#MeToo debate back in the spotlight with filmmaker joining ‘Bigg Boss’

PTI, Oct 19, 2022, 4:39 PM IST

Image posted on Instagram

The #MeToo debate is back with filmmaker Sajid Khan returning to mainstream entertainment as a participant on “Bigg Boss” and at least two of the women who accused him of sexual harassment publicly expressing their anguish.

In 2018, when the movement against sexual harassment at the workplace began in India with several celebrities, including Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, being called out for alleged sexual harassment, Khan was also in the dock. At least 10 women, including some journalists, went public with their complaints, ranging from inappropriate behaviour to sexual assault.

There was no police or any legal action by the complainants in most of the #MeToo cases.

Four years on, the director of films such as ”Heyy Baby” and ”Housefull” is back in the headlines, and on television screens all over with his appearance in the reality show that premiered on October 1. In August, Khan announced his return with a comedy film titled ”100%”.

”I felt disturbed and wasn’t able to focus,” actor Simran Suri, who alleged that the filmmaker asked her to strip during an audition for his 2013 movie ”Himmatwala”, told PTI about her first reaction on hearing that Khan would be on TV every day.

Fellow actor Sherlyn Chopra, who claimed the 51-year-old filmmaker had exposed himself in front of her, called a press conference to express her displeasure.

”What we see today is that this molester has been given a platform as a guest in ‘Bigg Boss’. I got very upset looking at this,” the actor, who participated in ”Bigg Boss” in 2009, told reporters in Mumbai.

Most of the other women have not spoken on record.

Khan, now inside the Bigg Boss house, has not commented. The director, who faced a one-year ban, had stepped down as a director of “Housefull 4” in 2018 saying, “I must take the moral responsibility… I request my friends in the media to kindly not pass judgment till the truth is out.” As clamour rises for action against Khan with speculation rife that he will be evicted from the show, which features a group of celebrities locked inside a house with no access to the outer world, the question being asked is this — where do we stand four years after the movement that led to women across the world tell their stories of workplace sexual harassment.

”The kind of indignation that should be there in society is no longer there. Society has been numbed by the atmosphere of violence and attack on women or dalits for example. So all these things are becoming normalised, and as a result there is total impunity. What ‘Bigg Boss’ is doing is giving them a platform and they are not bothered that they are tainted,” social activist Shabnam Hashmi told PTI.

Khan has found support in the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) that wrote to Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur. It was in response to a letter Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal had sent to the minister.

FWICE and the Indian Film and Television Directors Association (IFTDA) had banned Khan for a year.

”Sajid Khan had co-operated with the IFTDA and FWICE and obeyed the decision of the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Committee,” FWICE said The filmmaker, it added, had entered “Bigg Boss” to earn his living.

”He has also gone through the tough trials of the POSH committee and a lot of humiliation during those trying days in social media and other public platforms. A person who has already suffered his punishment and obeyed the decision of the IFTDA and the FWICE cannot be again tried and punished for the same offence,” it said.

That he has served his one-year “sentence” is scant consolation, say some of the women who complained against him.

Seeing Khan on national television was a huge shock, said Suri.

”If people want to see an abuser and they are ok watching him on TV, we have to worry about the state of our society…,” she said.

The actor, who has made appearances in several films, said sharing her story of harassment with the world had an adverse effect on her career.

”There are people who think and say, ‘Yeh MeToo wali hai, iss se bachke (raho)’ (She is that MeToo person, be careful of her). A lot of people from the industry will not associate with me for work… I feel ashamed sometimes because they are teasing about it,” Suri said.

Chopra, known for featuring in movies such as ”Jawani Deewani” and ”Dil Bole Hadippa!”, echoed her angst.

Both women are signatories to an online petition calling for Khan’s removal from the reality show. Singer Sona Mohapatra, who has been vocal in her criticism of Colors channel and has often spoken out on sexism in the industry has signed it too.

The petition by 25-year-old campaigner Chandana Hiran and Sukriti Chauhan has gathered over 21,500 signatures on change.org.

According to Hiran, who has spearheaded many campaigns including against the objectification of women in Bollywood movies, Khan’s inclusion in ”Bigg Boss” is aimed at ”whitewashing his image”. It also makes a mockery of the #MeToo movement.

“Mirzapur” actor Ali Fazal is one of those asking for Khan to be evicted. In his Instagram stories earlier this week, Fazal shared a graphic of Khan’s photo set on fire by someone with #MeToo on their wrist.

“Evict Sajid Khan from Bigg Boss now,” he wrote in the caption In DCW chief Maliwal’s view, Khan’s participation in ”Bigg Boss” is a failure of the system. She has called for a committee under a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate the allegations against Khan.

”Ten women spoke out against a man who had considerable clout and was really powerful but nothing happened. The government failed to take action. As a result, the accused have crept back into the mainstream and are being given chances to whitewash their image.

Sajid Khan is one of them who has been given an opportunity on a mainstream channel and on a show like ‘Bigg Boss’ that is watched by millions,” Maliwal told PTI.

Maliwal, whose home came under attack and her cars vandalised this week, was threatened with rape for speaking on the issue.

”Patriarchy is very deep rooted in our society. I spoke out and despite me doing my statutory duty, I was threatened. Imagine what kind of trauma the victims must have faced when they spoke out against such a powerful person,” Maliwal said.

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