As #MeToo in India continues to stay put, some past memories ring true in its context. A female star of the nineties, who happened to be a muse of the filmmaker that defined underworld and crime movies, used to attend a yoga class with me. Elegant, graceful and intimidatingly good as a yoga practitioner, she kept her own company most times. When I mentioned her introvert nature, a senior journalist filled me in - she has had to endure very tough times while struggling to become a star. Producers would call her out from her make up room (these were days before vanity vans for stars), and order her to dance randomly to entertain financiers and murky men. More degrading stuff would follow, just to sign her up for a film. Latching on to this filmmaker was an escape route, even if the man had his own quirks.
I tried reaching out to the said actor. She never responded. Speaking up for #MeToo would rake up buried, unfortunate memories. She has consciously shunned the limelight today. And her story rings eerily close to that of Tanushree Dutta, who was ordered by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri to dance naked before Irrfan Khan to give him cues. Using women like cattle, and humiliating them, as a sport has been integral to Hindi filmmaking culture in the past. This holds particularly true for the sixties, seventies and the abysmal eighties, when heroes would hold such power over a film that they could practically get away with anything. The director, producer and more men in power would perpetrate this culture of sexual abuse and intimidation. The heroine rarely had much choice if she wanted to continue being part of a film.
It’s, therefore, quite a void that the current spate of speaking up against abuse and harassment has not yet drawn voices from the yesteryears. If these heroines, matinee idols today, were to share their experiences, the movement would come full circle. Given this scenario, Lata Mangeshkar has made a refreshing start with her honesty. Speaking during interviews before the release of her Marathi biography, Lata has humorously recounted an experience of pushing back at a lyricist who was spreading rumors about her. She rightly states, no one could mess with her and get away with it. Not too many entertainment icons can compete with her overwhelming presence and benchmark setting career. Yet, this demure, ageing lady has set the ball rolling with this remark, “I truly believe a working woman must be given the dignity, respect and space she deserves. If anyone denies her that space, he must be taught a lesson.”
Lata Mangeshkar doesn’t speak up often, but when she does, typically she makes a lot of sense. Some years back she had commented on the trend of music reality shows. She stated that the success that young singers achieve in such programs is momentary; it never lasts or ensures that one gets a playback-singing career. For the most part, she is right. While a few singers that won music shows on TV have found work in the movies or in live stage shows, most have faded away. Building a career in music takes patience, dedication and decades of consistent practice. Her remark was both relevant and important. Likewise, her reaction to the #MeToo movement validates the worst kept secret of showbiz- women are used, abused and mistreated very often in this space.
As the movement gathers support leading entertainment and talent management companies have taken concrete steps by replacing company honchos accused of abusing women. It has also ensured that at every celebrity gathering, a comment on this issue is asked for. Yet, many leading ladies who have suffered or witnessed acts of abuse, harassment, humiliation and intimidation, have not spoken up. Sometimes, when they have, their comments have not caught public imagination. Dimple Kapadia is a case in point. She spoke candidly about Nana Patekar’s dark side and his obnoxious behavior eight years ago to NDTV. Her interview has gone viral now. Along with daughter Twinkle Khanna, who has stated as much on Twitter, she has revisited happenings that both have internalized as part of day to day survival in Bollywood. If Kapadia were to speak up, this awakening for the voice of women would get a huge fillip.
When Lata Mangeshkar stated that no man or woman could wrong her professionally and get away, she set the path clear for others to follow. Honest as always, she also stated that the biography, while chronicling many lesser-known details from her life, is not a tell-all. It's not entirely honest because putting everything in print impacts other people and their families. In her heydays as a singer, which spans four decades of Hindi cinema, Lata created history. She commanded earnings, royalties and qualitative work like her male contemporaries. In fact, she stood above them all in sheer volume and popularity. Lata spanned regional music selectively, and also performed occasionally to packed concerts overseas. As a woman in the tough world of showbiz and entertainment, her complete focus on her work and her dedication to music made her a living legend.
Lata Mangeshkar sets an example in professional excellence. She has not set a benchmark in standing by women and speaking up against mistreatment. Other than Daisy Irani, the child actor who revealed a shocking tale of child sexual abuse, not one voice from Bollywood’s old guard has spoken up. No woman has expressed support or solidarity. That’s a shame. Maybe Lata’s direct comment will change that soon.