More Bollywood rookies speaking out against sex pests





MUMBAI : Reena Saini, a 26-year-old from Jaipur with good looks, acting talent and the experience of having performed with Delhi's National School of Drama, packed her bags for Mumbai last year, hoping to make a mark in a place where all the action is. Struggling to land a role, she met a casting director a few months later. "He would often call me for auditions and I developed a working relation with him," said Saini. In September this year, she readily responded to one more of his casting calls. "As I reached Oshiwara and called him, he suggested I meet him in his car instead. He was on the driver's seat and insisted I get into the seat next to him. His 6-year-old nephew was in the car too, yet he suddenly placed his hand on my thigh and felt me up. When I resisted, he changed the conversation," said Reena.

"He also suggested I stick the sunshield to the window, which I refused. On realizing the conversation was going nowhere I decided to leave. He stretched his hand out for a handshake and leaned forward for a hug. I complied but then he kissed my neck." When Reena confronted the casting agent over the phone later, she was warned of shame and stigma if she made the matter public.

Bollywood rookies speaking out against the casting couch has always been rare, but Reena belongs to a recently changed scenario where more and more women are taking the legal course.

She first took to Facebook to narrate her ordeal and when the casting agent reacted by shaming her in public, she approached the Cine & TV Artistes' Association (CINTAA), the actors' group. She filed an FIR on October 2, and the casting director has been absconding ever since.

Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 50 such formal complaints of sexual harassment have been registered with CINTAA, and 47 of these cases have been addressed so far, Amit Behl, senior joint secretary of CINTAA told TOI. The group has directed victims to the police. Nine have filed FIRs, some cases were recorded as NCs (non-cognizable complaints) and in some others, the guilty have tendered a written apology, he said.

"Those 50-odd complaints comprise not more than 10% of our members and a minuscule part of the actor population, but it's still an important development," said Suneel Sinha, member of CINTAA's executive and dispute committee.

Between 2012 and 2015, only around 12 cases of sexual harassment were registered with CINTAA.

This year will possibly be remembered as a watershed one of women talking about unwelcome sexual behaviour and taking action. be it the allegations against Hollywood movie moghul Harvey Weinstein or Indians adding to the worldwide outcry with the hashtag #metoo. Not to forget A-listers like Kangana Ranaut, Vidya Balan and Richa Chadda hitting prime-time TV to talk about sexual predators in Bollywood or TVF's Arunabh Kumar stepping down as CEO after being accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. And with discussion on the subject reaching tipping point, the International Federation of Actors with 90 member countries and the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have recently joined forces with CINTAA and the Producers Guild of India to combat the problem in India's entertainment industry.

With around 5,000 actors in search of a foothold in cinema or TV at any given time in the city and scores waiting to abuse their vulnerability, another menace the industry has been struggling to weed out is fly-by-night "co-ordinators" or casting agents with pop-up offices in the Juhu-to-Mira Road stretch. "Sometimes it's a 150 sq ft room with furniture, camera equipment and mock posters with recognizable names, and sometimes it's just a meeting at a coffee shop. The casting trap is laid via word of mouth, newspaper ads and now on social media. Most struggling actors are on multiple online groups and will respond to any opportunity. The keyword often used as a condition for a role is 'compromise'," said Behl. Given the lure of the screen- big or small- wannabe artistes often gamble all they have to realize their dream. "But once the dirty job is done, these co-ordinators are gone without a trace."

And it isn't always promise of work that leads to exploitation. "It happens regularly on the sets with seasoned actresses too. Either being deliberately made to wait on the sets, unnecessary touching, the notorious body check or an explicit joke," said Payal Nair, member of CINTAA's executive committee.


In May, Nikita Chaudhury (name changed), 27, after five years of working in the industry, filed an FIR with Oshiwara police against a producer, screenwriter and director after she discovered herself in porn films that she had been tricked into under the pretence of shooting for a comedy web series. "I rushed to the police, who refused to file an FIR at first, so I had to settle for an NC. In fact, I booked a cab myself after a three-hour wait for the police to visit the producer's house. It was only after the intervention of two film associations that they filed an FIR and removed the links. By then the videos had already logged in over two lakh views."

Frustrated with police inaction and apathy, Nikita said: "It was important that these men were punished. Instead they're leading the same life and I fear for other unsuspecting girls."Despite attempts at bringing the casting couch culture to wider attention, for most actors, especially those from small towns or at the start of their careers, going public about such experiences without risking their career is difficult. "Often they aren't financially strong or experienced to fight it out, so they withdraw cases," said Kashid Mehta, member of CINTAA's dispute committee.








"Our industry attracts a lot of people, and anyone with enough money can be a producer or financier. We have no method of filtering people, nor can we stop such harassment overnight, but we are ready to tackle it," said Behl, who chairs the dispute committee that has begun filming outreach videos warning actors of "co-ordinators" and urging women to stave off indecent proposals and speak up.








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