Rape and sexual abuse are as common in India as anywhere, industry insiders say, but Indian women who speak out face an unusually high risk of losing their jobs and reputations, given a tendency to blame victims that extends even to the legal system.
Mona Mathews, 48, is one of a handful of women breaking the silence in Bollywood.
The 48-year-old belly dancer and aspiring actress says she will occasionally be asked, “Are you willing to compromise?”
For newcomers like her, with no surefire connections, the route to stardom has long involved submitting to expectations of sex. But she says no.
“People want to talk, but they are scared,” Mathews said. “They don’t want to be in the limelight for the wrong reasons. If women talk, other women will say: ‘This is a normal thing. Why is she making such a big fuss?’ ”
One of the few established celebrities to break ranks is Daisy Irani, a former child star from the 1950s and ’60s who last month alleged that she was raped at age 6 by a male guardian she called Uncle Nazar — a man who accompanied her to film shoots in other cities.
“It happened only once,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I don’t remember anything, just pain and fear. I remember him saying, ‘If you tell anybody . . .’ ” she trailed off, wagging her finger.
Irani’s story, splashed on the front page of the Mumbai Mirror newspaper, caused a sensation in India, where many people still recall the young actress onscreen, often playing a curly-haired boy.
Irani, 67 , said she was abused by many men throughout her career as a child star but did not tell anyone at the time because she did not realize how serious it was and did not think she would be believed.
“Whoever felt they wanted to, would touch me,” she said. “Even if I had told the director, would he have cared?”
As allegations trickle out from India’s image-conscious movie business, a few Bollywood women have shared the #MeToo hashtag on social media. According to Mahesh Bhatt, a prominent movie director, the charges against Weinstein have shaken the industry. But no one of Weinstein’s stature has been publicly accused of abuse.
“I’m told by people that there are innumerable such characters here,” Bhatt said. “But here in India, there is a lot of victim blaming. If you have been propositioned, people will say you had it coming.”
Former Bollywood actress and talk-show host Simi Garewal said it is unlikely that Bollywood’s influential men will ever undergo the same scrutiny as Hollywood’s. “In America, you have checks and balances,” she said. “Here, if you criticize a male star, you’re not going to get any roles.”
Men here are also victims. Leading Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh said on Garewal’s talk show, “India’s Most Desirable,” that he had been propositioned by a gay casting director early in his career.
“He was a small-time casting agent,” Singh told Garewal. He asked, “Tell me, darling, are you a smart worker or are you a hard worker?” The agent then began asking more explicit questions, Singh said.
India’s other movie industries — including Kollywood, Mollywood and Tollywood, which produce movies in the Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu languages, respectively — are also starting to open up about the treatment of women in the business.
Rape and sexual misconduct are rampant in India, Irani said, and are part of a wider problem of women being seen as inferior to men.