywood, the film industries of the south are a huge draw locally and among the diaspora, with hits such as the 2015 “Bahubali” smashing box office records.
“The truth is finally coming out,” Reddy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview before the latest claims emerged.
“Lots of girls looking for film breaks are abused, discriminated against and treated like prostitutes.”
In June three actresses from the Malayalam language movie industry of southern Kerala state walked out of their film association after an actor accused of orchestrating a colleague’s kidnap and rape was readmitted.
That led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective, which has brought together actresses with female editors, directors, cinematographers and costume designers.
“It is all about entering a man’s world, where a woman is powerless,” said Beena Paul, critically acclaimed director of Malayalam movies. “There is no support system and it is a tradition that needs to change.”
India’s minister for women and child welfare wrote to major production houses in December asking them to comply with the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act.
The directive requires employers to set up committees to look into complaints of sexual harassment – but they only deal with cases involving staff, leaving freelancers out in the cold.
“We are standing up because we have no choice,” said director Vidhu Vincent, a member of the women’s collective.
“An awareness about what goes on in the industry has been created, but systems have to be put in place to deal with the issues.” —Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Claire Cozens